"All relationships, all relationships begin in projection." -James Hollis
Over the past several years I've become dubious of romantic love when I used to be a lover--constantly craving the excitement and butterflies of new love. I spent my time wishing for someone who knew how to love me perfectly, a soul mate whose love would complete me. My other half who felt like my forever home...and I had it. I had an experience that felt like every love song and story I had ever heard. My body tingled with delight at their smile and being content to just walk and hold hands for hours or staring into their eyes. I felt a familiarity that I had never felt before as if I had known them for lifetimes. When they left to go across an ocean never to return it was as if a part of my soul left my body--and romantic love hasn't felt the same since.
For more than a decade I've compared every person to them, wanting to desperately recreate the ease and sweetness of what we had. Seeking someone with their eyes or smile, or that feeling of being both comforted and excited at the same time. I felt all the best parts of me with them--playful, sensual, and nurturing. Yet if they had stayed my life wouldn't have become what it is now. I never would have moved to California, or followed the path I did. That loss propelled me towards me more fully, as I believe romantic love is designed to do--as the hook of a relationship but not the goal.
More than a decade later my vision of romantic love has changed immensely. I see now that while what I have had before was deeply romantic, I don't know if it could have grown and evolved into love because we didn't have enough time. What was tough to admit to myself was how much of our relationship was mostly based on projection...a key component of romantic feelings. Of course, the degree of these mutual projections either makes or breaks the connection. As all relationships begin with the premise of projection, what we do with the progressive disintegration of the projections reveals the actual relationship potential.
This process has been my downfall, as on some level I know I prefer the projections, I prefer to be in the dream of romantic love, rather than the reality of loving someone. Facing that I don't know if I have what it takes to actually love someone and build something with another while witnessing all of their flawed humanness as they see my own. I doubt if I have the courage to face fully the parts of me that remain unconscious and then endure the painful process of my unconscious being mirrored back through my projections onto them.
More recently I had an experience of what I thought was a budding romantic love that became something vastly different from what I described above. It took me down such a painful path I'm still not sure how to make sense of it. Someone--call them G--came into my life who brought up feelings similar to the relationship I described above--the initial familiarity and sweetness--but it exploded into something I have never experienced before. G perfectly fit many of my most wounded parts of my attachment wounding--the coldness, the constant confusion of how they felt about me, subtle cruelty that felt masked by polite words, the subsequent warmth, and then rejection. Conversely, I felt pulled into an image of self that didn't feel like parts of me I had ever met. I felt more volatile and angry, with borderline thoughts and extreme feelings. So different from the situation described above, this desire for someone pulled me farther and farther away from myself.
I felt tortured and unrecognizable, it terrifies me to even think about it, even now. I felt an incredible inability to separate out reality in relating. G was a great mirror for my pain, but without the opportunity to name and talk about it, I continued to spiral deeper and deeper over the course of six months. (Though I understand now I'm one of many to have a similar experience with them, which is relieving in many ways. Not to demonize them but there were some of the most extreme aspects of personality and see that I'm also participating in a specific wound for them as well that seems to repeat.)
At the time I didn't know how to fully alchemize the unconscious constellation, so instead the powerlessness and projections took over. I became super co-dependent and as submissive as possible so as not to trigger any of their abrasiveness. And then after feeling a loss of self so strong and seeing that even with my hyper congeniality the dynamic was still really difficult, I oscillated wildly between walking on eggshells and rage. It was one of the lowest points of my life realizing how much I'd lost myself in working so hard to keep someone else.
Unlike the first experience I mentioned that brought me closer to myself and a version of myself I like, this one took me so far out of my own orbit and shadow aspects of me that I didn't even know existed. These two extremes are both examples of the different ways the projections of romantic love help us evolve through a positive transformational figure as the first case, or a negative transformational figure (terms from Erich Neumann often associated with the muse archetype and witch, more on this another time.).
They were both my perfect animus projections--as Jung would call them--and my "parental imagos," or playing out dynamics with various family constellations. The first one represents a sense of unity and divine love, while the second felt related to a more destructive force within my unconscious.
I strongly believe those of us with a more complicated attachment system are more prone to extreme projection onto the Other. Our search for the "Magical Other" as James Hollis describes it, craves our healing:
“The idea that there is one person out there who is right for us will make our lives work, a soul–mate who will repair the ravages of our personal history, one who will be there for us, will read our minds, know what we want and meet those deepest needs; a good parent who will protect us from suffering and spare us the challenging journey of individuation.
And while I've tended to demonize romantic projections, they are actually magic if we are willing to see them...as they pull for more and more projections back and forth until they reach a maximum point that pushes the new consciousness forward. The tension in the psyche becomes so great that something has to shift. To me, the pain of romantic love can be just powerful enough for this breakthrough into a new awareness. What we do not know about ourselves we project outward--both negatively and positively. We idealize the qualities in others we don't believe we have as well as demonize the ones in ourselves we don't like as shadow projections. When it comes to romance, what stirs us both negatively and positively deserves to be taken seriously.
Of course, we project onto all relationships family or friendship but romantic love seems to create the most extreme projections. I am suspicious of romantic love because of this and yet it is my ultimate desire. The yearning for my soul to become more myself through this ever-evolving process of projection and reclaiming of unconscious material is the stuff life is made of. The telos of life and the meaning of individuation and becoming more fully ourselves.
And then it has been hard to admit that I've lived my romantic life preferring to be unavailable, more of a muse lover than a down-to-Earth partner. It served me well until it didn't. I've cursed romantic love, believing it a waste of my time. But it wasn't love that was wrong, it way I was relating to it wasn't healthy, I've wanted someone to save me from the harshness of being a human, rather than face what it was teaching me over and over again--to find wholeness through the evolution of my desire.
With a soulmate or ideal other, we project all of our met and unmet needs onto an Other. An impossible task requiring vigilance with the dream of a perfect attachment figure, a desire for an original participation mystic, or a return to an ultimate spiritual union. And I believe I've had many different types of soulmates and fated relationships that have all been ways to pull me towards my own healing.
And I believe the more attachment wounding, the stronger and more potent our projections both negative and positive. We tend to partner with those who fit these images of parents and ideal Other so we can pick people who represent our underdeveloped selves and live out a delusion of sorts attempting to keep the romance alive. Or we can choose another path, the one I want to follow...a path to Selfhood, capital "S." In this way, I believe the goal of romantic love is individuation, which also doesn't allow for boredom I've feared..as healing can be infinite.
The Hero's journey as individuation doesn’t implicitly name love as the transformer, but mine has been shaped by it. It has always come from the pain of an ending or the rejection of something unreciprocated. But my life has been changed by love over and over again, the ending of a friendship, or the pain of another romance completed.
I am more grateful than I've ever been for all those I've loved and who have shaped my soul in this way. Grateful to those who loved me when I wanted romance and I couldn't see them. Those for whom my desire for them has led me towards more self-awareness. Instead of seeking a perfect soulmate, I've shifted my orientation, looking for a Self-mate, someone else who is willing to fall in love and then recover together. To sort through the unconscious material together, knowing that romance isn't the goal...love is. (And some of us are better at that than others.)
"To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients--care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication."-bell hooks
I've often mistaken affection and caring for love, but without more of the components above from bell hooks, it can't really ripen. Many of us didn't receive the above from our caregivers and it can be easy to mistake other things for love or use them as placeholders. With a soulmate, our deepest yearnings and unconscious needs may be evoked, or perhaps a sense of home related to the pain of attachment. With a Self-mate, we can access more fully the adventure that is life, not driven by just our unconscious healing, but a meeting place of home and our role in the collective. Where the chemistry of romantic love can mingle with the compatibility of long-term goals and a shared life path.
I now see more clearly the error in my romantic ways. I thought my chances of love were over when certain people left my life, but it has actually become more possible with the untangling of love and romance. Now, 13 years later--an important number in the Venus cycle--since the person I thought was the "love of my life" left, I finally feel ready for love. To build and create a love and life story with someone whom I will call my Self-mate. They may be a soulmate or not, they may not fit my perfect ideal or perhaps fit it just enough for the unconscious projections to lead me back on an ongoing journey to Self.
Where ever my desire for another pulls me next, I want to trust romantic love more, knowing it has my wholeness and healing at heart.