"Something extraordinary has happened!" said Chad in a phone session with me. Chad is 52 and recently divorced from a long marriage. "You know how much I've longed for an intimate and connected relationship, and you know how lonely I was in my marriage because Rachael wasn't open. Well, I was traveling back on the plane from the East Coast where I was on business and I happened to sit next to a really interesting older woman. We chatted the whole trip and at the end, she told me she wanted to introduce me to a very good friend of hers. She thought we would really like each other.
"Leila and I started an intense email correspondence and now we are talking a lot on the phone. We haven't even met in person yet, and we both feel in love! I haven't felt this way in years, maybe never. Is this real?"
Maybe -- and maybe not. The feelings Chad feels are certainly real. He feels close and connected with Leila because they are both being very openhearted with each other. They are being vulnerable and honest, letting each other in on their deepest desires and fears.
Jekyll and Hyde -- The Core Self and the Wounded Self
Chad has fallen in love with what he knows about Leila's core self, her true beautiful essence, and she has fallen in love with what she knows about his core self. But neither of them has any idea of who the other person is when their ego-wounded self is in charge.
We all have a wounded self -- our ego -- that we developed as we were growing up, to protect us from pain. Our wounded self becomes activated when we get scared -- scared of rejection, of engulfment, of being hurt. Our wounded self has learned many controlling ways to protect against pain, such as anger, blame, compliance, withdrawal, resistance, defensiveness.
Chad and Leila have no idea yet what the other person does in conflict or when his or her fears get triggered. Chad spent 25 years in a marriage with Rachael, who was not only harsh and judgmental when her fears got activated, but who was emotionally closed and withdrawn most of the time, which created a lack of intimacy and connection. Chad's way of protecting and controlling has been to be in his head, disconnected from his feelings, defending and trying to convince Rachael to open to him. He finally gave up and ended their marriage.
Is the Other's Wounded Self Tolerable to You?
Chad cannot know whether or not Leila's wounded self is tolerable to him until they have a chance to spend enough time together to have conflict. Chad knows that while he might shut down or get defensive for a short time, he generally opens within a half hour. But what does Leila do? Does she get angry or withdrawn, and stay angry or withdrawn for hours or days, never opening to exploring the issue? Will she project her own issues onto Chad, not taking responsibility for her own feelings? Will she go along with Chad to avoid conflict, but then feel angry that she has given herself up? Will she turn to various addictions -- food, drugs, alcohol, nicotine -- to avoid her feelings? Will she punish him with attacks on his character, or by disappearing for days at a time?
No one really likes or loves another's wounded self. It's not the lovable part of each of us. It's actually up to each of us to get to know our own ego-wounded self with a compassionate intent to learn about our wounds and triggers, so that we can gradually heal this aspect of ourselves. But while we will not like the other's wounded self, their wounded self needs to be tolerable to us. We need to accept this part of another if love is going to flourish. Obviously, if Chad finds out that Leila gets enraged or completely shut down, or turns to some form of substance abuse, and stays closed and unavailable for days at a time, this is not going to be acceptable to him.
Chad cannot know what Leila is going to do, and Leila cannot know what Chad is going to do, until they go through some significant conflicts. No matter what they say about themselves in emails or on the phone, they cannot experience the other's wounded self until they come up against their fears.
As the old saying goes, "Love is blind." Hopefully, neither Chad nor Leila will be blind to each other's wounded self -- blind to the red flags that may be there in the early days of their relationship. Hopefully, neither will think they can change or heal the other's wounded self. Hopefully, they will be honest with themselves regarding whether or not the other's wounded self is completely acceptable to each of them as they currently are. While each of them can learn and grow as a result of the relationship and of their own inner work, neither can change the other, and there are never guarantees of change.
So are they in love with each other? Well, yes and no. They already love what they know of each other's core self, but they don't yet know if each other's wounded self is acceptable to each of them. Only time and working through fear and conflict will tell.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D. is a relationship expert, best-selling author, and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® healing process, recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette, and featured on Oprah. To begin learning how to love and connect with yourself so that you can connect with others, take advantage of our free Inner Bonding eCourse, receive Free Help, and take our 12-Week eCourse, "The Intimate Relationship Toolbox" - the first two weeks are free!
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