Humans have an innate tendency to form attachments.
By Thomas Moore published March 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
With all of their inherent difficulties, relationships of all kinds enrich our lives and help fulfill the needs of the soul.
When we consider the soul of relationship, unexpected factors come into view. In its deepest nature, for example, the soul involves itself in the stuff of this world, both people and objects. It loves attachment of all kinds--to places, ideas, times, historical figures and periods, things, words, sounds, and settings--and if we are going to examine relationship in the soul, we have to take into account the wide range of its loves and inclinations.
Yet even though the soul sinks luxuriantly into its attachments, something in it also moves in a different direction. Something valid and necessary takes flight when it senses deep attachment, and this flight also seems so deeply rooted as to be an honest expression of soul. Our ultimate goal is to find ways to embrace both attachment and resistance to attachment, and the only way to that reconciliation of opposites is to dig deeply into the nature of each. As with all matters of soul, it is in honoring its impulses that we find our way best into its mysteries.
The soul manifests its innate tendency toward attachment in many ways. One way is a penchant for the past and a resistance to change. A particularly soulful person might turn down a good job offer, for example, because he doesn't want to move away from his hometown. The soulfulness of this decision is fairly clear: ties to friends, family, buildings, and a familiar landscape come from the heart, and honoring them may be more important for a soulful life than following exciting ideas and possibilities that are rooted in some other part of our nature.
By definition, the soul is attached to life in all its particulars. It prefers relatedness to distancing. From the point of view of soul, meaningfulness and value rise directly out of experience, or from the images and memories that issue modestly and immediately out of ordinary life. The soul's intelligence may not arrive through rational analysis but through a long period of rumination, and its goal may not be brilliant understanding and unassailable truth, but rather profound insight and abiding wisdom.
This penchant of the soul for the complications of life plays a role in personal relationships. Relatedness means staying in life, even when it becomes complicated and when meaning and clarity are elusive. It means living with the particular individuals who come into our lives, and not only with our ideals and images of the perfect mate or the perfect family. On the other hand, honoring the particular in our lives also means making the separations, divorces, and endings that the soul requires. The soul is always attached to what is actually happening, not necessarily to what could be or will be.
Rather than come up with new understandings and new and improved ways of doing things, the soul prefers to get what it can gradually, taking its nourishment from what is already present. Soul-work, therefore, demands patience and loyalty, virtues not in vogue in our fast-changing times. The soul asks that we live through our attachments rather than try to make swift, clean breaks. It may seem wise, at the end of a divorce or when we've been fired from a job, to get the past behind us and start a "new life." But the soul may need more reflection on that painful past, and there may be untouched fertile material in past events.
It is possible to see our complaints about feeling stuck, or of not being able to get past the latest trauma, as the work of the soul binding us to our given existence. The soul doesn't propel, like spirit; it feels the impact of events. It is easily stung and disturbed. The spirited side enjoys power, strength, well-being, and superiority. The soul, given to the pleasures of earthly existence, suffers its intimacies to the extent that attachment often feels like bondage.
Parents may like the emotional closeness they feel with their children, but they are also, sometimes frustratingly, tied to them. We may go to great extremes in order to have a solid romantic relationship with another person, but then we are also caught in an emotional bond and may begin to feel a contrary desire for freedom to relate to others.
The feeling of longing, the ache of desire for a familiar place or thing, the urgency to visit old friends and places, are all expressions of the soul. The soul wants these things fiercely, as though its well-being required them, even if the demands of life make fulfilling these needs seem impractical.
Attachment to people, things, and places can feel like a burden. It's a nuisance to carry useless things around with us as we move from state to state and house to house. It takes care, attention, and time to write the letters and make the phone calls that sustain attachments. Care of the soul can be demanding, requiring a decision that the needs of the soul are as important as the more future-oriented things that claim our attention.
Every day we feel the soul's minor or major discomforts, but because we habitually overlook these signals of soul pain, we may fail to respond. Just as some people can't perceive colors or musical tones, so we may be soul-blind and soul-deaf. The soul's yearnings simply don't get through to consciousness; or if they do, we try to numb ourselves to them with medications, frenzied activities, or other palliatives. The resulting alienation within our very hearts bears its own painful melancholic loneliness.
