In the Middle Ages, cartographers wrote “Here be dragons” to describe the world beyond what people had explored. Today, hundreds of years later, despite all the massive advances science and psychology have made, there are still many more dragons than not. We know very little compared to what we don’t. The unknown inhabits galaxies far away, the natural world around us, our communities and social systems and not least of all our own psyches, where it occupies what psychologists call the shadow, the place where light and dark intersect.
How we relate to the unknown is a core aspect of our personality. Are we inclined to retreat or pretend the darkness isn’t there? Do we confront it head-on or perhaps step forward? Does the unknown represent opportunity or danger? Is our basic attitude yes or no, positive or negative?
And, more directly to the point—how do we deal with the unknown in our relationships?
Over time, relationships become their own little gated compound, built for safety and routine. This is, perhaps no surprise, for better and for worse. It’s better because the same old same old creates security and this is something all mammals crave. It’s worse because it makes things stale. We are carnivores, not rabbits, and carnivores crave novelty and adventure—the venturing into adventure, the thrill of the hunt, the not-knowing if we’ll catch our prey.
After an extended spell of living together, we know our partner a bit too well. It’s all old hat—their mental and emotional patterns, their physical mannerisms, the tales they tell. To make matters all the more dreary, this familiarity typically unfolds within an equally predictable daily routine—the morning coffee, the kids to school and so on. It’s not just routine we have here, it’s concentric circles of routine.
The same experience, repeated again and again and again, stamps a message on the brain: “Nothing new here.” Over time, this causes our senses to grow dulled, our spirit to glaze over. We take our sentries off duty—we know all too well what’s out there, so keep an eye out for what?
When the balance between the known and the unknown tilts too much toward security, it can feel like a cage. From a Rilke poem about a panther in a zoo:
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Whether or not our will is mighty, we do get paralyzed. Security’s shadow side is an eroding of the wildness we crave.
This is one reason people have affairs, to re-discover novelty and newness—to feel alive again, to be set loose from their cage. When people get some ‘strange,’ it freshens stagnant waters and makes their primary relationship feel more tolerable.
There are, of course, downsides to infidelity, starting with betrayal. So how do you bring freshness into the close quarters of your long-term relationship without cheating? There are many ways, which we can divide into two broad categories—looking outside yourself for novelty, or going within.
Whichever direction we go in, we can do it alone or with our partner. People talk about dead relationships, but staleness doesn’t actually live inside the relationship—it lives inside the partners. When we bring novelty and discovery into our inner life, our relationship waters get freshened, too.
A common strategy for finding novelty outside ourselves is travel. A Moroccan bazaar, a Shinto shrine, a Costa Rican rainforest—stimulus changes like these can make us feel more alive, and when we experience them together, they can make us feel more alive together.
A more transgressive approach is to open the relationship sexually. Swingers have casual sex with others. Polyamorists also have sex outside the relationship, usually, but their relationships go deeper. These approaches are not for everyone and have their challenges. Yet they also offer a clear benefit—they deliver the new, the ‘strange,’ without the guilt and betrayal.
As for inner work, this is what spiritual seekers do, and personal-growth people, and artists.
“The artist is an underground observatory.”
Oh, and writers too, which happens to be my strategy. Every time I take keyboard in hand, I engage the unknown. It’s frustrating sometimes, but never tedious. Every foray wakes me up. They’re learning journeys, and even if on a given day I come up empty, the effort lights my synapses and leaves me feeling more alive. Writing is in this regard like weightlifting. Even if I don’t succeed at bench-pressing my desired weight, I’ll get the exercise I need just from trying.
Writing keeps me sane, and it’s also great for my relationship with Sheri. If I didn’t daily step into this encounter with not-knowing, I’d feel much more trapped in my cage and Sheri would have more occasions to want to hide behind the sofa.
All art and indeed all learning requires us to surrender control and step into ‘Here Be Dragons’ world. There are great rewards in doing this. Any work that puts us in a state of creative flow, be it art, entrepreneurship, scientific research or something else, is inherently liberating. It’s been said that the truth will set you free. Questing for the truth will do it, too.
There’s a foundational principle at work here: If you want to reverse relationship stagnation, reverse the stagnation in your soul.
“Man can learn nothing except by going from the known to the unknown.”
You don’t have to do your inner work alone. You can do it with a therapist, of course, and, although this may seem counter-intuitive, you can also do it with your partner. This is admittedly tricky stuff—you don’t want to be gumming up the works by playing therapist with each other or by activating ancient wounds. Still, if you keep it sensible, light and kind—if you make a game out of it—it can bring fresh light and life into the relationship.
And more fun, too.
Here’s an example of how couples can do this ‘serious play’ together. One of the great myths of our time is that each of us is a single self. No—we’re a single body containing multiple selves. I am a lover, a creator, a judge, a warrior, a wounded child, a playful child, a sentinel, a balanced soul, an unbalanced soul, and much more. A simple, fun way to do inner work together is to name your sub-personalities and those of your partner. Play nice, though! It’s okay to say, “I have an inner Bitch.” It’s not okay to say that about your partner, even if it’s one of their great talents.
Another area where couples can do productive work is around their sexual fantasies and desires. Let’s say I’m a closet foot fetishist. It’s be great for me and the relationship if I can share this with my partner and have my potentially shameful desire be accepted in a spirit of positivity. Ideally my partner whips off her high heels and says, “Have at ‘em!” Even if this isn’t her cup of worship, a validating response will help me be okay with myself about my illicit desire.
Doing inner work as a team has many benefits. It’s ‘therapy, light.’ When we haul previously unknown or unshared material into the light of day, it generates more intimacy—we know our partner better than we did. It injects freshness and novelty into the relationship, and better yet it does so at two levels—in the moment and more enduringly, by reminding the partners of the great Mystery that inhabits us all, including, even, our partner.
The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.
Doing inner work with your partner also reduces risk. It’s often unconscious material that sabotages relationships. It leaps out on you unaware, like a tiger or a dragon. “Where’d that come from?”—and the next thing you know, you’re deep into a tiff or your relationship is in trouble. It’s far better to integrate this material than to be waylaid by things that go “fuck you” in the night.
“My dark side, my shadow, my lower companion is now in the back room blowing up balloons for kids’ parties.”
Last but not least, playing inner-work games paves the way for more nuanced and loving communication. If I preface a remark by saying I’m speaking from my inner judge or inner wounded child, it provides information that will help the person I’m talking to frame an appropriate answer.
This program—all of it, top to bottom—comes with a prerequisite. You have to maintain a positive, proactive relationship with the unknown. You have to want to learn; you have to view humility, the awareness of how little you know, as a virtue; you have to be eager to expand and grow.
You have to want to conquer dragons like the heroes of old.
It’s great if one of you has this attitude. It’s better if it’s both.
Having a positive attitude toward the land of ‘Here Be Dragons’ is a good thing in its own right because positivity is a good thing in its own right. It’s bracing; it’s uplifting; it makes you more resilient. It’s also great for your relationship because … did I mention this already? … it’s bracing and uplifting and because it makes your relationship more resilient. To the extent that, as a team, you embrace the principle of ‘inquire and integrate,’ there’ll ultimately be less risk and less fear in your relationship, and best of all you’ll be aligning yourselves both as individuals and a couple with a basic truth about our lot in life, which is that every day takes us on a journey into the unknown, no matter what cages we build around us, and all our days added up take us into the greatest unknown of all—death.
We can hide from this, or step into it. It’s not really a close call.
“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.”