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Brian O'Neill
December 22nd, 2004, 10:00 AM
Psychospiritual Development and the Couple


One of the hallmarks of theories of development, be they psychological or spiritual, is that a description of stages of progression are described.

This can be seen as a simple linear process when dealing with the physical development - i.e. the person grows UP. Psychologically the direction also seems to be in one direction - the person ACCUMULATES skills and knowledge and SEPARATE identity.

One could argue that these notions and directions of growth are dictated very much by the cultural, political and economic ground in which they are written - where directions of UP, SEPERATENESS, and ACCUMULATION are valued by the society.

Hence if you are small, enmeshed and poor you are not mature in some way - you haven’t achieved your potential.

Such underlying values rest on the importance to the individual ego of POWER, POSITION and PRESITGE - in short the need of the ego to dominate the environment including those around him or her.




Metanoia as Development


The notion of a “mid-life” crisis often typifies this as being a stage where the initial and quite necessary development of the person into a separate adult ego is now precipitated into a series of one of more crises which rock this state of development and require a return to previous states with this new state of being. In spiritual terms this is well recognized as a process of metanoia - a pivotal process of re-turning and re-connecting to that which we have separated from - the prodigal son returns.


The initial experience of “oneness” with another and then a resultant split from this “oneness” has been described by a number of people across the ages.

Wordsworth the poet writes poetically of our birth being but sleep where we leave the oneness with the all to come into the life of being an individual -


“ Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere it’s setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:”

Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood,
William Wordsworth




Kunkel and “WE-Psychology”


As a psychotherapist Victor Kunkel writes of this separation from an experience of one-ness at the mother child level. He discusses the nature of this original split from an experience of “we-ness” and the resultant development and/or pathology which can result.

Kunkel termed his psychology We-Psychology and was a developmentally based notion of the person. He notes that we do not begin as separate egos or selves per se but exist in an initial experience of confluence termed the We-Experience.

This shared experience is particularly apparent with the mother, and also exists with the father and family as a whole. As the person and their ego develop they inevitably breach this Original-We experience and this is unavoidable and part of the developmental process.

Eventually this experience returns as the Mature-We experience where the person reclaims their sense of unity with others.

It is the breaching of this Original-We experience and it’s impact on the developing ego that is so interesting in Kunkel’s work. Where the person in their development does not adjust well to the breach, they develop patterns of egocentricity that have one of two results – the person either clings to the Original-We therefore they do not discover their own individuality and cannot enter into a Maturing-We OR their individuality shifts and becomes centered on the Ego and avoids progressing beyond this.

Kunkel defines four basic ego patterns which arise as a result of this developmental breaching process as the Clinging Vine; the Star; Nero and the Turtle. These are ego patterns we can experience and identify with in some part, in some relationships, at certain times, with some people.

I will describe each of these patterns briefly so you can get the gist of each, yet Kunkel gives a much fuller description.

The Clinging Vine:

In this pattern the person feels or believes that because of being weak and helpless they are entitled to be helped. They may feel that without others help they would suffer in unbearable ways. So patterns develop of being helpless and being helped and hence egocentric success is through suffering. When no one is available to pity and comfort them, they pity and comfort themselves.

The Star:

The Star attains egocentric aims of dominating by clever and peaceful means. As a radiant, joyous, gifted star of the family, this person becomes the sovereign through grace and beauty and others do and must pay homage to the royal child.

Yet like all prima donnas, the Star is vainglorious, fickle and conceited and feel they cannot live without being recognized as foremost, and most important. To secure this the Star becomes an expert at human nature and how to handle the public to maintain Star status.


The Nero:

In this case the child grows up in a harsh environment and learns how to deal with difficult circumstances – to seek their own ends and ways to achieve them. Initially this is through “managing” his parents and later dominating others without regard for their welfare.

They are not interested in pleasing their public like the Star, but in direct power to obtain their own egocentric goals. The highest principle of the Nero is “My own will be done”.


The Turtle:

If a child grows up in a harsh environment but without the drive of the Nero they may instead develop attitudes of the Turtle. The child begins to abandon effort and diminish needs in the face of not getting what they want or need.

Their capacities are undeveloped and hindered by many inhibitions. A growing sense of inferiority grows and the person more and more passively withdraws so that a hard and passive egocentric nature develops.



