The Heroine’s Journey
The quest for intimacy
My last post about the framing “relationship as a crucible for the healing of each other” has struck a few chords with people. It makes me ask a simple question: Who needs this crucible?
The answer is not everyone. Clearly, some people don’t need to be in an intimate relationship, or choose not to. As an extreme example, some join monastic communities since they were teens. Closer to home, my mother stayed as a widow for more than twenty years before becoming a nun.
Each of us has to ask ourselves that question too. We cannot default to the societal answer “Oh you are at this age so you need to find someone” or even the scientific answer “We are social creatures wired for bonding”. The answer has to be personal, relevant and compelling. This leads to a few other questions.
What is the role of an intimate relationship in the development of a person? What maybe the larger context? If we use the metaphor “life as a journey”, then what kind of journey is our intimate relationship?
The natural answer is the archetypal Hero’s Journey. The crucible is the underworld portion of the hero’s journey where the hero faces the dragons, mostly in his own inner psyche.
The traditional masculine version of this is often applied to life, career and even spiritual journey. Roughly speaking, after hearing the call to adventure, the hero leaves the familiar home base to enter an unknown treacherous underworld where he is tried by many challenges, meets mentors, slays the dragon to obtain an invaluable treasure. Then he returns to his familiar world to pass on the gift he has won, be it skills, wisdom or healing. The ending is a form of mastery and service.
The Buddha’s enlightenment is one such story, so is countless adventures in movies & folklore. There are many heroine women stories too such as from Mulan to the modern day women empowerment movement.
What might be the feminine version then? Jordan Peterson has an insightful answer in this podcast (minute 24). It is to some degree the story of Beauty and the Beast, where the feminine (Beauty) encounters with the monstrous masculine (the Beast), tames and civilizes it so that a joint relationship can be established. The ending is is long term intimacy, togetherness, communion, maybe a family.
Each of us, regardless of our sex, has elements of both archetypes. One example of a feminine version with a man instead of a woman as the heroine is the documentary Crumb. In this, the main character Robert faces a rather hostile and critical of men Aline, a classic example of femininity gone astray. He then has to steel up, face her continuous rejections and develop his characters until he can free Aline from the judgmental feminine archetype. This story, surprising enough, resonate with many relationships I’ve seen.
David Richo’s How To Be An Adult in Relationship offers a beautiful synthesis. Despite the silly sounding title, it is packed with insights and compassion for the heroine journey ahead.
This is what I wish someone could tell me at the beginning of my young adult life: “Dear son, love is indeed a journey from aloneness through closeness and opposition into communion.” Because many of the challenges in adult relationships come from family experiences, our parents are often inapt to tell us such.
“Relationships likewise begin by leaving the family, the familiar; passing through a series of conflicts in unknown territory; and returning to one’s full self, but this time within a committed partnership.” Since childhood needs turn out to be the same needs we have in adult intimacy, the journey takes us back to where we began, but without the fear of loneliness that initially drove us to leave home.
While the map may not be the territory, it is still a very useful beginning point, much better than the glorified romantic ethos on mass media or disillusioned marriage jokes.. Where else do we have a map of relationship that is exciting yet real and can actually guide us?
Interestingly, this reminds me of a paradox that has been on my mind. I’ve met people who volunteered for humanitarian causes like the Peace Corps who work at the most destitute place on Earth and yet feel so generous, kind and loving. Yet the very same people found that living with someone supposedly nice and wonderful as an intimate partner can soon drive them crazy. How is that possible? How is coalescing with someone’s world harder than living in the face of direct suffering?
The answer now became clear: these two journeys are different. Each is challenging and heart-breaking in its own way. Volunteering with Peace Corps is hard because it forces us to see up close the paradox of how the world that we love is so wrong. Intimate partnership on the other hand can drive us crazy because it forces us to confront with the core patterns we developed since childhood. These two journeys are ultimately connected though.
“Adult love is the goal of the human journey. The hero is meant to become the lover of a partner and then enter a partnership with the world. There is no exclusively personal work. Every practice, both psychological and spiritual, readies us for enlightening and serving the world.”
(as a side note, David Whyte’s book, The Three Marriages, provides a poetic and insightful answer to how these journeys are connected)
Romance, conflict and commitment — three phases of the journey
David Richo goes into details of each phase in the book.
Romance is no doubt one of the highlights of the human experience. The saying “Love is blind” is quintessential romance. However blind, we are being seen in our full potential for lovableness. It’s as real as the sunset, and just as temporary.
Romance is the real heroine’s call to adventure in progressively riskier self-disclosure, which is a bit more than putting attractive profile pictures on Tinder.
It’s quite telling to realize that romance hasn’t been my thing, despite the occasional flings here and there. Maybe I’ve ignored or refused the call to adventure. Maybe I’m afraid to fall. Or maybe it’s conscious choosing. To use a crude analogy, experiencing erection doesn’t mean having to release…
Struggle & conflict is the part is of most interest for people, since we often only look for help when we aren’t doing well. At this struggle phase, the closeness resulting from the irresistible romance now reveals its flip side as well: conflict and opposition.
A lot of self- and other-understanding work is needed here, as plenty of ugly shadows we didn’t know about ourselves and the other person now presently themselves squarely in our faces. We learn about our ego and what drives it crazy, about our style of relating, our unique fears, deficiencies and also potentials. Issues with insecurity, jealousy, infidelity are also dealt with.
There comes the inevitable question, one that all of us will or have already faced: the ending.