A first step, then, in tending to the soul in regard to our relationships is to understand and honor its particular mode of being. It may help to realize that there are two pulls in us: one upward toward transcendence, ambition, success, progress, intellectual clarity, and cosmic consciousness; and another downward, into individual, vernacular life. As we work through difficult family relationships, struggle with the demands of marriage, apply ourselves to the job we're doing, become settled into the geographic region fate has chosen for us, and continually sort through the personality issues that never seem to change or improve--in all these areas we are gathering the stuff of the soul. The soul wants to be attached, involved, and even stuck, because it is through such intimacy that it is nourished, initiated, and deepened.
NEAR AND FAR
We can apply these principles of attachment and freedom to our relationships, discovering that our involvement with people may be most soulful when we can live fully amid the tension of these two inclinations. If we have strong desires to have a family, live with another person, or join a community, but find, after these desires have been satisfied, that we are drawn in exactly the opposite direction, then we might remember that this complexity is simply the way of the soul. We may have to look for concrete ways to give life to both sides of the spectrum, enjoying both our intimacies and our solitude.
Sometimes the matter presents itself as a questioning of our own natures: Am I the kind of person who should get married, or do I need to live alone? Should I get a job in a large corporation, or should I be self-employed? The best answer to questions like these is intellectually and emotionally to hold both sides at once. Out of the tension may come a way of being attached and separate at the same time.
In everyday life there are always opportunities to honor both separateness and togetherness. Often one person in a relationship feels one emotion more than the other. In his essay on marriage, Carl Jung describes one partner as the "contained" and the other as the "container." Maybe the best way to tend these two needs is to notice where the anxiety is. A person in a marriage who is longing for freedom, finding marriage too confining, might best avoid the temptation to flee and instead work at reimagining marriage and partnership.
Many people seem to live the pain of togetherness and fantasize the joys of separateness; or, vice versa, they live a life of solitude and fill their heads with alluring images of intimacy. Bouncing back and forth between these two valid claims on the heart can be an endless struggle that never bears fruit and never settles down. In the end, the only answer is a polytheistic one. Honor both gods. Pursue and run away. Be lustful and chaste. Wholeheartedly link up with someone else but just as passionately find your own way.
For some of us, a strong dose of individuality can be the best quality to bring to a relationship. That nymph in your heart who runs away at the first sign of love, sex, and commitment might be doing an important service to the soul, which needs flight as much as it needs embrace. On the other hand, the proud spirit that rushes into relationships is also important to the soul. Without impetuous desire, there may be no intimacy.
All we can do is follow the lead of our emotions and images. An abstract comprehensive understanding is both impossible and undesirable. In matters of the heart, we may have no choice but to allow other forces beyond our intentional selves to work out the debates, the incongruities, and the contradictions, as we bring hope and desire to new love and affection.
SEX AND IMAGINATION
Sex is a great mystery of life that resists our many attempts to explain and control it. Along with money and death, it represents one of the few elements left in life that virtually pulsates with divinity, easily overwhelms our feelings and thoughts, and sometimes leads to profound compulsions.
Emotional compulsion is often regarded negatively as a failure of control or a sign of irrationality. We might see it rather as the soul yearning for expression and trying to thrust itself into life. Sexual compulsion may show us where and to what extent we have neglected this particular need. Compulsion asks for a response from us, but we might be careful lest we simply react to the felt need. Some respond by advocating "free love," as though the best way to deal with the compulsion were to give in to it literally.
This is the way of compensation, which doesn't solve the problem but only places us at the other end of it. The soulful way is to bring imagination to sex, so that by fulfilling the need at a deep level, the compulsion is brought to term.
We may try to keep the power of sex at bay through many clever maneuvers. Our moralism, for example, helps keep us clean of the mess sex can make of an otherwise ordered life. Sex education tries to teach us to avoid disease by placing sex under the light of science. Yet in spite of all our efforts, sexual compulsion interferes with marriages, draws people into strange liaisons, and continues to offend propriety, morality, and religion. Its dynamic is too big to fit into the cages we make for it.
We are in a difficult position in relation to sex: We believe it's important to have a healthy sex life, yet we also believe that the tendency of sex to spread easily into unwanted areas--pornography, extramarital affairs--is a sign of cultural decadence or moral and religious breakdown. We want sex to be robust, but not too robust.
