Shadow Boxing: Wrestling with Romantic Partners

(excerpt from Romancing The Shadow)

In a famous Greek myth of romance, Eros insists that Psyche make love to him in the dark. Like Eros, many of us want to remain hidden when our passions loosen the reins of the ego’s control. We long to know the Other, but not to be known. We ask probing questions, but reply with half answers. In a myriad of ways, we run from being seen and avoid becoming vulnerable, disguised in tight personas and baggy clothes, hiding in sordid addictions and clandestine habits.

And yet, right alongside the urgent longing to know the Other and the refusal to be known is the converse longing: the urgency to be known and the refusal to see. Like Psyche, we open our arms to love but may not open our eyes. We consent to temporary blindness, giving our sweet love to unknown others, people who are not what they seem, people who become strangers with the light of dawn. Like Psyche, we follow the lead of Eros, god of love — and when we light a candle in the dark, we are shocked at his Otherness.

For this reason the divinity of desire has been called Eros the bittersweet.[i] With the sweetness of love, the bitterness of shadow is evoked. And our desire, which seems to be such an intimate friend, comes to appear as a hostile enemy that brings longing, envy, and even hate in tow.

We long for wholeness, a greater unity that stems from meeting the Beloved, our other half. Eros, our archetypal longing, causes us to reach for that which is missing; our desire is organized around this radiant absence. And we yearn to melt into the Beloved, to find there the missing piece, and to lose ourselves in a paradise of everlasting love. Jung expressed this universal quest of the human soul in this way: “The soul cannot exist without its other side, which is always found in a ‘You.’ Wholeness is a combination of I and You, and these show themselves to be parts of a transcendent unity whose nature can only be grasped symbolically.”[ii]

Yet, as the god spreads its wings of desire, it blinds us to the reality of what is there. In this chapter we move from the tentative exploration that defines dating to the spell cast by romantic love and the infamous blindness that results. We will learn, through the stories of many couples, how romance leads us through dark alleys to the meeting with the Other, the stranger who appears in our most intimate moments to sabotage our feelings of familiarity, safety, and love. And we will show how shadow-work can transform the painful consequences of romantic blindness, so that eyes blinded by persona can see ever more deeply into soul. By reexamining relationships from romance to marriage in the context of the shadow’s hidden needs, eventually we can move from shadow-boxing with the Other to shadow-dancing with the Beloved. We can pierce the veil of illusory projection and see our partner with clear perception. Then we will discover that the Beloved is both the solution and the problem; the Beloved is the answer and the question to be asked again and again. Who do we spend our entire life loving?

Meeting the Other: Projections hit their targets

When two people meet and feel a deep connection with one another, their hearts open like flowers. So do their imaginations. Five-year-old Ned, a blond-haired blue-eyed cutey, played in the park with his parents when a young girl, about his age, approached. She said, “You look just like John Smith in the Pocahontas movie.” Ned grinned and his little chest filled with air. He announced to his parents that he had a new girlfriend.

Projection begins at a young age. We view it as a natural, unavoidable process, not a pathological problem to be rid of or a symptom to be cured. Through projection, the unconscious mind expels both positive and negative traits, attributing them to other people, whereby they can become conscious. Because by definition the unconscious is hidden, like the dark side of the moon, we need to discover indirect ways to catch glimpses of it. And projection is a primary way of doing so.

Rob, an architect in his forties who has been married to his second wife for ten years, recalled how he met his first in an instantaneous romantic projection. “I walked into a college dorm and saw this blond-haired girl sitting on the couch. She was swinging her legs, wearing bobby sox and loafers, to the music of Simon and Garfunkel. I walked up and told her that we would be married one day. She told me I was nuts. But two years later, we were husband and wife.” Five years later, they divorced.

Carrie described a first date with Vince, who appeared on a motorcycle in black leather boots and jacket. She stood on the balcony above and said to herself, “My Romeo has arrived.”

Projection is like shooting an invisible arrow. Each of us carries a kind of archer’s quiver strapped onto our backs. Every so often an arrow shoots out unpredictably, and we say something nasty or we fall in love. When we turn around to find out where the arrow came from, the quiver moves out of sight.

If the receiver has a soft spot to receive the projection, it sticks. For instance, if we project our anger onto a dissatisfied mate or our seductive charms onto a good-looking stranger, then we hit the target and the projection holds. From then on the sender and receiver are linked in a mysterious alliance, which could feel like erotic passion, intense disgust, or unbearable envy.

