In fairy tales, the Castle can be a fortress of strength or a prison of solitude, depending upon who is in charge. Castle as fortress-of-strength shows up frequently in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, protecting Frodo, Aragorn, and the good guys—Minas Tirith and Rivendale are my favorites. Castle as prison-of-solitude usually involves a princess locked up and needing rescue—think Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty. I suspect most psychotherapists find the castle metaphor arising periodically in their sessions—it certainly shows up regularly with me. The following exchange with Sharon and Dennis, a couple in their forties married for seven years, illustrates how useful understanding the Castle, the Gate, and the Threshold can be.
Our fifteenth session has just begun, and Sharon stares out my French doors into the tiny garden beyond, completely avoiding Dennis. I catch her eyes, “You look locked up in a castle.”
Sharon relaxes a little, “Yes, exactly, and I don’t know how to get out.”
Dennis’s eyes widen, “I didn’t think you wanted to get out.” There is a moment of surprising warmth.
At this point we are all beginning to focus on the most alive parts of the castle—the gate and the threshold. The gate can be an angry blockade if the person on the inside keeps it shut. No amount of love, change, or words will be pleasurable to Sharon until she risks opening herself to Dennis’ love—she needs to open the gate to allow sweet intimacy across the threshold. The harder Dennis tries to force his way through with explanations, excuses, arguments, bribes, or attacks—his codependent habits—the more solidly Sharon will keep the gate locked. He needs to relax and offer patience and presence until Sharon recognizes him as a good guy with whom she wants loving contact—which opens the gate to potential intimacy.
The Castle archetype permeates the myths of all cultures. Often a soul is locked in a citadel—usually a feminine soul, but not always—desperately needing a savior. A masculine force outside offers both healing and possible threat. Should she open the gate? Can she trust enough to open the gate? Trust is hard to come by when you’re locked in a fortress.
At the threshold multiple forces meet. The masculine can become more trustable with presence, patience, and compassion, or more frightening with alarm, anger, or collapse. The feminine can accelerate love by surrendering to clean masculine presence, or refuse love by keeping the gate locked.
Sharon can decide to open the gate to welcome Dennis—risking further hurt, but increasing her chances for love fulfilled. Doing so challenges Dennis to step up with compassion and affection, and resist angry, hurt impulses (like saying, “It took you forever to open the damn gate!”). A powerful measure of masculine depth is how well a man recognizes mistakes and violence in himself and immediately adjusts to love before, during, or after the violent act.
I tell them, “You two are at the threshold. Sharon, I invite you to open the gate and receive Dennis’ best efforts. All you have to do is recognize your need to feel loving contact with him and feel pleasure at his best efforts. Dennis, this is your chance to be a hero. Be excellent for her and yourself. If you do this, the gate opens and the threshold is alive with intimacy.”
They look willing, but uncertain. I go on, “Repair of injuries needs affectionate connection, and then a little bit of progress. Look each other in the eyes and transmit affectionate connection.”
They do this and smile, and Sharon giggles a little. I take a deep breath. This is a hopeful sign because couples who allow even tiny amounts of pleasurable contact do much better.
I turn to Sharon, “It’s more difficult for you. Dennis lightens up when you kiss him and love him. He’s always open to your affection. When your gate is closed and Dennis is making his best efforts for both of you, you need to decide to receive love even when you think don’t want to. You need to actively open the gate to your castle. You need to allow him over the threshold.”
Sharon’s face softens as she looks into Dennis’ eyes, “I’ll try.”
Dennis visibly lights up as he reaches out to touch her knee, “I’ll do my best to help.”
This is a beautiful moment. If you’re locked up in a castle with someone who loves you on the other side this is exactly what everyone (you, your partner, your family, your friends, or your therapist) wants—lovers resolving injuries into deeper love. If someone you love is locked up and needs to open the gate to create the possibility of repair, this is exactly what everyone wants—lovers resolving injuries into deeper love.
The Castle, the Gate, and the Threshold offer powerful myths of liberation—it’s almost always a good idea to open the gate and cross the threshold courageously in service of love.