There seems to be no better way to learn what a relationship is really about than to see how it ends and how we are in the ending. All relationships end — some with separation, some with divorce, some with death. This means that in entering a relationship we implicitly accept that the other will leave us or we will leave him.
This reminds me of a my first “real” relationship I had in high school, which lasted for three months. Back then, I was consumed with this question that sounded both silly and valid: “What’s the point of being in a relationship if it leads to nowhere?” I was too serious, but my younger self did have a point.
The relationship ended somewhat painfully with me withdrawing from partly feeling suffocated and mostly pointless. The precious lesson is that being too obsessed with the ending is a recipe for disaster. On another hand, ignoring it to “just love” is also too reckless. The question then is “How might we stay aware of the inevitable ending and learn to appreciate the present moment?” Pretty darn Zen for an exhausted high school boy, I know.
It’s not easy. All the relating skills, psychological insights and even mindfulness practices we do may not be able to help us during the thick madness of things. What’s wrong with them
All bets are off when someone has hurt us. In such utter bereftness the ego confronts its true face: frustrated, scared, caught in a painful attachment, powerless to alter what others may be doing to us. The hero arriving at such a threshold can only say, “This must be the place [where I’ll die]!”
What happens here then? Is breaking up a failed hero’s journey?
No. It’s part of it. David Richo again:
The risky move is also the only reasonable option for us: to let go completely. This requires enormous discipline because the ego wants to assert itself and regain its power. We now see why breaking up is part of the struggle phase of the heroic journey.
What’s on the way is the way. Nearing the end of previous relationship, I noticed how much my ego was clinging for a happy future of friendship, an outcome that was out of its control. Yet behind that clinging was a genuine aspiration: the ending could be a beautiful invitation for us to become more wholesome, aware and loving person.
The hardest thing is to do what needs to be done while both holding onto that aspiration and letting go of a specific outcome. Let the chips fall where they may, and keep the remaining pieces as building blocks for whatever comes next.
Together, we came to a conclusion that the best course of action is one that allows both of us to bring forth love, kindness and compassion. It helps, especially in ugly moments of rupture, to take a bird eyes’ perspective on what is happening and witness the two people genuinely leaning in and struggling together as part of the heroine’s journey. If we can reframe the question from “What’s wrong with you, with me and with us?” to “How might we make sense of what’s happening?”, we can bring much dignity and tenderness to this otherwise disruptive process.
For a ego like mine that was so used to giving in, the lesson it needed to learn was to take charge, to stand assertively while still staying connected with the other person. Sometimes the struggle ends not with a committed partnership with another person but only a more wholesome sense of self.
The ego is shaken, perhaps broken and re-assembled into a proper alignment. It’s no longer a slave nor a master but a good friend and supportive partner of the larger Self — the innate eternal goodness we are all born with.
Coming Home: This last portion is also riches with wisdom. It describes the later stage of a relationship, something that I only had a glimpse of. Here’s sobering one that struck me:
Mature adults bring a modest expectation of need fulfillment to a partner. They seek only about 25 percent (the adult dose) of their need fulfillment from someone else (100 percent is the child’s dose), with the other 75 percent coming from self, family, friends, career, hobbies, spirituality/religion, and even pets.
My gut reaction reading this is “Woah, so much work put in to nurture a relationship for only 25 percent of need fulfillment? Is this even worth it?”
In the not-so-distant past of my parents’ generation, intimate partnership and marriage used to be mainly an economic arrangement. Now it’s expected to also have intellectual companionship, emotional resonance, sexual ecstasy, soulmate fire, hobby buddyhood, let alone changing-the-world co-conspiracy (speaking from personal fantasies, ha). Given the reality of modern love and the ever mounting expectation on coupledom, this 25 percent need fulfillment is both sobering and reassuring. We still have needs, but they no longer have us.
Not ready, unwilling and don’t care enough.
When is someone ready to embark on this heroine journey? Besides a few flings here and there for exploratory purpose, most of us start it out of loneliness. David Richo offers an advice many of us know yet few apply: learn to be alone.
“Often the feeling of loneliness results not from a lack of people to entertain us but from the absence of an adult self to nurture our inner child who feels abandoned in some way.
We may take our loneliness literally and look for company in all the wrong places. When the child within cannot depend on our inner parent, she attaches to something or someone — anything or anyone — as a surrogate.”
The answer to the readiness question is clear: only when the reactive fear of loneliness has been accepted and transformed. All of us had it to a different extent as a child, but not all have done the self-understanding work. Yet it’s an essential prerequisite: only when we can comfortably choose not to react to loneliness can our deeper longing for companionship emerges.
Only then, the next practical question appears: “Do I care enough? Am I willing and ready to do all the work an intimate relationship require?”
First, there is absolutely no shame in not wanting a relationship, let alone a committed, intimate one. Some people truthfully recognize that intimacy is not for them. Others like me know their own comfort level and design a commitment level to match it. Whatever the case, hopefully the choice comes from a place of self-acceptance rather than despair.
Second, it’s meant to be scary. The uncertainty of the journey and enormity of the work are meant to bring out our deepest fears and also highest aspirations. We may never be hundred percent ready, but we can sense when it’s good enough. Trust and commitment will grow with each step that we take from a place of alignment, where our greater aspirational Self walks alongside with our unique, quirky ego.
That’s it for today. I hope this frame of the heroine’s journey could help you see your past, present and future experiences in another light as it has helped me. If you want to hear more reflections like this, join my weekly digest here at Enzyme for Thoughts. If you are interested in working with me, please reach out at Guiding Practice.