The Nature of Romantic Relationships

Note - This article is an excerpt from the book The Enlightened Ego: Discover Your Ego's Purpose and the Path of Transcendence by Kelly Beninga. You can learn more and purchase the book by clicking the image below.

Much of what we do as partners is fundamentally about survival and our beastly, instinctual selves. – Stan Tatkin, 2011


Slipping the bounds of our egoic nature and relating to romantic partners from an enlightened viewpoint is a major challenge for those on a spiritual path. From the perspective of evolution, our life’s purpose culminates in finding a mate and producing offspring. Therefore, our egoic drives and emotions are at their most extreme when pursuing this goal. Romantic relationships carry such power to induce intense emotions that humankind is constantly thinking, writing, singing, laughing, or crying about them. Their ability to bring us to a state of ecstatic bliss can create an obsession to find that perfect union. The sorrow that can be born from them creates a deep-seated fear of their ability to cause pain in our most vulnerable places. The strong emotions present in the courtship and pair-bonding process are a testament to the high genetic stakes in play.

The intra-psychic dance between love and fear is most apparent in our romantic relationships. When falling in love, our ego’s drives for protection and competition are temporarily suspended. Our ego’s selfish and defensive propensities are overcome by the romantic drive toward intimacy and vulnerability. As the relationship continues, we strive to maintain the delight of falling in love in the face of the ego’s fearful intrusions. Despite our efforts, our egos often retract in fear at the moments we wish to reach out with love.


In this chapter, we explore the biological underpinnings of romantic relationships and some solutions to relationship problems created by the ego. We also investigate the realm of transcendent relationships and potential paths toward that end. Becoming conscious of our ego’s influence on how we relate and finding healthy alternatives is an important step in creating functional and fulfilling relationships. Intimate relationships can be a proving ground for sorting out egoic altruism that expects a return on investment versus true transcendent unconditional love. At their best, romantic relationships become a spiritual path that propels lovers beyond ego toward enlightenment.


How Ego and Biology Impact Romantic Relationships

Some part of us is aware that our ego’s defensiveness, blame, jealousy, and need to be right can slowly destroy our relationships, yet we feel powerless to stop it. Fears and egoic wounds can lay dormant for years until a romantic relationship stirs the pot and brings them front and center. Intimate relationships present an opportunity to heal these wounds with the support of a loving partner. However, there is also a risk of reinforcing the old wounds if previous patterns are repeated. Therefore, our happiness and fragile self-esteem seem to be inextricably tied to success in romance.

To understand the egoic aspects of romantic relationships, it is necessary to reveal the biological basis for romantic pairing. Biology and evolutionary psychology are the furthest things from the mind of the lover caught up in the extreme emotions induced by romantic relationships. But underneath the obsessive thoughts and intense emotions, decidedly unromantic human biology is hard at work to facilitate the evolutionary goals of pair bonding, reproduction, and child rearing. Through natural selection, nature has provided us with a host of instinctive behaviors and neurochemicals to facilitate these subconscious goals.


Let’s take a look at how human pair bonding and reproduction evolved. Taking a step back from the human reproductive process, we can ask: Why do we have two genders to begin with? Why not one or three genders? It turns out there are some species of lizards and insects that have only one gender employing asexual reproduction. Offspring are an exact genetic match of the parent. In some respects, this is a more efficient system because all individuals of the species can reproduce, not just the female half. So once again, why two genders?


The answer again stems from evolutionary biology. Natural selection is driven by genetic variability. Genetic mutations that contribute to evolutionary fitness are preserved, and those that don’t are eliminated from the gene pool. This genetic variability is driven in part by mixing the genes of two different individuals to produce offspring with unique gene combinations. Some of these offspring with unique genes may hold the key to increased evolutionary fitness. For more advanced species, mixing of the immune systems of different individuals may increase disease resistance as well. Therefore, the two-gender reproductive system won out in the evolutionary competition.

Fast forwarding a few hundred million years from the first two-gender species, we find humans still employing the two-gender reproductive strategy, but with a high level of complexity and sophistication. Humans produce very few offspring, and these offspring require a long maturation period with a large investment of time and resources from the parents. Women in particular must be extremely dedicated to their children, as they can only produce one child a year who requires a large investment of nutrients from the mother’s body. Having both the mother and father present for gestating and raising the child greatly increases the chances of the child surviving to a reproductive age. Ideally, both parents provide resources, nurturing, and protection for the child. Therefore, humans primarily employ monogamous pair bonding as the preferred reproductive strategy. Selection of the best mate to maximize the chance of success in producing and raising healthy, attractive children is a high-stakes dating game for humans.