So from Wordsworth comes the notion that our soul splits from the oneness of God, and from Kunkel the psychological theory that our soul and body split from the oneness of our mother.

Kunkel also connects his psychological theory with his spiritual/religious sense of development and offers a spiritual as well as a psychological model. In a beautiful statement of this he writes -


“Our creative centre, the Self, is our positive relationship to God. Our Selfhood is the experience of our dependence on and our support by God whom we know only partially. We realise creative power if we live from our real centre. Then we are channels of creation. If we lose our Selfhood and our positive relation to the Creator, we are cut off from any new influx of power. And the power which is left, as it were, flows back into eternity. The ebb of this power is what we feel as anxiety.”

Selected Writings
Fritz Kunkel, page 62





Two of the most prominent Gestalt therapist trainers and writers, Erv and Miriam Polster, share a similar view to that of Kunkel’s developmental process. They write of this process as an initial state of being “at one” and then leaving this state being and entering a developmental path of individuality.

“ In the womb we had it made. All we had to do is swim in the benevolent environment. The catch was that growth beyond a certain limit put an end to the tenancy; we had to get out and willy nilly, learn to make our own way in a less solicitous world.
Since our umbilicalectomy, each of us has become separate beings, seeking union with that which is other than ourselves.”


Gestalt Therapy Integrated
Polster and Polster, page 99




The Path of Individuality

So we begin by a split from God, a split from the womb and the umbilical cord and a split from our collective “we-ness” of mother, father and family.

Developmentally this split from our parents and then family as we move towards a greater sense of individuality is clearly in a direction of thinking, feeling and acting separate from the environmental field. At this point many modern day developmental psychologists and psychotherapists are able to take up the developmental processes and in a number of maps outline possible developmental stages of this individuation.

Yet the flaw in many of these theories from a spiritual perspective lies in the very root of where the classic theorists take up the reins of the developmental story.

Those who with a physical developmental focus come to a halt when they reach adulthood as from here the physical development is really now a process of degeneration. For those who begin with the psychological reality of a separate ego, they then reach an impasse as they approach death, as what sort of development might this offer?

By only focusing on development from a body or mind perspective the theorists eventually reach a dead end where no further development seems possible, unless the spiritual dimension is included.

Psychotherapists such as Kunkel however offer us a developmental process of returning to the “we” experience later in life through a metanoia - a turn around in the developmental process to return to source. And Wordsworth offers us the hint of a developmental process later in life which returns us to our experience of God.



The Spiritual Life of the Couple as One


Physically and psychologically the re-emergence of the possibility of a “oneness” experience through becoming a couple holds such great growth and developmental promise. The very act of physical joining through sex, coupled then with the resultant emotional, mental, social and spiritual possibilities offers a rich cascading effect that is truly spiritual in nature and source.

Now not all Gestalt therapists would extent this as far as I offer here. Yet the potential to do this and make this part of the literature and field of Gestalt therapy is the synthesis offered.

Certainly Swedenborg’s writings on Conjugial Love clearly accommodate this notion of coupling as spiritual development.

Let us say then that at this point, from a perspective which is more inclusive, there is a developmental stage which happens spiritually and psychological where a person feels the urge to connect and live in an ongoing way with another. At this point the two individuals are now challenged to operate as a one - a “couple”. Even young kids recognise this when they want to know “are we going out together” or as the movies put it are we an “item”.

From Kunkels model we see that this is indeed part of a developmental process wherein this initial experience of “we-ness” is being returned to but now as a mature “we-ness”. And spiritually this is a return to a oneness that Wordsworth identifies as our true home.

So much spiritual literature and mystical experience and writing has been devoted to the individual’s experience of union with the Divine - often in terms which can be emotive, ineffable and illusive - and certainly individual this writing is about the individual’s experience of oneness.

The Hindus come a little closer in their mystical writings of Shiva and Shakti and Rama and Sita and in the nature of the four stages of life of a Hindu - childhood and student house holder, forest dweller and ascetic.

There are elements in all religions which in some form honour the spiritual nature of coupling. This honouring of the of the sacred aspect of coupling and two being as one is most beautifully displayed in the more modern writings of Kahlil Gibran when he speaks in The Prophet of marriage -


“You were born together, and together you shall be forever more,
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days,
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.”


