Are You in a Conscious or an Unconscious Relationship?


Our intimate relationships and friendships (even family relationships between adults) can be characterized as being either conscious or unconscious.

A conscious relationship is organized around two people’s highest values and principles; it is governed by their consciences, by their sense of right and wrong, mental health and unhealth.  It is the opposite of the unexamined relationship.  Instead, it is a very honest and examined relationship.  Both people want to be their best—both for themselves and to and for each other—and they prove this;  they leave no doubt in each other’s mind.  Both people in the relationship are conscious of what they stand for, what they aspire to, what they believe in, what their core convictions are, and they demonstrate these beliefs, values, core convictions and principles deliberately and consistently.  When two people who are in a conscious relationship disagree, they do so in a cooperative and truth-seeking way instead of a competitive and adversarial ego-filled way.  Disagreements are about what’s right, not who’s right—about what’s right and why, not who’s right.  No one is keeping score, both people are dedicated to the truth, both people are on a common quest for truth, Love, real growth.

An unconscious relationship, on the other hand, is a very a reactive relationship.  However, characterizing a relationship as being reactive doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be unhappy and conflictual.  The tenor and tone of an unconscious relationship will be determined largely by the temperament of the two people in it and the amount of psychopathology or mental unhealthy each brings to it.  If both people are relatively easy-going, conflict-avoidant, kind and mild and trusting, the reactivity in the relationship may be very mutually enjoyable and the relationship may be a very happy and satisfying one.  If the two people are more contentious and anxious and distrustful, if they are more volatile emotionally and prone to anger and frustration, if there is mental unhealthy or psychopathology present in one or both, then the reactivity in the relationship will be more volatile.  In which case, exchanges and disagreements will be predominated by the presence of defense mechanisms, projection, transferences, blaming, scapegoating.  And the relationship itself, regardless of whether the reactivity is largely positive or negative, will be characterized by an external locus of control and both people always acting out on or in congruence with their moods and emotions and feelings.  Because in an unconscious relationship love will always be ultimately defined as a feeling—the people in the relationship may try to define it differently verbally, but in reality, if you look at their actions, love will always be based on first feeling loving—feeling loving will precede acting lovingly or warm—when the person feels warm and loving he or she will act out on this feeling and act warm and loving; when the person feels unloved and unvalidated, the person will self-righteously act out immaturely on this feeling of not being “OK”. 

The level of development of conscience in an unconscious relationship is very low (preconventional or conventional [Kohlberg], mostly people do the right thing to gain approval/validation or to avoid negative consequences).  The level of partner engagement is thus also very low—the other person is not seen as and or treated like a real person, but is treated at best like a prop or a tool to be used in one’s roundabout (or indirect) attempts to self-medicate and control one’s moods—the person tries to control one’s moods and feelings by trying to excessively control one’s surroundings and environment, including one’s “partner,” instead of the much more difficult and rare—and psychologically and emotionally mature—path of learning to control oneself and self-regulate and master oneself directly and internally instead of indirectly and externally.

An unconscious or reactive relationship characterizes ALL teenage relationships (Romeo & Juliet, Twilight, Titanic, every Katy Perry ad nauseam song), as well as the vast majority of marriages and intimate relationships of people in their 20’s, a slightly lesser vast majority of intimate relationships and marriages of people in their 30’s, and so on, meaning that as people grow older, more and more people (still a very small minority) have the tendency to become more self-aware and mindful, and thus able to consciously direct and control their own behavior and limit their emotional reactivity and baggage in an intimate relationship.

In those very rare cases that an intimate relationship is a conscious relationship and based on conscious motivations, then it will be steeped in intention, reflection, dialogue, meaningful conversation, trust, openness, honesty, transparency.  It will be guided by well though-out life principles, meaning it will in all likelihood be guided by a well-developed conscience (Kohlberg’s level 5 or 6 stage of moral development)—it will be steeped in compassion (putting yourself in the other person’s shoes), understanding (seeking first to understand rather than to be understood), leading by example, treating the other as an equal (loving the other as oneself), the golden rule (doing unto the other as you would want done unto you if the situation were reversed), the silver rule (not doing unto another as you would not want done unto you if you were in the same situation), et cetera. 

The goal of a truly conscious and loving relationship will be the development of the virtues, the psychospiritual growth of each, transcendence of the ego, Truth, Love, objectivity, mental health, clarity, and awakening.

Keep company with the wise
follow the illuminated ones—
the awakened, the wise, the loving—
for they know how to work and be patient and forbear;
follow them, like a sailor at night follows the stars.

If you can find a virtuous and wise companion
go with him joyfully and gratefully
and overcome the dangers on the way.

But if in your course, you do not find a friend
or master to go with you—
if don’t meet your equal or your better—
then continue your course,
firmly, alone.
There’s no fellowship with fools.
(Buddha, adapted from the Dhammapada)

To the extent that a relationship is ruled by unconscious motivations and actions and reactions, then there is proportionally as much room for non-love, anti-love, hate, indifference/apathy, to enter into the relationship and take control of it, because the relationship is based on feelings and emotional reactivity, transference and projection, rather than awareness, conscience, principles and virtues. 

The type of love that St. Paul talks about in First Corinthians, chapter 13, verses 4 to 7, is not love “the feeling,” or the level of “love” that is the basis of an unconscious relationship.  Rather St. Paul is talking about conscious, deliberate, principle-driven, conscience-guided Love and what it takes to transform automatic/reactive/feeling-based love into a much more mature type of love—conscious Love:

Real love is patient, genuine love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not inflated. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered or quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury.  Mature love does not delight over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, perseveres through all things.

And for the full effect of this, fill in the blanks with your name:

________ is patient

________ is kind

________ isn’t envious

________ doesn’t brag or boast.

________ isn’t inflated or pompous

________ isn’t rude

________ isn’t self-centered or self-seeking, but rather

________ is considerate and giving,

________ thinks win-win.

________ is compassionate

________ seeks first to understand than to be understood

________ does not delight in wrongdoing but

________ rejoices with the truth

________ is not quick-tempered or easily triggered into anger

________ is not petty or resentful

________ does not brood over injury, but rather

________ is forgiving

________ is appreciative and grateful

________ is persevering and forbearing

Or make them into “I” statements:

I AM patient, I AM kind, I AM not envious, I do not brag or boast.  I AM not self-important, inflated or pompous.  I AM not rude, I AM not self-centered or self-seeking, rather I AM considerate and giving and generous.  I AM learning how to think win-win and look out for others as well as myself.  I AM compassionate. I AM learning to seek first to understand rather than to be understood.  I do not delight in wrongdoing; I rejoice in the truth.  I AM not quick-tempered or easily triggered into anger; I AM not petty or resentful.  I do not brood over injury; rather I AM forgiving, I AM appreciative and grateful, I AM persevering and forbearing, I have perspective, I AM not living and loving as if life goes on forever; I AM not taking others for granted, I AM not taking myself or my life for granted, I AM not taking my health and my abilities for granted.  I AM thankful and appreciative, I AM kind and giving and generous.

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About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, Conscience, Conscious Love, Courage, Differentiation, Emotional Maturity, Gratitude, Immature Love, Intimate Relationships, Kohlberg, Love, Love is Not a Feeling, Mature Love, Mental Health, Prayer of St. Francis, Spiritual Growth, Waking Up, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Are You in a Conscious or an Unconscious Relationship?

  1. Great post! I especially like the last fill-in-the-blank section. That was a nice pick-me-up. 🙂

    • John says:

      Thanks Erin for your comments. I appreciate them. And what a much more wonderful world it would be if more of the human race practiced a daily affirmation along the lines of that fill-in-the-blank section and lived that affirmation! . . . it would be the stuff of a Louie Armstrong song! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Which Mind Are You Using… | Houston Vetter – DocResults Blog

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