During dating and romance, two individuals meet and a chemical reaction occurs, in which their missing parts overlap and their internal characters begin to shadow-box with one another. Fairly quickly, the persona of the couple develops. Jungian analyst Murray Stein calls this the uniform of adulthood. The partners may present themselves to others as two independent, unconventional individuals with separate interests and groups of friends, or as a united front with a traditional lifestyle and shared values. They may appear to be distant from one another or constantly clinging; they may seem relaxed and open or extremely private and exclusive.
Whatever the persona, the shadow of the couple remains hidden: their apparent compatibility may disguise conflicting values or even domestic violence. Their bon vivant lifestyle may camouflage near-bankruptcy. Their puritanical religious doctrines may belie split-off shadows that act out in sexual affairs or perversions. At a more subtle level, they may agree, perhaps implicitly, that they cannot be vulnerable, angry, or depressed with one another, thereby sacrificing authenticity for the status quo. For most people, this is the foreground or personal field in which relationships take place.
But at a background level, we propose that there is a transpersonal field that contributes to bringing two people together, thereby shaping their fate. From this perspective, the relationship is larger than they are, transcending their individual egos and shadows, perhaps acting like an invisible glue that holds them together. We call this the soul of the relationship or the Third Body.
As shadow-boxing with the Other gradually turns into shadow-dancing with the Beloved, authenticity between the partners deepens and they feel a palpable sense of safety and comfort. Some people might imagine this felt sense as a big, fluffy cushion on which to relax or a pliable container in which the relationship can grow. We have found that at this stage many couples become conscious of the presence of a Third Body — a new entity that is greater than the two separate individuals. With its emergence, the partners feel yet greater trust and can risk yet more vulnerability and authenticity, for they are bound together as if in a joint soul.
People have an intuitive sense of the Third Body and its containing function in their lives together. For each couple, it has a unique texture and flavor: it may feel sweet, soothing, warm, and loosely knit. Or it may feel cool and shady, like a protective covering. Couples know when the Third Body is nurtured because it feels like a positive vibration or loving air between them that hums quietly. And they know when it is wounded because it feels like a wrenching tear in the fabric of their love.
This field that is the Third Body knits together the various dimensions of our lives: it holds our egos, shadows, souls, and the larger world together in a common story. It contains the personal, interpersonal and archetypal realms.
The care and feeding of the Third Body is an ongoing part of maintaining a conscious relationship. Like a plant, it is alive and responds to the correct amount of water, air, and light. If we take it for granted or attend to it only when a problem arises, it may become dehydrated and wither. In its weakened state, it cannot tolerate more stress. But if we nurture it and maintain its delicate equilibrium, it grows strong and supports the life of the relationship.
We suggest that, when the shadow erupts and we feel betrayed, instead of stepping onto the roller coaster of blame or caretaking each other like parents and children, we now have another option: to honor and nurture this larger field that is the relationship. In this way, we make a promise to love that body, to feed someone whose presence we feel but cannot see.
For Stewart and Susan, the care and feeding of the Third Body became a key to deepening their sense of safety and intimacy. Stewart’s father had avoided intimacy in his marriage by engaging in a series of affairs. Stewart also feared losing his identity in his relationship with Susan, so he carried on the family sin by frequently flirting and acting seductive with other women. During the stages of dating and romance with Susan, he made excuses for his behavior. But after their marriage, it wounded her deeply.
One evening, at a summer party, an attractive woman approached Stewart and asked him to dance. Having done shadow-work, Stewart became aware of a shadowy rebellious character that often feels an impulse to do something forbidden. This character in turn triggers another that feels guilty for abandoning Susan and resentful for feeling controlled. Stewart reported that his guilt arose simultaneously with his attraction to dancing with the stranger.
Stewart’s actions with other women are shaped in part by the degree to which he values or devalues his own commitment to the Third Body. When he flirts with strangers, he is not attending to his relationship with Susan in the here and now; he’s time traveling, reliving his parental complex by repeating his father’s pattern and acting out his dependency and anger with his mother. Then he feels terribly guilty, which he believes stems from upsetting Susan but is in fact his passive-aggressive way of attacking her. So, he ends up feeling like a bad person and resents her for “making him” feel that way. This feeling is a signal that he’s turning his partner into a parent.
On the other hand, he says, if he rejects the other woman’s offer, he will feel weak, as if he needs his mother’s permission to dance. With this deepening awareness, Stewart is making conscious those parental complexes that shape his behavior. And he is beginning to romance the shadow projections that emerge from them, which opens the door to healing family sins. In addition, he frequently projects the responsibility for the bond onto his partner. If he dances with the other woman as a rebellious act, this character creates his own guilt. If he refuses the dance out of self-sacrifice for Susan, this character will be caught in a parental complex. But if instead he chooses not to dance out of his own free will in order to honor the relationship with Susan, he will be making a long-term investment in their joint account.
Armed with this new understanding, Stewart returned to therapy the following week and said, “I want to give my relationship a shot. I’m choosing to honor it now.” In this way, he gave up the forced choice: be a good boy and take care of your mother, living with resentment, or be a rebel and disobey your mother, living with guilt. Instead, the choice to honor the Third Body can free us of deep-seated traps of obligation, caretaking, and control by enabling us to shift out of our personal psychology and attend to the larger relationship. As the soul of the couple is nurtured in this way, it gains strength and substance.
The mythic figure Queen Penelope of Ithaca, wife of the wandering hero Odysseus, embodies this loyalty and commitment to the Third Body. Portrayed as the Queen of Wands in the Tarot deck, the auburn-haired queen in a saffron robe and golden crown sits on a throne with a sleeping lionness at her feet and a flaming wand in her hand. While her husband Odysseus sails off to the Trojan War, she holds down the kingdom with faith that he will return alive. During the waiting period, many suitors assume her husband’s death and seek her hand. She agrees to choose only one after completing the weaving of a shroud. But as she weaves the fabric by day, so she unravels it by night. And, in the end, she welcomes Odysseus home. Penelope, an image of the loyalty of the heart, is more than a faithful wife or self-sacrificing victim; she rules her own world with inner strength and inspiration. And she has faith that her husband will return not out of enforced morality, but from an inner conviction that the Third Body will endure.