The Prophet
Kahlil Gibran



Psychologically the modern equivalent of this spiritual respect and focus for the couple in found in authors such as the popular M. Scott Peck. Much of his initial best seller, The Road Less Traveled, is not only a discussion of the individual and their spiritual development but of the role of love and relationship.

He also echoes Swedenborg in the difference between initial Eros or sexual love and the transition to the deeper struggle and satisfaction of an enduring couples relationship and the resultant spiritual development. However he does not move to the perspective that is unique to Conjugial love and possible in Gestalt therapy - that the couple truly become a one.


Psychotherapeutic and spiritual approaches which offer direction, support etc at these times are of course beneficial, yet they leave out such an important aspect of this process if they do not consider the core role of coupling.

For it is with the couple not just the individual that this metanoia needs to take place, an indeed the couple paradoxically offers the individual the richness of ground in which to attend to their individual developmental needs.

For is we begin our life story with the oneness with the Divine (Wordsworth) and our oneness with another (Kunkel and Polsters) we see in Conjugial Love and Gestalt therapy couples work the potential to attend practically to the developmental issues of both the individual AND the couple they have become.

In some ways a metaphor is useful here. To only attend to the individuals in this process is a little like watching a puppet show and not acknowledging the puppeteer. Yet this metaphor may be too strong a challenge to our individual egos to accept. Another Hindu metaphor is that we can look at the individual fingers or the hand they complete.

It is this very loss of self while remaining individual, and which is possible in coupling and raising children, that is the core developmental challenge and process which we are attending to here.

While the initial direction of this development was one of individuation, this metanoia calls for a return to oneness and for many people in coupling and therapy this is scary. It goes to challenge the core of our separate sense of self and for a while we may tolerate it in sexual love making or in intimate states of gardening or looking after each other as a couple.

However it is the times that such potential loss of ego control and function are called into sharp relief that we rebel and struggle and enter into the developmental processes of coupling.

As the Gestalt therapists Erv and Miriam Polster state -

“Contact is not just togetherness or joining. It can only happen between separate beings always requiring independence and always risking capture in the union. At the moment of union, one’s fullest sense of his person is swept along into a new creation. I am no longer only me, but me and thee make we.”

Gestalt Therapy Integrated
Polster and Polster, page 99


The Polsters however are writing from a sense of individuality as they go on to say that this “we-ness” is in name only. They continue in this more individualistic perspective when they talk about their sense of risking capture in the union and gambling with the dissolution of individuality and wagering independent existence.




Freedom - Individuality and Union

As the Polsters continue in this chapter they write about individuality and union as two polarities and they talk about the freedom of individuality or separateness. As I read this I do not know if they intend this as a bias but it does read like a bias to me. If individuality is freedom then what is union?

Such notions of the freedom of individuality bring to mind the male ethos of putting a ball and chain on the bride groom on his bucks night, and the notion of “having a last fling” or “sowing your wild oats”. This is a freedom of sexuality which we could title the Freedom pf Eros, yet this is not the freedom that the Polsters speak of per se. Clearly they are talking about the freedom of being who you are, of not being tied down to or influenced by the “other” particularly those who are close to us like our family.

Yet it also interesting to consider what freedom exists in union and particularly in the love of a couple.

Certainly marriage and partnering for most people, be they heterosexual or gay and lesbian, usually brings with it the monogamous relationship of living and loving with the other. In traditional marriage and de facto relationships this is almost universally the norm and clearly depicted as so in the art, literature and media of our culture.

So what freedom exists in coupling or marriage?

Swedenborg’s answer to this is most poetic. He states -


“The only freedom possible is the freedom of love. And I have heard from angels that the freedom of true married love is the ultimate freedom because it is the love of loves” (CL 257)

What a profoundly simple yet deeply complex statement - the only freedom is the freedom of love.

So this would indicate that where our love lies, there also lies our freedom. If we are in the strong throws of Eros then freedom will quite simply be the ability to be with as many people as we wish. If we are in love of our self then freedom will be to achieve whatever it is that gives us what we need.

And if we are in love with another then freedom will be to give and be with that other in a way that puts their needs and welfare above our own. Which is of course a mirror and an image of the love we receive from the Divine.