Most Couples Think THIS Is Bad For Their Relationship. They're Wrong
Becoming a witness begins with a gap. In order to see yourself in someone else's eyes and to see the other person, there has to be a space between you—something I like to call a "mindful gap," taking that idea from the British subway system in which a recorded voice shouts to passengers stepping onto the train, "Mind the gap!" Between you and your beloved, you must learn to mind the gap. This means taking a step back and remembering that you do not know or see or feel exactly or precisely what is going on with your partner or even what is going on with yourself.
Often when I talk about a mindful gap, people react by saying, "But I don't want a gap! I want to be close to my partner; I want to know everything and to share everything." This feeling typically comes during the initial romance and before the disillusionment. Maybe you believe it would be wonderful or recommendable to "read the mind" of your beloved, but if you stop and think, you'll realize this isn't so. You might have someone in your life who acts as though they can read your mind. For example, that person might say, "Oh, I get it. I already know what you are going to say. You've said this to me so many times; you don't need to tell me again!" Or "You don't have to tell me the details because I know exactly what you mean. It's the same for me." Mostly, I am sure you find such statements really irritating; they seem to be self-centered, as if your thoughts and feelings are just fodder for the other. It's as though the other person doesn't want to pay attention because you are already a known quantity and the details are boring. This kind of attitude assumes you are the same from moment to moment, week to week, year to year. When it comes to your parents telling you something like this, it can feel almost insulting because it implies you are perpetually the child you were growing up. Instinctively, you know that is untrue. You change and you change and you change. Mostly, each of us is even a stranger to ourselves—and that is one reason we tell our stories over and over again: They are interesting in a new way when the situation is different. The first step in becoming a witness is to never omit the gap. Never assume you already know.
A gap too large.
In order for the gap to invite intimacy and contact, however, its size has to be "just right," like the bed for Goldilocks in "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"—not too small and not too large. If the gap is too big between you and your beloved, it can become a chasm. For example, if one of you has been away for a long intensive spiritual retreat or a trip abroad, or has been seriously ill, or has had some other deeply transformative experience alone, then the gap can feel like a chasm.
When my handsome and endearing husband, Ed, was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer's disease at the age of 59, the gap between us had already become an impossible chasm. Ed had lost all of his neural functioning in the cortices of his frontal lobe, his right hemisphere, and much of the left hemisphere by that time. We still kissed, hugged, and held hands—and he was affectionate and wanted to caress me—but there was no way for me to be in real contact with him across the gap. He could not be a witness to me, although I could still be a witness to him. This is how and when I began to discover how precious our witnessing had been, after it was gone. He could not even picture me as I was driving home, did not know if I had a birthday, and could not ask a personal question. Even though he still adored me, he ignored me. Although we continued to be very close emotionally and to feel the bond that connected us, we were no longer following the path of true love. The gap was too great. Mutuality of witnessing was no longer possible. When one partner is dying and the other is well, the same kind of gap begins to occur. You cannot follow your beloved into death.
Too large a gap can also occur between two people who have hurt each other repeatedly through being intimate enemies, developing emotional and sometimes even physical violence in their conflicts, or betraying each other either sexually or financially. A gap in trust grows, and neither person feels able to witness or be witnessed. Sometimes this kind of gap occurs for only one person, but usually it is experienced by both. Trusting another person means placing confidence in their reliability through their words and actions. When you no longer feel the other is reliable, you naturally do not want to open up to being witnessed or witnessing. There is a chasm between you. If there has been violence between two people, that chasm may never be lessened to a tolerable degree because trust cannot be reestablished.
A gap too small.
What happened between Ed and me, as he lost his ability to recall or remember anything about me, reminded me of what people experience in being relentlessly misunderstood by a well partner. He would reach out tenderly and want to caress me—and others around us would say, "Oh, Ed just adores you!"—but I would feel myself inwardly recoiling from his advances because he could no longer picture anything about me or hold me in mind from moment to moment. I have seen many people in couples therapy who felt the partner would give lip service to loving them, or "pretend" to be affectionate, but showed no ability to be a witness. How does this happen?
Perhaps surprising, it is typically because the gap is too narrow between the partners or seems not to exist. If you think you know your beloved "like the back of my hand," then think again. You have eliminated the subtlety, the uncertainty, and the impermanence in your knowledge of your partner. Because you have heard your partner tell that same story many times does not mean you know why your partner is telling it now. If you think you already know without asking—why your partner, for example, winced with self-consciousness—then the gap is too small. Most of the suffering in partnership that is not due to betrayal or violence comes from not feeling witnessed, in a situation where one or both partners do not experience differentiation, or a mindful gap, between them. Sometimes this situation arises in an unconscious attempt to manage the feelings of the other person because those feelings seem intolerable to oneself.
Occasionally, I am asked about the differences I have noticed in relationships between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples in regard to differentiation and witnessing. Often, I say that my experience as a therapist with same-sex couples (which is considerable, but much more with lesbians than other kinds of same-sex pairs) is that there typically is a natural rapport and a greater sense of friendship, at least at the beginning of the relationship. There is a celebration: "Finally, I have found my best friend!" Friendship is an important aspect of true love; friendship means equanimity and relaxation. But there can be a flip side to this ease if it is rooted primarily in a mutually idealizing projective identification, which often produces a sense of merging with another. When it becomes clear that the beloved is not the same as oneself in important ways, then there may arise a kind of hatred or feelings of betrayal. The ease can shift sharply into dis-ease because one or both people feel they have been tricked or "sold a bill of goods" in having felt they were deeply befriended by the other. If instead couples know that idealization will always turn into disillusionment, at some point, then the side effects can be very much mediated or lessened.
Having no real emotional space between you and your beloved can cause a feeling of being unknown and unseen and unheard by the other person. In individual therapy, I have heard countless stories about mothers who loved their children so much that the mother could not bear to hear what happened in a child's life once that grown child took a different path than the mother wanted. My own mother had this characteristic. She didn't want to know anything about the details of my life that would cause her pain about the differences between us. When I tried to talk to her about my practice of Zen Buddhism, for instance, just to share my experience, she would hold up her hand and say, "Please don't talk about that. It hurts too much"—meaning that I had departed from my childhood religion of Catholicism, which was central for her, and she did not want to hear about what I wanted or had done in this regard. It had got to the point that it was difficult if not impossible for her to actually allow herself to be curious about how or why I had become different from her.
The right-sized gap.
When a partner cannot allow a difference to be expressed, especially something that is significant (emotionally, spiritually, politically) to the speaker, that partner has closed the gap and merged emotionally and psychologically. However, as we have seen, the pain that is caused by the difference is the discomfort that listeners have with their own feelings. The tolerance of difference between you and your beloved can only come from your equanimity with or acceptance of your own feelings. When you can hold that equanimity, you do not have to push and pull on your experience with your partner; you see the gap and you can let it be.
The "right size" gap is one in which you recognize that you and your beloved are truly and finally different people, each with your own worldview and meanings, and that you do not have to reflect each other like a mirror in which you look like the same person! In fact, it is impossible for you to have the same values, desires, styles, health, politics, and ideas—even if you have close approximations on some of these. We may all long for a twin, someone who is just like us but in a different body. That longing is one of the motivators for true love. We want to be embraced as an individual, but we make the mistake of believing that that would come from someone who is just like us. Even if your beloved is a close approximation of you on a number of levels, you will eventually come across some uncomfortable differences that illustrate how different you truly are. It is these differences, ironically, that allow you to truly miss your partner when your partner is absent. Whatever your partner brings to your life that is truly different from you is absent entirely when that person is gone. Seeing and accepting differences supports the mystery of true love. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet:
Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest
people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-
side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the
expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always
seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
Differences enhance the mystery of being together as long as the gap between you is big enough so that your partner doesn't seem to be a mirror reflection of you and small enough so that your partner doesn't feel like a stranger. When the gap is the right size, you can engage in dialogue—a two-way conversation—even during painful conflicts and differences. You are able to speak, with respect, to your equal and different partner, even about your most difficult or intimate emotional needs and feelings. And you are able to listen with respect and equanimity, even when your partner says things that deeply upset you.
Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D., is a Jungian analyst, psychologist, and psychotherapist in private practice. She is the clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and the founder and director of the Institute for Dialogue Therapy. She is past president of the Vermont Association for Psychoanalytic Studies and a founding member of the Vermont Institute for the Psychotherapies. Polly is also the chairperson of Enlightening Conversations, a series of conversational conferences that bring together participants from the front lines of Buddhism and psychoanalysis. Polly has published sixteen books, as well as many chapters and articles, that have been translated into more than twenty languages. Her newest book is Love between Equals: Relationship as a Spiritual Path (Shambhala, 2019).