“There is no light without Shadow, and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.” ~Carl Jung
The relationships we choose are a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. To understand why we choose certain partners or how toxic habits get repeated in unhealthy relationships, we first need to understand how healthy relationships play out.
When our relationships are healthy, they offer balance, they encourage our personal growth, they challenge us psychologically and emotionally to face our pain in order to overcome it. Healthy relationships will support each other and accept each other’s flaws without judgment. And, because healthy relationships challenge us to recognize our Shadow, this means our unhealthy habits and areas for growth will be highlighted.
If we’re open to experiencing personal growth and self-awareness, these are the same relationships that will bring out both our best and our worst qualities. After all, our Shadow can’t remain hidden forever. I’m not saying this as some masochistic challenge to accept. The fact is, if we’re invested in an intimate relationship, we should be OK in our partner seeing our beautifully imperfect parts we try to keep in the shadows.
Our Shadow, according to Carl Jung, is our irrational, instinctive side of our personality — it consists of everything we fear, the things we project onto others, and what triggers shame. This part of our personality is revealed in our self-sabotaging behavior, our automatic habits, our temperament and our personality traits.
If our partner is invested in us, they will eventually see within us— at our patterns we try to avoid or push away.
After all, this is how we learn about our Self, and the areas in our life that need re-parenting for healing our inner child.
Healthy relationships aren’t “perfect” — and they shouldn’t be. If your relationship seems too-good-to-be-true, you’re likely up on a pedestal…and the higher you are, the harder the inevitable fall.
On the contrary, healthy relationships have moments of boredom. They have moments of indifference. They have times of negative challenge where nothing one partner says or does seems “good enough” for the other. There’s going to be arguments, and some will be met with razor-sharp words and guilt in the aftermath.
There’s going to be the mundane, and the tedious. The longer you’re with someone, the more lackluster moments we can expect. Yet, when it’s a healthy relationship, we find joy in the mundane. We look at how they sit for hours on their computer as an endearing quirk about them. They find joy in how happy we get refilling our coffee mug throughout the day.
These are the little things that healthy relationships are built upon.
Healthy relationships are about seeing under the mask and under the socially-approved “nice guy” or “sweet girl” persona that wants us to stay stuck reveling in toxic positivity and carrying on with our day.
Healthy relationships check the masks and the toxic positivity at the door in exchange for complete acceptance, unconditional regard and a shared understanding that it’s our imperfections and our Shadow that make us beautiful.
When our relationships are unhealthy, they offer imbalance, they encourage our emotional and psychological regression, and they don’t bring positive challenges; instead they breed complacency. Unhealthy relationships hover around the superficial. They dance around toxic positivity. Challenges take on a sadistic or masochistic flavor — upping the ante to see how much emotional pain can be inflicted on the other or themselves.
Worse yet, is how unhealthy relationships handle problems, or rather how they don’t. Because unhealthy relationships are based on keeping their partner at emotional arms-distance, effort is invested in maintaining that emotional distance through self-absorption and a focus on getting their own needs met.
Problems are either ignored or shamed and met with either indifference (“I don’t know what to tell you about that.”) or guilt (“Why would you do/think that?”).
Two Habits That Are Ruled By Our Shadow
“Real liberation comes not from glossing over or repressing painful states of feeling, but only from experiencing them to the full.” ~Carl Jung
According to Carl Jung, the center of our consciousness is our Ego. Ego can be a good thing when it comes to having a solid sense of Self in how we relate to our external world. However, when our Ego begins working overtime to overcompensate for what we don’t want to recognize, the things we push away from our conscious awareness are the same things held within our Shadow.
The reason unhealthy patterns are repeated is because whatever is being presented (a healthy challenge, a problem, a vulnerability, a fear) is a threat to the Ego.
Duck and Run. If only certain emotions have been “approved” such as always being happy or only expressing anger instead of sadness or other vulnerable emotions, then any issues in the relationship that trigger vulnerable emotions are met by running from them or dismissing them.
For example, “serious” or “deep” relationship issues are not about car problems or having to repaint the house. They’re not about forgetting whose turn it was to grab groceries or whether the lights got shut off because one partner forgot to pay the electric bill.
While these kinds of problems can be seen as annoying for any relationship, they’re usually met with an eye roll, a shrugged shoulder and a “whatever” attitude, even in unhealthy relationships.
On the flip-side, serious or deep relationship issues may include differences with values, morality, seeing our partner’s Shadow, them seeing our Shadow, issues with communication, emotional balance, or in feeling heard.
You know, the stuff authentic relationships are built upon….
For example, if one partner mentions they can sense the other’s pain under their smile or questions why their laughter seems tinged with anger, these are very intimate questions that tap into our Shadow and are worthy of an authentic response.
If one partner is emotionally invested enough to recognize inconsistencies in what the other is saying or doing (or what they’re trying to hide or dismiss), these present opportunities for growth between both partners, and ultimately a deeper relationship can emerge.
These are also the same types of questions that can breed shame (Shadow being seen) so a partner may be inclined to laugh it off, or otherwise dismiss it. Yet, these are also the same kind of questions that can encourage a partner to go inward and examine their feelings as well as building communication between partners.
However, without honest communication, this can leave one partner’s Ego feeling threatened, while the other partner may feel unheard or ashamed for asking.
Self-Serving Investment. What often happens is one partner is placed on the pedestal (often unbeknownst to them) where they’re the center of attention. They’re likely showered with compliments and idealizations. If that partner’s needs have gone unmet, being idealized is probably hitting every need they may have which is reinforcing to their self-worth.
When the fall happens, the relationship flips. Now, the entire relationship is playing out in reverse where the same partner who had you on a pedestal and invested in your needs, is now only invested in their own needs, their own desires and making sure their ends are getting met.
Perhaps most tragic is when that switch gets flipped, the partner on the pedestal can get pinned as the bad guy as they’re pushed off of it. For example, if the other partner mentioned how they avoided a painful childhood by bingeing t.v. for hours on end growing up, the partner on the pedestal may be mindful of how much television the other watches as a way to show concern for their partner’s emotional well-being.
They may ask tough or uncomfortable questions — “How can I help you with this issue?” Or, “Are you sure television isn’t a trigger for you?” Yet, if these kind of questions are ignored, brushed off (or aren’t asked), the partner is left in the dark and communication stops where their concern may be used against them.
Once the partner is pushed off the pedestal, they may be villainized to others by their partner as “they never let me watch television”.
The irony is this is the Shadow in all its glory. Both examples above illustrate how self-preservation and pushing away threats to our Ego can lead to toxic habits that cease communication…and prevent the intimacy necessary for relationships to evolve.
Healing Our Self and Repairing Our Wounds
To heal ourselves, strengthen our relationships and conquer healthy habits, we need to understand what our Shadow is, why it’s there and how to recognize it.
Our Shadow is a collection of all our pain, our unwanted thoughts, our fears, unmet needs and reckless choices. In order to tame our Shadow, we need to become comfortable with it.
This can be done by sitting alone with our thoughts. It’s in these quiet moments of reflection that our inner critic (our Shadow) starts talking. When you hear the messages, think about what you’re feeling and then challenge yourself to figure out where the message started. Did it begin in childhood? Was it the result of a bad relationship?
What messages are you hearing? Are you being reminded that you aren’t good enough, or that you are unworthy of love? Is it trying to convince you that you “ruin everything” or don’t deserve happiness?
Journaling or meditating through this experience can help us in unlocking the core wound, and then releasing it. As with any exercise, consistency is best.
Remember, no one is perfect and our Shadow is what adds depth and dimension to us. When we get comfortable learning about our Shadow, we no longer feel the need to run from it. And, a natural outcome from conquering our Shadow is that we learn to appreciate ourselves where our relationships can take on a deeper level of growth.
Jung, C. G. (Carl Gustav), 1875–1961. (1980). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. NJ: Princeton University Press.