“There is in the psyche a process that seeks its own goal no matter what the external factors may be….the almost irresistible compulsion and urge to become what one is.”
The path to one’s healing is a journey to consciousness, and the doorway to this path is … the discovery of one’s psyche wounds.
Notably, the latest neuroscience supports some of Jung’s observations. The subconscious mind can operate outside of conscious awareness, for example, and we do have the ability to heal our brain with self-directed methods of neuroplasticity.
The most painful wound in the Western psyche?
What is a psyche wound? In Jungian terms, it is a wounding of the soul, a word used interchangeably to mean the mind, the spirit, or the innermost self.
A noted author, lecturer and interpreter of Jung’s work, Dr. Robert A. Johnson, who also studied and worked alongside Jung and pioneers of Jungian psychology, makes a most astounding conclusion.
In his analysis, he regards what he terms ‘romantic love’ as “the great wound in the Western psyche.”
This concept, Dr. Johnson holds, is responsible for the “most common and painful wound … in our Western world” and that is the “wound to the masculine psyche,” which is a debilitating wound to the “feeling function” (more often associated with men) that co-exists with a parallel “wound to the feminine psyche,” an impairment of the “doing function” (more often associated with women). Healthy anger is a motivating factor.
According to Dr. Johnson:
“Romantic love not just a form of “love,” it is a whole psychological package — a combination of beliefs, ideals, attitudes, and expectations. These often contradictory ideas coexist in our unconscious minds and dominate our reactions and behavior, without our being aware of them. We have automatic assumptions about what a relationship with another person is, what we should feel, and what we should ‘get out of it.’”
The origin of ‘romantic love’ in three Medieval tales.
Best known and loved for the insights and wisdom he contributes in the retelling of timeless folktales, Dr. Johnson’s work reveals the meanings and origin of the concept of romanticized ideals in Western societies, and how these both impaired intimate relationships between men and women today, and produced an overall “impoverished sense of social consciousness in Western culture.”
Perhaps even more importantly, he provides insights into how understanding the psychological dynamics of these ideals can provide us with a new vision today for how to revitalize what is arguably the most critical (and wounded) of all relationships in our personal journey of transformation and healing as individuals in relation to self and life.
Birthed in the Middle Ages, Dr. Johnson maintains that three Medieval tales in particular have formed the basis of ‘romantic love’:
- Tristan and Queen Iseult
- The Fisher King
- The Handless Maiden
The Tale of Tristan and Queen Iseult.
In a book titled, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, Dr. Johnson presents a remarkable analysis of the tragic tale of the love between Tristan and Queen Iseult.
He describes this as not only one of the most moving and tragic of all epic tales, but also the one that most accurately encapsulates the ideas of ‘romantic love.’ Being the first of its kind, for example, most all romantic literature stems from it, to include Romeo and Juliet and movie productions in current times.
This is a tale is of a young noble hero, Tristan, who is overwhelmed by his passion for Queen Iseult. Torn between the conflicting forces that rage within the male psyche when a man falls prey to these ideals, he is forced to make a choice between the struggle to win the coveted prize of heroic masculinity on the one hand, and the journey to become conscious of his feelings, love and relatedness on the other.
Iseult faces a similar yet different inner battle within the female psyche. On the one hand, she sees the necessity to protect herself from what Tristan represents, yet she finds herself helplessly captive against her will to a man who murders her uncle and in other ways betrays, and misuses her.
Is it love or an obsession to possess or be possessed?
What rendered the ability of Tristan and Iseult to make wise, clear choices? According to the tale, they drank a special wine — a love potion of sorts.
Each became obsessed by their ‘love.’ In response to voices of reason that warned Tristan, “this way leads to death,” for example, he recklessly replied, “Well, then come Death.” Similarly, the wine melted away Iseult’s hatred for Tristan and she surrendered her soul, saying, “you know that you are my lord and my master, and I your slave.”
Under the spell of ‘romantic love’:
- Each was “ready to trade everything, even life itself, for one night together.”