Julia, 29, a slight, wirey woman who works as a pastry chef, reported breathlessly that she had found the man of her dreams two weeks before. She knew nothing about him, but because of the look in his eyes and the sound of his voice she was certain that they would be married by the end of the year. The therapist asked her to write a short piece about her internal experience of the moment of their encounter :

Her eyes seek the Fit, the match between her world and his. The parallel lines, the flush corners, the edges that rub up against each other. She feels for the Fit, the mesh, the weave that joins her with him.

She saw him in a moment across the empty, white-walled room. She saw him with her whole body. It cried out with the Fit. It moved her toward him relentlessly on a one-way vector; no return. He sat still, waiting. Her body sat nearby and began to pulse. The air between them felt thick, resonant, palpable. The Fit was screaming from her cells.

She looked into his eyes and said, slowly, “I’ve been waiting for you for so long.” He nodded and said, slowly, “I know.” The Fit smiled in her cells. Nothing had prepared her for this moment. She was perfectly prepared.

We might wonder why the sender shoots these arrows into others. Poet Robert Bly uses the following metaphor: When we were very young, we had a 360-degree personality, which radiated energy from all directions. But the adults around us could not tolerate this much exuberance. So, in their own discomfort, they unintentionally but inevitably betrayed us by shaming and humiliating us for certain feelings, such as vulnerability, or behaviors, such as competition, which we then learned to hide. Our teachers may have scolded us for other behaviors, such as daydreaming, or our priests may have imposed terrible guilt for our sexual feelings. [iii] These denied, disowned parts of our souls –anger or depression, jealousy or resentment, intellectuality or sensuality, athletic or artistic ability — get exiled into the dark. As a result, the full circle of energy that was our birthright is sliced away piece by piece, leaving only a thin, proper facade to greet the world.

When we begin dating, as a natural part of development the shadow goes in search of its lost traits in others in an effort to recover the full range of our personality — the gold in the dark side. Like Star Trek’s doctor Bones, who does a high-tech DNA check on his patients within minutes of their first contact, the shadow scans for a love fit, looking for the “one.” When we find romance and fall in love, our unconscious fantasy image of the Other often is a composite of familiar parental qualities, which we inherited through identification, and our own neglected traits, which we banished into shadow through repression. When we feel a harmonic match with another person, a seemingly magical feeling of familiarity or resonance — the Fit — a part of us begins to believe that our soul’s dream of acceptance and belonging can be fulfilled.

Without our knowing it, the shadow is at work attempting to recreate early childhood relationship patterns with a secret mission — to heal old wounds and feel loved. We view this inevitable childhood projection as the first stage of romance, a kind of fusion[iv] that may feel like living inside of an egg shell, an enclosed form in which the couple feels nurtured and self-contained. Like two chicks in the shell, they feed one another on love, which speeds the growth and development of both. Other friendships may fall away as the partners imagine meeting all of each other’s needs and fulfilling all of each other’s desires.

Then, one day, inevitably the shell cracks — and the relationship breaks down. The old rules, often unspoken, which previously provided security (“You are all that I need” or “I pay for everything so we have sex when I want it” or “You carry the feelings for both of us”) no longer hold, and the partners face a crisis of commitment. Once the shell has been cracked, it cannot be put back together again. The partners may try, but they have entered a new stage of relationship: they are now too well developed to remain fused. For those who do not know that this is a natural developmental crisis, the relationship will end, and the partners inevitably attempt to recreate the egg shell with the next person. But for those who can negotiate the new rules, which allow for greater individuality and authenticity, the partners can go play in the chicken yard — a larger psychic space with more room for individuality and clear boundaries — and yet remain a couple. Then the relationship can begin again.

What traits does your lover carry for you, which creates the unconscious attraction between you? What do you give away to him or her that might be returned to your own treasury? How would that influence the way you live your own life?

[i] Carson, Anne, Eros the Bittersweet, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

[ii] Jung, C.G. Psych of Transference, pp. 82-83. GET

[iii] Bly, Robert, A Little Book on the Human Shadow  (Ed. William Booth), San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1988.

[iv] For an excellent discussion of the fusion stage of relationship, see The Fantasy Bond by Robert W. Firestone, Human Sciences Press, 1987.

About Dr. Connie Zweig

Connie Zweig, Ph. D., a retired therapist, is co-author of Meeting the Shadow and Romancing the Shadow and author of Meeting the Shadow of Spirituality. She is a Certified Sage-ing Leader and is now writing THE INNER WORK OF AGE. She is blogging excerpts at You can connect on Facebook Or get book updates by request from
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