Understanding Your Shadow: The Key to A Successful Marriage

By Dr. Keith Witt
February 17, 2017
Why is it that you’re 35% happier if you live next door to a good friend, but only 8% happier when you live with a spouse? Why do most young couples start out hopeful and starry eyed, and yet 50% end up divorced, while many others continue to cohabitate in misery? One good answer to these questions is that we have yet to institutionalize effectively managing marital Shadow.

What is Shadow?

Shadow is the sum total of our learning, drives, habits, values, preferences, and needs flooding constantly up from our non-conscious selves to our conscious selves. Right now your Shadow-self is reacting within a tenth of a second to these words (you like them/not like them, find them useful/irritating, want to continue/want to stop reading), but your consciously-aware-self experiences and manages these feelings, stories, and impulses a half second to a second and a half later. Most approaches to Shadow focus on the dark, dangerous, shameful memories, fantasies, actions, impulses, self-images and beliefs that rise up unannounced and unwelcome to torment us—what I call destructive Shadow. But this is only half the story. What about intuitions, flashes of insight, generous impulses, compassionate understandings, and caring acts that occur daily for most of us? All of these involve positive non-conscious forces–constructive Shadow. In general Shadow rises up either constructively to help us grow and thrive, or destructively to harm us or others in primitive attempts at self-protection and gratification. We can learn to trust constructive Shadow and transform destructive Shadow into constructive Shadow.

How Shadow Plays Itself Out in Marriage

Encouraging constructive Shadow and managing destructive Shadow figures prominently in most psychotherapy and change work, and is absolutely crucial to working through marital issues. Let’s use an example from one of my couples therapy sessions to illustrate how shadow comes up on relationships. Mark and Judith came to me struggling with horrible fights that swept through their relationship like hurricanes, leaving them exhausted and emotionally bruised. CEO Mark and corporate lawyer Judith were active, attractive, and sexually hot when they weren’t going for the jugular. Powerful, opinionated, and ruthless in conflict, neither backed down in an argument, making them ruinously vulnerable to escalating conflict—one of the most robust predictors of divorce. In our third sessions Judith began with an indictment: “Mark is completely selfish! It’s his plan or no plan. When I want to visit my daughter Janey in San Francisco, he complains about how long I’m gone, but when he wants to help his son Michael move into his apartment in New York, I’m supposed to drop everything!” Mark, snapping up the bait, violently disagrees. “You are so wrong! How about when Janey got meningitis, you…” Judith interrupts contemptuously, “Oh? You helped? Visiting her once in the hospital and demanding that I go to your office party that night is helping?” I interrupt, “Stop! Neither of you is aware of what you’re doing at this moment. You are so driven by hostile Shadow habits to attack and diminish each other that you’re both completely missing what you really want!” Mark and Judith are not so far gone that this doesn’t pique their interest. Judith responds first. “What do you mean about ‘Shadow habits’ and ‘Missing what we really want?'” Mark nods. I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. I relax my face and modulate my voice to soothe. “When you’re arguing you believe convincing works—that convincing gets you back to love. But it doesn’t. Love gets you back to love.” My goal here was to encourage them to observe themselves trying to angrily convince, and believe that angry convincing is wrong—ineffective and essentially immoral in that they are justifying emotional violence. I’m working to directly influence the growth of their constructive Shadow around conflict. Judith, still angry, disagrees and returns to her case. “If Mark wasn’t so selfish, we wouldn’t have these problems.” Mark counters, “It’s never your fault, is it? You can never…” I interrupt, “Wait! I need to tell Judith something. Judith, you just did it again. Your trying to convince him he’s selfish.” She looks startled, and this time stays thoughtfully quiet—a good sign. I continue. “It’s hard to catch, isn’t it?” She smiles, “You’re right. It is a habit. It happens so fast!” I look at Mark, “How are you feeling at this moment?” Mark, tempted by his hostile story, visibly catches himself and shows up as more mature man. “Actually, I’m kind of impressed with what Judith just did.” She blushes in unexpected pleasure. This is just a glimpse of the Shadow material flowing and swirling around their unique intersubjectivity. Our Shadow selves communicate as our conscious selves communicate. When the two conversations are congruent, everything is working in the same direction, but what if consciously I’m trying to connect positively and unconsciously trying to attack, while you’re doing the same? Such situations produce characteristic destructive patterns of relating, which is what Mark and Judith were engaged in. If they can perceive these patterns when upset, and self-soothe, and then reach for marital bliss, everything changes—their Shadow agendas become congruent with their conscious agendas of loving better, which is the reason they entered therapy in the first place, to love better. If Mark and Judith get back to love from conflict quickly and frequently, getting back to love eventually becomes a positive attractor state—a pro-social place they go to easily and naturally. Positive attractor states are shared attuned states we habitually go to—priceless in conflict. I point this out. “Look into each other’s eyes and tell me how you feel—closer or farther away.” They look at each other and tentatively smile. Mark speaks first, “Definitely closer.” Judith nods agreement as I continue. “This is what I mean by getting back to love, what you really want when you start fighting.”

Pretending destructive shadow is valid creates catastrophes

Mark and Judith began the above session pretending their hostile feelings were proportionate, and their critical beliefs 100% accurate. They were making the huge mistake of trusting what they felt, thought, or wanted when distressed. When you pretend destructive Shadow is as valid as constructive Shadow, you’re in big trouble. In marriages this mistake leads to misery and divorce. “Trust your feelings” has been a mantra of humanism for over fifty years. In reality, when you’re angry, ashamed, frightened, devastated, or highly anxious, your emotions are amplified or numbed, your thoughts are distorted, and your impulses are more likely to be coming from destructive Shadow than constructive Shadow. When you’re in a defensive state, don’t trust your feelings, thoughts, or impulses! Soothe yourself back into a state of social engagement, help your spouse do the same, and then reach for compassionate understanding and loving action. Compassionate understanding will change your beliefs about distressing situations towards less painful/destructive and more accurate/constructive. You can usually tell destructive Shadow in marital conflict from the emotional signatures of anxiety, depression, sadness, shame, contempt, numbness, and/or rage. Similarly, constructive Shadow usually has the emotional signatures of joy, compassion, love, lively interest, generosity, care, and/or patience. To grow your marital Shadow, take responsibility when you’re distressed to soothe yourself, cultivate compassionate understanding, and always do your best to get back to love with your spouse.

Exercise: Constructive and destructive Shadow in your marriage

I suggest you go through the exercises below and write down your answers and reflections for each in a journal:
  • Over the last week, what was the moment you felt the most love for your spouse?
  • Over the last week, what moment did you feel the most distress with your spouse?
  • Tell your spouse the first story (most love moment) and ask for his or her reactions—then talk about it.
  • Tell your spouse the second story (most distress) and ask for his or her reactions—then talk about it.
  • Read everything you’ve written and look for constructive and destructive Shadow material in you—especially your typical defensive states.
  • Read everything you’ve written and look for conflict patterns and love patterns of relating that cause more love or more suffering with you and your spouse.
  • Share your insights with your spouse and have a discussion.

Image Credit: I’m Priscilla on Unsplash

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