How Spirituality Undermines Relationships

Ryan Ginn Relationships

It’s a very common issue that two people in a relationship don’t have the same spiritual practices, beliefs, and ideologies. I often see couples struggling with the challenges that come with this, and the various expectations we place on ourselves and each other as a result. With this in mind, I want to attempt to offer some context for what I see couples struggling with when it comes to incorporating their spiritual practices and beliefs into the relationship.

Translating vertical relationships to the horizontal realm

A certain subset of spiritual practitioners, such as yogis, Buddhists, meditators, and other similarly-devotional folks, often struggle with spiritual differences in relationships because they feel that they’ve already done the work to reach these deep states of union, of transcending the sense of self. It’s a place that holds great meaning and acts as a source of wonderful restoration. 

The spiritual practices these folks engage with, whether it’s meditation, dancing, reciting mantras, reading, or contemplation, are what I think of as their “vertical” practices. These practices help the individual connect their sense of self with something bigger – with the divine, with Awareness or whatever you want to call it. Engaging with these practices expands the sense of self and relieves the contraction and smallness that can be a great source of suffering. It’s a liberating thing to have the ability to experience these truths and insights. 

Where the challenge lies is in translating with these self transcending practices to the realm of relationships . For many people who have had wonderful transcendental experiences of peace and love it can be frustratingly elusive to translate those experiences into relationships, particularly with one’s primary relationship. 

The primary relationship is much different than any of our other relationships

Once we’ve been in a relationship for about 6 months to a year, we start to experience and use (unconsciously) the other person as a proxy for all of our previous relationships and attachments, such as our relationship with our primary caregivers. Our long-term partner ends up becoming a projection surface for all of our pain and the woundings that are associated with those older relationships. This is an unconscious and inevitable occurrence – there’s no switch off there.

Because we have turned our partner into a projection surface, we experience a gap between our connections and our mutuality. We experience ourselves as loving, compassionate, open, kind, and connected to source in our regular lives, but then we come home and immediately we’re hateful, protective, reactive, and involuntarily projecting. And that’s a very disturbing realization for many people. 

There’s not a lot of information out there about helping folks navigate that experience and the moment where they end up in this projective space. The best way I can explain it is, it’s a different situation now – it’s horizontal when you’re used to being in that vertical plane, feeling connected and grounded and secure. When you get home and move into this horizontal plane with your partner, you’re in a different dimension of life – of existence, even – and it requires a different set of principles and guiding behaviors than any other dimension of your life.  

Developing your guiding principles

This new set of guiding principles can be anything, really, but they are all organized around creating security in the relationship. Through the use of these principles, you can become an expert on your partner over time, and you can learn all about the things that, in the moment, help your partner feel secure. 

These practices could dictate how you look at your partner, how you approach them, and how you listen to them in conflict, to ensure their perspective is heard and their feelings are taken into account.

Examples of these kind of practices, so it’s not too abstract. Note that these are drawn from the PACT Secure Functioning Principles.

  • Coming to each others aid when in distress
  • Protecting each other in public 
  • Putting your relationship first over all other passing fancies of the self
  • Intentionally showing a friendly face to your partner when they feel threatened by something you said or did (even when you don’t feel like it)
  • Correct all errors, including injustices and injuries, at once or as soon as possible, and not make dispute of who was the original perpetrator. 
  • Become an expert on your partner master the ways of seduction, influence, and persuasion, without the use of fear or threat.

Neither partner can do it alone

It doesn’t work if you simply tell your partner you don’t like what they’re doing, and that they need to be more mindful or more active in their own work so that you don’t have to deal with their emotionality. You have to recognize that you are in a different position in this horizontal relationship, one in which you are also partly responsible for learning how to create a culture of security between the two of you. It’s them for you, and you for them. 

It’s actually a lot harder to do this than to practice your spiritual practices on your own. It’s natural to want our partner to “fix themselves” and not be such a “burden” to us, but we have to recognize that by being in a long-term relationship, we are actually choosing to be a burden to each other and to be there for each other over time so that we have someone we feel deeply safe with. 

That’s the pact you enter into when you elevate your relationship to primary status. You’re creating an atmosphere of safety and trust for your nervous systems to work together in tandem. 

Our relational practices and our spiritual practice are not mutually exclusive, but it can be hard to translate them across this gap. I get that. But I’m here to tell you, it’s worth the investment. If you want help figuring this out, feel free to reach out and book a call: