For the ego, all relationships are ultimately recreational.
They exist to accessorize the ego, add fun, gratification, entertainment, pleasure, comfort, convenience, utility to a person’s life, to provide escape. They are not there to add depth, challenge, greater awareness, growth, some necessary tension and discomfort, and prompt a more integrated and examined life.
But to the soul, a relationship becomes a vocation or a calling.
For the soul, a relationship is something we are called to invest ourselves in, nurture, care for, take responsibility for, work at. It is a means through which, aside from coming in contact with the depths or core of another human being, we come in greater contact with our own core / deeper truer self and come to know ourselves as we really are, behind all of our pretense, behind the self-serving effect of our distorted and biased self-images.
The ego values relationships because it gets to hide from itself in them and not see itself (or oneself) as it (one) is. Instead, in ego-based relationships, one gets to see oneself in a distorted way, as one would like to be seen (“mirror mirror on the wall, tell me I’m the fairest and nicest of them all” . . . ). Ego-based relationships—and these constitute the vast majority of human relationships—are based on mutual admiration societies, on people validating Photo-Shopped versions of each other.
In a more soulful relationship, we go there to discover more clearly who we really are, and who another really is, and to do this together, with as much compassion and understanding and courageous tough-minded honesty as possible. (In fact such relationships actually serve to help create and deepen our compassion and understanding and honesty.)
For the ego, an intimate relationship is a place where we go to get, to have our needs met and anticipated, to be understood, to be filled, and little more. The giving that takes place in ego-based relationships is giving that is designed to beget getting, receiving.
There is also give and take in a more soulful relationship, but the give and take are done with much greater awareness, understanding, tenderness, and compassion.
The ego wants perpetual emotional fueling—and to be able to maximize this—to be able to siphon as much fuel or energy (borrow functioning—see Schnarch’s wonderful discussion of this in “Passionate Marriage“) from the other person and not have to fuel him or her nearly as much in return. Ego-based relationships exist for the comfort and benefit of the ego, not the challenge or dissolution or transcendence of it, which is why for the ego others are always expendable, interchangeable, replaceable, and never truly real or unique.
But in a truly soulful or spiritual relationship, the other person becomes real. The other person becomes unique, irreplaceable, as important and essential to oneself as one’s own self is (and thus the self is actually transcended in such a relationship). This is why real intimacy is so risky–because it opens us up to an unprecedented amount of pain and heartbreak should the other person ever leave us or die.
Also, in a more soulful relationship, there is much more generosity and gratitude. We give much more freely and out of our abundance, our excess. It feels good to give; giving of oneself for a soulful person is like exhaling and just as necessary.
A soulful relationship is a vocation because it becomes an actual centerpiece in our lives (not something peripheral, not an accessory), a place where we make the fruits of our spiritual practice tangible and visible. If we have no real spirituality or spiritual path or practice, then our relationship will, by default, be an ego-based one based on self-interest and recreation, no matter how hard we might try to disguise the truth of this from ourselves and others, especially the other person we’re relating to and essentially strip-mining!
The soul or the spirit in us longs for a spiritual partnership—”someone to help us wake up, to challenge our blind spots, and be a companion and playmate on the journey.” (Charlotte Kasl, “If the Buddha Dated,” pg. 43.)
And such a relationship is exactly what the ego doesn’t want—the ego doesn’t want to wake up, to have to confront itself, to have its “narcissistic slumber” disturbed, to have its me-me-me (instead of we-we-we) approach to life called into question, to have to deal with its constant craving, its discursiveness, impulsivity, emotionality, reactivity, maladaptive patterns, and past (especially past hurts and wounds and shame). It doesn’t want any of this. Thus why the ego treats people expendably. As soon as it starts to get discovered in one place and seen for what it is—as soon as the flow of effortless gratification in a relationship dries up in one place—it jumps ship to go off to another place and another new someone and play its game of hide and take again with someone new.