The Ego versus the Soul in Relationships

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.

the-velveteen-rabbit-by-margery-williams - combined - 4

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.



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 "If the Buddha Dated", "Real", "The Velveteen Rabbit", Charlotte Kasl, Intimacy, Intimate Relationships, Margery Williams, Mature Love, Mental Health, Real Love, Spiritual Growth, Truth, Waking Up, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Ego versus the Soul in Relationships

  1. slklesko says:

    Amazing wisdom here, as always. I am working on a blog about marriage for my upcoming wedding anniversary. Do you mind if I borrow some of your knowledge (and link to your website)?

    • John says:

      Of course, SL, you’re more than welcome to borrow some of the knowledge and wisdom here…. Borrow away freely and just link back to my sight and the relevant posts. All of these words and ideas are here to help, to inspire, to motivate, to provoke some real thinking and reflection and self-improvement!
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Melissa says:

    Absolutely loved it!!! Kudos John 🙂

    • John says:

      Thank you, Melissa, you are very kind 🙂 And sorry for not responding to you message of a couple of months ago–I had some on again off again drama on the homefront to deal with.
      I hope you are well, and thank you for reading and commenting. And soon I will respond to your other comment 🙂
      Warmest regards,

  3. Sylvia says:

    Hi John,

    I am entering a relationship where my guy is very spiritual, i dont really know if he is holding back, or if he wants me. It is scary to have expectations, but my anxiety wants to ask him, yet im afraid that his position is a “whatever” centeredness. Many times i feel i am giving him too much attention, and he’s just enjoying it. I need advise



    • John says:

      Hello Sylvia,

      A very belated thank you for reading and commenting, and for your question.

      How are things now in your relationship?

      Many thoughts and questions came to mind in reading your comment, Sylvia.

      First off, intimacy is about revealing yourself, being open, saying what’s really on your mind, getting down to the heart of the matter. It takes a lot of courage to be intimate–to risk opening ourselves and risk being rejected by another because they don’t like what they see or what we have shared or what we’re about.

      But what’s the alternative? To shut down and close ourselves off a bit? To live afraid? To shrink and pretend to be someone we’re not? And to be loved for being this person we’re not?

      Intimacy is about being who you are, Sylvia, and letting the other person know what you stand for and believe in and truly want out of life and out of a relationship. Intimacy is not about being a fake you or a semi-you and watering yourself down so that another person will find you more desirable, palatable, acceptable (although that *is* how most people enter into relationships–misrepresenting themselves, putting their best foot forward, sending out what Chris Rock calls their “representative”).

      If this guy is truly spiritual, then he will likely understand all (most, some) of this and be looking for all (most) of this. If he’s not truly spiritual, and only appears to be spiritual, then he will be looking more to see what he can get out of a relationship, rather than what he can give to another person and what he can give to a relationship.

      Relationships are about giving–the quality of our giving. They’re a place where we go because we get to give of ourselves, share ourselves, be ourselves, and the other person not only puts up with us well, but enjoys most of it, plays well with us, plays well off of who we are and what we’re bringing to the table, and vice versa.

      If you sense that your relationship is one-sided then really look into that, investigate that, see if it’s true. If it, then maybe you have mis-assessed your partner, maybe he is not as “spiritual” as you first thought (many people aren’t–real spirituality is a darn rare thing; real spirituality is about growing as a person, becoming a better person, dealing better and better with life and with reality. But sadly, most/many people turn to spirituality as an escape, as a way of trying to avoid reality and life difficulties and as a way of trying to pad their own ego and appear as something better and more elevated than they actually are.)

      So look into your gut feelings about this and really investigate it. Is your guy truly more of a taker than a giver? Is he truly spiritual? these two things are not compatible.

      Best wishes, Sylvia, and thank you for reading and commenting.


  4. janeadamsart says:

    Very clear post this, John, I dropped onto it by a link on my blog just now.
    ” It feels good to give; giving of oneself to a soulful person is like exhaling and just as necessary” – that is beautifully put.
    Hope you enjoyed my sheep and goats – it started as a comment on your latest, then it went on a bit, so I made it into a post, and pinged you! Love and best wishes this New Years Eve

  5. Judy says:

    A friend shared this link with me and it was such a helpful distinction for me. It helped me understand why giving was so enjoyable for me and also see why my boyfriend and I came to an impasse – we were coming from these two different orientations. Seeing this so clearly helps me become more courageous in nurturing my soul. Thank you.

  6. Pingback: What Makes a True Relationship? | Natural Pure Living

  7. Pingback: Soothing the ego | Salon du Cyber Muse

  8. Hi John,

    Just to let you know your post inspired a post of my own. Feel free to comment!


  9. Pingback: Coffee with Marie – Ego vs. Soul Love in Relationships | Alive Again! Positive Living

  10. Andreas says:

    I agree with most of what you write. But I wonder about this part: “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). ” In what way is the ego transcended? What happens if the other person suddenly leaves you, betrays you? Will you still be able to feel unconditional love for that person, or will your previous feelings turn into feelings of sorrow, anger or even hatred? In what way was then the ego transcended from the beginning?

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