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Warming Up To Cold Feet

          Recently, I met a friend for coffee. He and his fiancée had spent the last six months preparing for their upcoming wedding day, designing the invitations and menus, selecting flowers and photographers, mapping out the most dynamic seating arrangements for their guests. My friend had finally met a woman who gave him the space he needed to pursue his interests and dreams, but who also kept him close emotionally. She was uncomplicated and smart, passionate and kind, and they both liked cross-country skiing, Sudoku puzzles, and gourmet cuisine.

            “I’ve been depressed,” he whispered, glancing furtively around the room. “Before you got married, did you get cold feet?” Then, leaning closer but still whispering, he said, "I think my fiancée is boring.”

            My friend was struggling with what virtually every couple has to deal with at some point in their relationship. It’s not so much “cold feet,” although plenty of research now proves that with time there is indded a “cooling off” of the initial chemical love-rush that according to neuroscientists bears an uncanny resemblance to the high of synthetic drugs, activating the same regions of the brain associated with reward and euphoria. He was experiencing the flip side of a projective process that goes hand in hand with falling in love.

            When we commit to someone romantically, we often see our beloved as possessing positive traits we admire and perhaps even think we lack: patience, warmth, sensuality, spirituality, depth, strength, superior intelligence, charisma, worldly know-how. We amplify and focus exclusively on our beloved’s positive traits. This allows us to feel more complete, and perhaps less inadequate, when we're with them. Unfortunately, this idealization of our beloved also boomerangs in the opposite direction. Maybe it happens before the wedding, or maybe on the second day of the honeymoon when your new spouse snaps at you for misplacing the room key. Or maybe you get a longer grace period until the twins are born. The bottom line is, one day, you wake up next to Mr. or Mrs. Not-So-Right-Afterall. He or she is stingy, insensitive, selfish, complacent, domineering, critical, negative, sloppy, arrogant, passive, or – as my friend had concluded about his fiancée a few weeks before they were scheduled to marry – boring. Your partner can even seem a bit like 'the enemy,' a hybrid version of people who have hurt you in the past: a critical mother, an absent father, an abusive aunt.

            Of course people really do sometimes have major flaws, such as when partners engage in destructive or dangerous behaviors, and if these problems can’t be worked through in therapy or with the assistance of other professional helpers, it may be best for the relationship to end. However, often the flaws we see have more to do with our own reactivity than with our partner’s inherent incompatibility with us.

            In most couples therapy, an important part of the process of learning to resolve conflicts and find common ground involves understanding your own particular brand of reactivity, how you've learned to defend yourself from perceived slights and attacks. This includes exploring how your past impacted what you view as “good” and “bad” ways of being in the world. If we can recognize and understand our judgments, we can admit they exist.

            Engaging in this process is half the battle – or better said, half the journey towards achieving a more peaceful relationship. It can help with the shame couples experience about their feelings, or the terror that comes from thinking “I’ve made a big mistake.” It also offers partners an opportunity to reclaim their lost, denied, or disowned parts – the positive and negative characteristics and traits they unconsciously gave up in order to find acceptance within their families of origin and communities. When we explore the intensity of our reactivity to our partners, we often discover that the visceral Blech – the yuckiness we feel in response to certain things they say or do is rooted not in them or even in the present, but in our own private history – in needs we had that went unmet, in pain we experienced that went unacknowledged.

            In other words, it didn’t really matter whether or not my friend’s bride-to-be was boring. Maybe she was; maybe she wasn’t. What mattered was what being boring meant to my friend. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” By understanding what lies at the root of our judgments, we can move beyond judging and create enough space to love again with greater awareness.

            “Come to think of it, being boring was a cardinal sin in my family,” my friend admitted later in our conversation. “I grew up surrounded by brilliant people: academics, artists, writers, musicians. You could be arrogant or self-destructive, you could even be a criminal. But you could not be boring.”

            This insight put his feelings about his fiancée in perspective.

            Ultimately, love relationships offer us the opportunity to see, make peace with, and embrace our full humanity. Our partners act as catalysts, bringing to the surface parts of ourselves we still reject and project onto others – the parts psychoanalyst Carl Jung conceptualized as the Shadow. The more we are able to understand ourselves, with all our shadow impulses, fears, and desires, the more peace we can create in lives. This, in turn, extends out into our choices. Jung believed that if we learn to deal with our own shadow, we are essentially activists shouldering a part “…of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.” It's a worthy aspiration, even when we get cold feet.

Jung, Carl (1938). Psychology and Religion: West and East. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 11. p.140