- Each became “entranced, mesmerized, in love with a mystical vision” in which they saw each other mostly through the spell.
- Each viewed their love, not as “not ordinary human love that comes by knowing each other as individuals” but rather as “supernatural and involuntary” — an outside force that possessed them against their will.
- Each regarded the other as someone who, at last, would perfectly complete, free, save, heal them of all pain, or help them find meaning and wholeness in life.
Is it love or mostly illusion?
The tale of Tristan and Iseult symbolizes the powerful forces at work in the whole of our society that are most often expressed in the experiences romanticized love, where the inner beliefs men and women hold act as “outside forces” that possess them to say, feel, think, act in certain ways (narcissism and codependency) — seemingly against their will.
It can sound wonderful at first glance, until you “see” the deadly allure in the details.
In Medieval Times it was called “courtly love” between a noble and courageous knight who worships a fair lady as his inspiration for battle and for noble acts of saving others. The knight symbolizes all that is strong, noble, potent, a hero who needs his lady to inspire him to conquer evil forces. In contrast, the lady symbolizes all that is refined, soft, spiritual, high-minded, pure, and good, a lady who needs her knight to protect her and do for her (think, plan, act) what she does not believe herself capable of doing.
This love is less about loving someone; and more about being “in love” with:
- The idea of love itself.
- What the other is supposed to do to complete us and make us feel loved and valued.
- What each is supposed to do for the other that they cannot do for themselves (due their wounding; for him, the “feeling function” and, for her, the “doing function”).
And thus, whether openly or secretly in their heart, each regards the other as defective in some way, and this serves a purpose! It gives each a “purpose” in life that, in reality is only an illusion — that they can and must “save the other” (from wound, their defect, themselves, etc.).
An awakening of consciousness?
Romanticized love has less to do with love and compassion and more to do with being “in love” with love, a desperate seeking of completeness that only the other can provide. Therefore examining these assumptions, about what a relationship between a man and a woman “should” be, what men and women “should” feel, what each should “get out it” is a necessary undertaking.
These widespread notions are misleading at best, and block men and women from forming the emotionally fulfilling couple relationships they deserve. The prevalence of addictive relating, narcissism and codependency patterns between men and women speaks for itself.
Addictive behaviors are misguided attempts to meet core emotional needs for love and recognition, contribution and life purpose.
In contrast, genuine intimacy is mutually fulfilling, reciprocal and consciously engaging.
- It seeks to see, know and understand the other as a separate and complete being.
- It does not shrink from the pain inherent in knowing and being known intimately.
- It faces core fears as assets, and great teachers.
- It stretches us out of old comfort places into consciousness and healing.
Authentic intimacy and healthy relationships invite us to face our fears and old wounds, as opportunities to awaken the qualities essential to living healthy and happy lives: integrity, balance, empathy, compassion and unconditional acceptance of self and other.
To understand the love relationship between a man and a woman is to see it as an unfolding mystery, a path to consciousness, perhaps like no other, that leads lovers to see their own wounding in the willing eyes and heart of the other to be a holding place of compassion and understanding, hope and belief.
For men and women to closely look at these romanticized ideals, however, will require heroic efforts. It’s not easy to see the arbitrariness of these norms that we’ve been swimming in (for centuries). Change is challenging for our brains, as they are designed to resist straying from with the familiar (even when it is destructive in some way). More often than not, there is a strong tendency for us to not change until the pain of not changing becomes greater than changing.
Nevertheless, understanding ‘romanticized love’ is also an opportunity for men and women to explore both the transcendent beauty and potential of love relationships, as top notch schools for personal transformation, and the underlying belief system of romanticized love, as a set of contradictions, falsehoods and illusions that operate subconsciously to shape their behaviors, relationship, and the direction of their lives.
In the next post, Part 4, the discussion continues with a Jungian analysis of two Medieval tales that help us better understand the masculine wound and feminine wound.
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