Pair bonding is crucial to reproduction and child rearing in humans. In the courtship phase of a relationship, neurochemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin are released to create a strong bond between prospective parents. These chemicals create the excitement, bliss, and singular focus on the beloved that is familiar to those that have fallen in love. Release of these chemicals continues for about a year, corresponding to what is commonly referred to as the honeymoon phase. In this phase, one’s partner is seen as the source of the blissful feelings and is therefore idealized. Lovers are on their best behavior in this phase. Any character flaws or egoic patterns in the loved one are typically ignored or rationalized away during this honeymoon period, in service to maintaining the pair bond. In our evolutionary history, nature provided this honeymoon phase to maintain the coupling long enough to produce a child.


Once these bonding neurochemicals begin to subside, our egoic tendencies return to the forefront. The blinders come off and we begin to see our lover’s ego in operation. Blissful feelings are often replaced by the egoic emotions of fear, jealousy, or anger when the beloved does not meet our expectations. Partners may blame each other for the end of the bliss. Manipulative and controlling behaviors can appear in an attempt to get our partner to conform to our desires. Once past the honeymoon phase, relationships have a way of exposing dysfunctional patterns and maladaptive egoic behaviors in living color. Any egoic wounds, such as an insecure attachment style, begin to drive relationship dynamics. The end of the honeymoon phase often leads to conflict and disillusionment for lovers.


Couples typically face a decision at this point. Now that you know your partner better and see them more clearly, do you jump ship in hopes of finding a better relationship, or do you hang in there and attempt to overcome the problems? Are there intractable problems in the relationship, such as verbal or physical abuse, that are unlikely to change? Are there long-standing mental health or addiction issues? Are both partners willing to take personal responsibility in the relationship, or do partners blame each other for the problems? Partners who have a secure attachment style or have addressed their egoic wounding will likely have an easier time transitioning out of the honeymoon period to a securely functioning long-term relationship.


Moving Beyond Egoic Relationships

If the couple chooses to stay together, the real journey toward a healthy and conscious relationship can begin. Partners recognize that the biological drives and neurochemicals that created the pair bond have dissipated for good, and a new basis for the purpose and meaning of the relationship is needed. Couples pursuing a path of personal and spiritual growth will consciously commit to the relationship as a powerful vehicle for exploration and healing. They prioritize the relationship and protect it from destructive influences. Each takes personal responsibility for their own behavior and the impact it has on the relationship. The relationship then provides an opportunity to move past endless egoic reactions and awaken to our true nature. When we approach relationships in this way, they become a spiritual path–an unfolding process of personal and spiritual development.


Although the two-gender pair bonding system evolved from biological imperatives, conscious couples can use this intimate two-person system for mutual exploration and healing. Areas to explore in the safe setting the relationship can provide include past wounds, emotional vulnerability, unconditional love, unconscious expectations, repressed needs and desires, effective communication, common aspirations, and mutual support/emotional regulation. Once we experience new healthy ways of relating within the relationship, they can be rolled out to our interaction with the world in general.


In Chapter 7, we discussed using our emotional triggers as a signpost pointing to where additional healing is needed. This is particularly true in romantic and family relationships where our egoic complexes are most likely to rear their heads. In a conscious relationship, both partners strive to look under the hood of the egoic reaction to find and address the root cause. Often, the root cause predates the relationship, stemming from dynamics in the family of origin or wounds from previous relationships.


Here are some tips and tools for dealing with relationship issues stemming from egoic patterns.

Limbic Hijack–Communication can quickly breakdown into an argument when both partners’ egos are fully engaged. To change this pattern, begin by noticing when you or your partner move from calm discussion to a heated argument. This is the point where the neocortex—the seat of logical thought—loses control of our reaction and the emotional limbic brain starts driving our behavior. Our instinctive fight-or-flight response is triggered. This point is termed a limbic hijack because the emotional limbic brain rather than the logical neocortex starts controlling our behavior. Little constructive communication is likely to occur once we reach this point. Mutual triggering to higher states of agitation will occur as limbic brains take control and egoic complexes battle it out.

The best solution to this problem is to interrupt the escalation pattern by taking a break from interacting. Our brains need some time to calm down and shift control back to the neocortex. Both partners should make an agreement ahead of time that either can call a timeout when communication gets out of hand. The couple should also make an agreement about when they will reconvene to finish the discussion.


To Protect or Learn–Our ego’s main purpose is to protect us from external threats. This becomes a problem when the external threat is perceived to come from our partner. When operating from ego with our partner, fear, anger, defensiveness, the need to control, and the need to be right are engaged to protect our self-esteem. Listening to and understanding our partner does not occur when these ego mechanisms are in operation. Self-reflection and awareness of our part in the conflict is nearly impossible when these defenses are engaged.


No real progress is made in resolving a conflict until fear subsides and we begin to be curious about what’s behind the conflict. A shift in consciousness is needed to move from the intent to protect our ego to an intent to learn about our partner and ourselves. This shift from protection to learning requires us to transition from seeing our partner as an adversary to seeing them as our fellow explorer. Couples must learn to be present with uncomfortable emotions without lashing out to accomplish this. As stated above, often a break in the conversation is needed to make this shift.


The intent to learn entails a willingness to be vulnerable in discussing our part of the conflict and a willingness to be kind and open-hearted toward our partner. Compassion emerges from acceptance that both partners are human, with built-in egos that are naturally fearful. Judgments and defensiveness are replaced by curiosity and acceptance. Embracing compassion encourages our partner to be vulnerable as well, which leads to true mutual understanding. Expressing compassion toward our partner as they reveal painful memories or feelings of shame about themselves creates a powerful healing experience. Such experiences build intimacy and strengthen the bond between partners. A resolution to the conflict with both partners getting their needs met flows naturally when we stay open hearted with an intent to learn.

The Do-Over–Our ego’s defenses instinctually engage when we perceive a threat. Our protective response is often automatic, occurring before we are aware of what’s happening. Old dysfunctional patterns of communication, born from ego and poor childhood role models, are typically our first response when threatened. Conflicts can spiral out of control quickly, and hurtful words are said with lightning speed.


The damage done to the relationship needs to be repaired, and one of the best ways of accomplishing this is with the “do-over.” The do-over is an agreement to go back to the original trigger that started an argument and discuss the topic with a calmer and more thoughtful approach. The do-over should be done once the limbic hijack has subsided and both partners are able to shift from the intent to protect to the intent to learn.

Partners agree to let go of the painful words expressed and focus on healthy communication and mutual kindness. Sharing emotions and needs from an attitude of personal responsibility is key to a successful do-over. Using only “I” statements (I think…, I feel…, I want…) is a good start in taking personal responsibility. Partners immediately feel defensive when critical “you” statements are expressed (you are…, you should have… you don’t…), so “you” statements should be avoided at all costs. A successful do-over overwrites the damaging argument in our brains and brings us back into synchronization with our partner.

Attachment Style–In Chapter 3, we introduced the idea of attachment style–the style of relating we learned with primary caregivers in childhood. This attachment style is carried forward to adulthood and determines how we are likely to relate to romantic partners. There are two general types: secure attachment and insecure attachment. Secure attachments occur when a child’s needs for physical and emotional nurturing are consistently met by parents/caregivers. The child learns to trust that the caregiver will be there for them when needed, and this trust is generalized to other people as the child grows.


Insecure attachments occur when caregivers are either inconsistently available to the child or mostly absent in meeting the child’s needs. Inconsistent availability results in an insecure-anxious attachment style, where the child often wonders when the caregiver will be available and when they will not. This inconsistency induces fear and anxiety in the child, as they cannot depend on the caregiver to be available. This uncertainty about trustworthiness is transferred to others as they become adults, and their anxiety becomes part of the egoic complex. They will be susceptible to feelings of abandonment as an adult.

An insecure-avoidant attachment style occurs when the caregiver is generally not available to meet the child’s needs. Any interaction with the caregiver is usually of a critical nature. The child unconsciously decides their needs will never be met and gives up on the caregiver. They attempt to be self-sufficient and try not to depend on anyone. People with an insecure-avoidant attachment style often grow up to be depression-prone loners and have a difficult time trusting anyone. Even a caring and trustworthy partner may be met with suspicion and distrust.

Our attachment style is woven together with our ego’s genetic propensities and the impact of other childhood experiences, such as any abuse or trauma, to create our particular egoic complex. Our attachment style and egoic complex have an immense impact on the quality and functioning of adult relationships. Conscious couples will seek to understand their own and their partners’ egoic complex and meet both with curiosity, kindness, and understanding.


Interlocking Egoic Complexes—As if dealing with our individual egoic complexes were not enough, partners’ complexes can interact to trigger reciprocal egoic reactions that quickly escalate into an explosion of emotions. For example, consider Lisa with an insecure-anxious attachment style whose partner, Mark, has an insecure-avoidant attachment style. Lisa experienced repeated feelings of rejection in childhood and is therefore hyper aware of any signs that Mark is withdrawing from her. Her confirmation bias causes her to constantly scan Mark for any indication that he is not 100 percent dedicated to her.

Mark is most comfortable when alone, so he begins to feel overwhelmed by Lisa’s anxious focus on him. His go-to strategy under stress is to withdraw into his own world. His withdrawal escalates Lisa’s anxiety and sense of abandonment, which escalates Mark’s overwhelm and pushes him further away. As this manner of interaction is repeated, it becomes an entrenched dysfunctional pattern of relating that can destroy the relationship.