Sex asks something of us--that we live more fully and manifest ourselves more transparently. This demand is so central and powerful that our resistances to it are also strong--our moralism, indirection, rationalization, and acting out. It would help if we would stop thinking of sex as in the slightest way medical or biological. The whole sphere of sex--emotion, body, fantasy, and relationship--falls within the domain of the soul.
It sometimes happens that one person in a relationship shows an interest in pornography while the other is offended or at least disturbed by it. A wife might think that if her husband is turning to pornography for sexual stimulation, there must be something lacking in her. A husband might say, "I guess I'm not what my wife is looking for in a man. She's interested in other men's bodies."
It's difficult to sort out issues surrounding pornography because in our culture response to pornography often divides into two extremes--compulsion and moral indignation. This split suggests that for us pornography is a problem rather than an element integrated into everyday life. When we respond to anything with compulsion and moralism, we can assume that we haven't yet found the soul in it.
An interest in pornography clearly shows the desire for some kind of increase in erotic life and an intensification and broadening of the sexual imagination. When we find this interest blooming in ourselves or in someone close to us, rather than move quickly into judgment, we might ask what it is doing there. Could this sexual interest be serving some purpose? The pornographic imagination doesn't have to be justified, but it might ease our minds if we could find a context for it.
SEX AND INTIMACY
Thinking about sex, we sometimes take either the position that it is entirely physiological or that it is primarily interpersonal. In either of these viewpoints, the soul of sex can be overlooked. Its soul is to be found in the imagination through which we experience sex, whether individually, interpersonally, or even societally. Each of us has a sexual history, persons who figure prominently for good or ill.
We may also have strong sexual hopes and longings. We might regard all these images as creations of the soul and be aware that each may resonate on many levels. The memory of a pleasurable experience may carry longings about pleasure in life itself, or a painful memory may epitomize a more general disillusionment and hopelessness about joy, pleasure, and intimacy. The image of oneself as a lover, as beautiful or capable, may be wrapped up in these memories. Deeper still may lie fears of exposure or the old dynamics of family relationships.
The intimacy in sex, while always attached to the body, is never only physical. Sex always evokes pieces of stories and fragments of characters, and so the desire and willingness to be sexually transparent is truly an exposure of the soul. In sex we may discover who we are in ways otherwise unavailable to us, and at the same time we allow our partner to see and know that individual. As we unveil our bodies, we also disclose our persons.
It makes sense that vulnerability requires inhibitions of all kinds. Part of sexual intimacy is protection of the other's inhibition, for that reserve is as much an expression of soul as is the apparent willingness to be exposed. It makes no difference whether the inhibition seems neurotic: It must be honored if soulful intimacy is to be maintained. It is not "abnormal" for a person to feel unusually reticent about physical and emotional exposure. Nor is it abnormal for a person to enjoy the exhibition of their sexuality.
Sexual intimacy begins with acknowledgment of and respect for the mystery and madness of the other's sexuality, for it is only in mystery and madness that soul is revealed. I'm referring to platonic madness, of course--the soul's natural expression that almost always appears deviant to normal society. At times we may have to protect ourselves from another's sexual confusion and acting out, but if we want an intimate relationship, we will have to create a place for the other's sexual fantasy.
To find sexual intimacy, we may also have to acknowledge that sex is often wounded. The soul of sexuality often enters through an opening made by sexual wounding. We can learn to see that the places of our sexual punctures and violations are areas of potential intimacy, even though on the surface they may seem to be precisely the areas of mistrust. All of us have sexual wounds. It does no good either to wallow in them or to deny them a place.
While sex is tender and sensitive to invasion, it is also profoundly involved with the soul. Sex is the soul's limpid mirror, its litmus, and its gesture. We can exploit sex, manipulate others with it, use it with fierce aggression, hide from it, misread it, and indulge excessively in it. These are the means of struggling with its potential soulfulness.
The soul of sex has the power to evoke relationship, to sustain it, and to make it worthwhile. As with all things of soul, we are asked to stand out of the way and be affected by its power to quicken life and to transform us from practical survivors into erotic poets of our own lives.
-Excerpted from Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship, by Thomas Moore. Copyright (C) 1994. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins.