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by Alyce BarryPaul Dunion has been a marriage counselor in private practice for 25 years. He's the author of the new book Shadow Marriage: A Descent Into Intimacy, which offers brilliant and reassuring insights for couples. Paul and his wife, Connie, lead weekend retreats that reframe marriage not as a quest for happiness but as the hero's journey, where "irreconcilable differences" are cause for adventure instead of divorce. Paul and Connie, who live in Franklin, Connecticut, were attending the Advanced Facilitator Training and talked with me over breakfast.
A RELIEF TO COUPLES
"People asked me if the subtitle, 'Descent Into Intimacy,' was going to scare people," Paul says from the other side of a bare butcher-block table.
In his fifties, with close-cropped, graying hair, Paul has a commanding gaze and a slight New England accent. His wife, Connie, slim with short hair, sits on his right next to a window through which we can see a cloudless Colorado sky.
Paul pours himself some water from a carafe. "I said to them, 'When we translate the chapters into retreats, they're not scaring people at all. People are feeling relief. Marriage is getting framed in this book as a very intense initiation. The usual attitude is that there's something screwed up about you, hence your marriage isn't working."
When you marry, Paul continues, "you've stepped into something that's probably the most intense initiation on the planet. You might not have the tools to handle such an initiation, but that doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. We see the relief in couples all the time."
Paul's career as a writer began with the publication of several articles, which he realized could become chapters in a book. After a discouraging foray into the world of mainstream publishing, he decided, in Connie's words, "to self-publish to have the book available to his clients, because people are asking for copies." Shadow Marriage is for sale at Amazon.com, and there's a link to the Amazon page at his own website, www.pauldunion.com. He and Connie expect to sell copies through their workshops as well, and a book-signing party will take place October 7 in Connecticut.
WHAT'S SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN
The couple base their work in part on the ideas of David Schnarch, author of Passionate Marriage and Resurrecting Sex after attending one of his workshop for couples in Loveland, Colorado. (They describe the first book as academic, the second as easier to read.)
"Schnarch's idea is that what happens in marriage is what's supposed to happen," Connie says. "Everyone gets stuck in these gridlocks; it's how you deal with them that counts."
"Yeah," Paul adds, laughing, "you're supposed to get bombed, it's part of the deal. Get a helmet, and learn to duck!"
"In the workshop we took," Connie continues, "with probably ten couples, he was asking us how sexual we were with our partners. There were a lot of couples who at some point in their relationship had stopped being sexual and never even had a conversation about it. Twenty years later, they're living together, maybe in separate rooms, and never talking about it. This is normal for most people."
"That surprised me, when I heard that, actually," Paul interjects.
"People end up getting divorced," Connie says, "instead of using it as an opportunity. Paul's book takes the pathology out of it, I feel."
"I try to," says Paul. "My book holds marriage as an initiation and looks at three specific stages of that initiation: separation, trial and return. The stages are mostly from Joseph Campbell. I identify some of the resources necessary during the trial. What does it mean to endure that trial not as a victim but as part of the hero's journey?
SHADOWS IN MARRIAGE
"I called the book Shadow Marriage mostly because I think it's shadow material that goes unaddressed in most marriages, and that material becomes corrosive in an unaddressed way."
"It is the essential business of the soul to make peace with what has been discarded and shunned. Soul ... [longs] for itself, endlessly welcoming all its many faces." (page 30)Paul enumerates the chapters he likes most. "The chapter on power gets very specific about abuses of power, and abdication of power, which I think often goes unaddressed as a power issue in a marriage. The chapter on regression shows how regression plays out in a marriage. The chapter on shame shows how unconscious shame impacts intimacy. I haven't seen that talked about before. Even Gershen Kaufman and John Bradshaw don't say much about the impact of shame on a relationship."
Another chapter is on coping with diversity, which Paul feels is critical for most couples. "With many couples I've worked with, they actually become overwhelmed about how diverse their partner really is. They're just blown away. Especially because all the initial stuff in the relationship is what you have in common. After six months, you're saying, 'Oh my God, where the hell are from you from? You actually believe those things?' It's shocking to most people."
NOT MEANT TO BE RECONCILED
With his next statement, Paul shocks me. "In this book, 'irreconcilable differences' become a great reason to stay together. Rather than a legal reason to get divorced."
"What?" I mutter.
Paul points to the quotation at the beginning of the book, by Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig:
"A writer who creates meaningful works does not want to become happy, he wants to be creative. Likewise married people can seldom enjoy happy, harmonious marriages, as psychologists would force it upon them and lead them to believe. The image of the 'happy marriage' causes great harm.""That quote," Paul says, "is woven through the whole book. Guggenbuhl-Craig switches the paradigm from happiness to creativity. So 'irreconcilable differences' become an enormous opportunity to both self-create and co-create. They will call upon more resources in an individual and in a couple than they've ever experienced in their lives. In my opinion, the irreconcilable differences aren't supposed to be reconciled; that's not their intent. They're supposed to call forward parts of you that you never knew you had."
"Shadow marriage is an invitation to identify and embrace the reality of marriage. It is an attempt to steal back from the gods this most human experience we call marriage and restore it to its rightful place, where we might see that marriage is frightening, messy, confusing, dangerous, and delightful." (page 23)
Before going into private practice, Paul taught philosophy for a dozen years and ultimately befriended psychologists at the same college who showed him how the philosophies he loved (phenomenology and existentialism) "could have application in a very significant way." He went back to school for a doctorate and became involved in men's work, attending what he calls "shadow retreats for men" as long ago as 1979. He began working with men individually, and in the early 1990s created a mentoring project for high school boys. "Some people called it a prototype," he says modestly.
These days, one of Paul's core practices is what he calls "radical accountability." He's less interested in regressing what happened in the past than what's happening in the present.
"Regardless of where the shadow comes from, I ask, Let's acknowledge that shame got reproduced; what are you going to do about this situation today? If I hear an old wound speaking very loudly, I'll recommend the person go do some work on that. You've got to make a decision about how you're going to take care of yourself tomorrow morning with this lady who's waking up next to you."
He works with one partner while the other witnesses. "If the person I'm working with starts to describe a trauma from years ago, in which he was the victim, I say, 'So tell me how you took care of yourself during that trauma.' That way, he never gets to represent his partner as the heavy perpetrator."
That's not what couples generally want, he adds. "They keep wanting to get back to how screwed up their partner is. What interests me is, What is self-empowerment going to look like with this character you live with? How effective was it? Would you do it again? Would you change it in any way?"
THEIR OWN ISSUES
Paul smiles at Connie beside him. "At the end of my first marriage, I was thrilled. I told myself, After twenty-five years, this work on my issues with my mother has got to be done now, right? I married Connie, and I kept looking at her, and saying, 'This is great!' Then one day I looked over and said, 'My God, I married my father!'" He laughs. "I didn't expect that."
The two of them were in for a surprise when they began leading their own retreats. "I thought the most helpful thing we could offer," Paul chuckles, "was insight from one of the chapters, or some very profound exercise. It's not! It's when we start disclosing the shadow in our own relationship. All of a sudden, everybody comes to the edge of their seats. They're glued to us. We could do that for a whole day, and they would consider it a major win! It's amazing how it turns people on. They'll tell me for weeks, 'Oh God, it was so great to hear how you screwed that up, or how Connie did this or that.'"
Connie chimes in. "We want them to know we're in there, too. We're just like they are. There are so many workshops where the facilitators don't reveal anything about themselves. I think a lot of couples are scared to come to our workshops because they're afraid of revealing what's not right about their relationship in front of other people. If you can get them to the workshop, they can see they don't have to feel bad about it, they have the same problems we do."
"They have permission to be more exploratory about themselves," Paul comments.
He leans close to Connie with a grin and squeezes her arm. "I like talking about your shadows."
They both laugh.
You can find Paul's book Shadow Marriage at Amazon.com. Paul's website, www.pauldunion.com, features a calendar of book signings and other information. Paul can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.