A multitude of combinations of egoic complexes are possible, creating the unique relationship dynamics of each couple. Becoming aware of the interlocking pattern and finding ways of relating that are not mutually triggering is critical to the success of a relationship. Partners should strive to develop a deep understanding of their own and each other’s history and emotional triggers. Avoiding triggering our partner to the extent possible and contributing to their healing through corrective experiences are key practices for couples on the path to a healthy relationship.


There is some evidence that we unconsciously seek out partners with whom we have interlocking egoic wounding. Our earliest and deepest emotional wounds are inflicted by our parents. We unconsciously seek out partners with similar traits as our parents, particularly the opposite sex parent. This characteristic of coupling stems from our unconscious draw toward familiar people and situations. Such a pairing results in reenactments of family-of-origin drama and in emergence of interlocking egoic wounding. From a spiritual perspective, we may be drawn toward revisiting painful childhood experiences to change the story and heal the wound. Conscious couples become aware of this dynamic and direct their efforts toward changing the destructive pattern and to mutual healing. Doing so changes a potentially re-wounding experience to a healing experience.


Egoic wounds and insecure attachments primarily developed in relationship to childhood caregivers, and healing of these wounds requires healthy adult relationships. Healthy romantic relationships can be ideal vehicles to accomplish this healing. However, sometimes effective relating to a psychotherapist or loving friend is needed before we are capable of staying grounded in the face of the intense emotions romantic relationships bring. Conscious individuals may choose to seek out healing platonic relationships prior to entering romantic relationships. Personal growth entails both individual practices and experience in healthy relating with another.


The above tools and practices primarily address ego-based wounds and dysfunctional behaviors in an attempt to move past the negative consequences they have on relationships. There is another realm of exploration for the couple on the path toward enlightenment. This is the realm of relationships as a spiritual path.


Relationships as a Spiritual Path

When we view our time on Earth as an opportunity to spiritually mature, intimate relationships become one of the most important avenues to that end. For intimate relationships to become a spiritual path, some traditional views of relationship must be held under the light of scrutiny. We must reframe the purpose of relationship from the idea that they are to make us happy to the concept of relationship as a vehicle for healing and growth. With this view, problems and conflict in relationship are seen as opportunities for growth and a chance to clear whatever is unlike love within us. Armed with this attitude, along with an intent to dedicate the time and energy necessary to move from fear to love, love relationships become an exciting journey of discovery and healing.


The challenges of forging an authentic connection with another person inevitably spur us to become more conscious, to examine ourselves more deeply, and to develop greater intention, courage, and awareness in the way we live. Relationships have enormous power as vehicles for mutual healing—physical, emotional, and spiritual. Intimate relationships are a path toward opening the heart so that the wounds of the past and the confusion of the present are received in mercy and awareness. Those in a conscious, committed relationship work mindfully with all that arises in the heart and mind. Using all that arises to work on oneself, as grist for the mill of deep inner growth, allows the unconscious to become conscious. Our spiritual commitment to truth and integrity creates a safe harbor within us—a mooring to return to when the journey gets rough. Love can resurrect our most primitive feelings of fear, hope, dependency, and abandonment. If we know how to stay connected to spirit, soothe our pain, and relax into our emptiness in the midst of these intense feelings, we are well on the way to spiritual partnership. As we move deeper into presence and embrace our spiritual essence, relationship issues become ripples on the surface of the water rather than torrid storms.


Transcendence in Union

In Chapter 7 we discussed entering transcendent states of presence as an individual. It’s also possible to transcend ego in conjunction with a partner. In such experiences, the primary focus is on transcending the illusion of separation between partners. When in a transcendent state of love with another, ego boundaries dissolve and we become more fully present and connected with ourselves and our partners. This state of oneness with our beloved is intimate, expansive, and enlivening. In these moments of heightened presence, we no longer need to defend or prove ourselves. Something in us relaxes. Our usual cares and distractions fade into the background, and we feel more awake and aware. We experience what it is like just to be present with another and to be fully accepted as ourselves. Common disagreements seem silly and petty in such a state, and only love is real.


Such experiences of union can happen spontaneously whenever couples are in a state of presence and turn their attention toward each other. Mutual transcendent states can also be cultivated. Here are a few practices for couples who wish to pursue transcendent states together.


Eye Gazing—Shakespeare wrote, “The eyes are the window to the soul.Eye gazing is an ancient practice found in Buddhist and Hindu tantra, as well as in Sufism. Modern psychology confirms that eye gazing is one of the fastest ways to build intimacy. When we gaze deeply into our beloved’s eyes, we feel more connected to their soul, as they are to ours. We can see beyond their physical body and ego into their essence. When both partners stay in presence, ego boundaries dissolve and we experience a state of ecstatic union.


Eye gazing can also bring any blocks to intimacy into awareness. Fears and judgments may arise as we peer into our lover’s eyes. We may feel uncomfortably vulnerable. Be aware of any thoughts an