Welcome back to Work Harassment in the Sex Place, a series where we explore what it means to work passionately with the one you’re passionate about. In Part 1, we talked about traveling and working as partners, and all the pros, cons, and gendered misconceptions that can bring. This week, we’re going back to the beginning of my story with my husband and work partner Joe’s—back to our “soul work” together by finding light and love through Shadow Work®.
Oh and don’t miss the introduction to this series, which you can read here.
By all logic, it couldn’t work. I built a well-reasoned, thick-walled defense: Joe was too old for me, and too into hunting. We lived 1,800 miles apart. I wanted to get married and he was separated, but not yet divorced. I wanted kids and he had three plus a vasectomy. I wanted to live a Jewish life and he was raised Catholic. I wanted to live in Western Massachusetts and he had spent his 41 years in Milwaukee. I worked during the week as a business consultant; he worked weekends doing men’s personal growth workshops. I did all the calculations. There was no possible way that this could work.
So I let my guard down.
When Joe sent me a hand-written letter that he wanted to visit me for a weekend because he believed we had “soul work” to do together, I thought that was the smoothest New Age pick-up line I’d heard yet. But I also thought it was creative, so I consented with this caveat: No sex.
“I want to be clear,” I announced to Joe over the phone. “This visit is strictly platonic.” I was proud of my forthrightness.
“No problem,” said Joe, in that voice that conveys all calm and connection, “I’ll just be happy to see you again.”
This guy was smooth.
Finding love and power through Shadow Work®
Joe’s soulfulness was not unexpected considering how we’d met. I was invited to participate in a Shadow WorkⓇ seminar north of Boston along with several colleagues from the MIT Organizational Learning Center as a professional growth experience. The seminar was designed to improve our skills as facilitators and leaders of groups in business organizations.
I knew that Shadow WorkⓇ was based on Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung’s concept of the Shadow, and having written a paper on this in grad school the year before, I was intrigued. Jung’s idea is that the Shadow is the part of our psyche that we repress, deny and disown. He wrote, “To confront a person with his own shadow is to show him his own light.”
As I would soon find out, Shadow Work’s founder, Cliff Barry, also happened to be Joe’s best friend. On an invitation from Cliff, Joe would be setting foot in my state for the very first time. Little did he know, he’d never be leaving.
On the opening day of the three-day workshop, I sat by the hearth in a circle with 28 colleagues and friends. My best friend Alisa and I began the single woman’s game of “who do you think is sexy.” I scanned the room and saw a man who was sitting cross-legged with a logging shirt on and a rich brown beard. Broad shouldered and thick-haired, he seemed exquisitely comfortable in his body. Though we’d never met there was something familiar about him. When he spoke, I thought, “I could listen to that voice for a long time.” His was a deep baritone, projecting with ease across the room, warm in tone, a slight accent that said he was not from around here.
“That guy,” I said, pointing to Joe.
“That guy?” Alisa answered incredulously. “He’s too macho for me.”
“Yup, that’s the way I like ‘em. As long as he doesn’t turn out to be a schmuck.”
Later Joe explained to me that he’d been smitten when he first heard me speak across the circle. “Something about your voice told me, ‘I want to know that woman,’” he said.
The next night, Joe and I connected during an exercise called “self-directed time” where the assignment was to do whatever you absolutely wanted in every moment. I decided on a whim to go for a walk in the freshly fallen snow. I was putting my boots on when Joe arrived at the front door. “Do you want to go for a walk?” he asked.
We meandered along a tree-lined rural road sharing stories of the outdoors and family and politics and spirit. I had the eerie yet comforting feeling that I’d known Joe for a long time. When it was time to go inside, we both had the idea to assault the innocent hot-tubbers with snowballs. This was a guy I could hang with.
On the final day of the seminar, I leapt at my chance to do Shadow Work. The facilitators, Cliff Barry and Mary Ellen Blandford, had shown themselves to be consummate healers working with two people before me. One woman was a survivor of repeated incest. Another was a single mother who was kicked out when her parents discovered she was pregnant at 17. Cliff and Mary Ellen were insightful, compassionate, focused and full of blessing for these two. Somehow, through the alchemy of Shadow Work, it was clear to me that each of these women had been transformed by the process. They glowed.
I felt confident that I was in exceptionally good hands when I stepped to the center of the circle, surrounded by two dozen friends and colleagues. Cliff and Mary Ellen asked their now infamous opening question, “What do you want to have happen here?”
“I want to find my ideal lover,” I said.
“So you are looking for your ideal lover. What’s your life like now?” Cliff asked.
“I tell you I’ve never been happier. I just finished my MBA, landed this awesome gig at MIT with this crew, have a wonderful home on six acres in the woods west of here, the best friends anyone could ever ask for and a loving family. I’m challenged intellectually. There’s only one enigma in my life. Where’s that elusive man?”
Cliff and Mary Ellen asked me to choose someone to role-play myself wanting love. I asked Kristen, a vivacious young woman with brown hair and eyes like mine to do that. We placed her on the carpet kneeling with the line, “I’m ready for love.”
Then Cliff asked me to choose someone to play the dramatized role of my ideal lover. I’d thoroughly enjoyed walking in the woods with Joe the night before—the choice was obvious.
“Joe, would you do that for me?”
“I’d be delighted to,” Joe answered, rising to his feet. His line was, “I’m right here waiting.”
Then Mary Ellen asked me to step back from the scene and take a look. “So here you are,” she said, pointing to Kristen, “and here’s your ideal man waiting for you. What gets in your way?”
Suddenly, I remembered a dream. In the dream I was telling an old friend that there was a structure as big as the Great Wall of China around me. The friend said, “That’s the wall you built around your heart when John, your first love, left.”
Back in the center of the circle, I tried to explain. “It’s kind of like there’s that wall between me and him and I can’t get through it.”
“OK, could you choose somebody to play the wall?”
Alisa caught my eye and she motioned to a gorgeous black man who had introduced himself as a Chaplain and a Marine. He had the chiseled body of a champion athlete and the military bearing to go with it.
“David, could you play that role?”
We placed David in a domineering stance between my little self and my ideal love.
Ninety minutes later, after an epic saga of slaying inner dragons and all other obstacles the heroine (me) finally got to stand face to face with her long-awaited lover (Joe).
“What do you want to tell him?” Mary Ellen asked.
I smiled. “Where the hell have you been?!”
The crowd cheered as we embraced.
On Soul Work, and the magic of letting your guard down
When Joe flew in to visit me for our no-sex-allowed “soul work” date, I knew he’d separated from his wife the year before and was living on his own. I felt safe in my espoused desire to just be friends. And yet, despite my insistence on a platonic connection, seeing him felt like welcoming a long-lost lover home.
We arrived at my place in the woods. It was already getting late, and we lit a fire that flickered off the wood floor and threw warm light across our faces. Soon it was time to suggest sleeping arrangements.
“I’m going to head up to bed. You can have the couch here, the futon in the sunroom, or you can join me in my room,” I announced.
Joe loves to re-tell this part of the story. “Which would you pick?”
His choice was obvious, and my solid commitment to a platonic friendship melted in all of five minutes.
The next morning, relaxing with hot tea and the New York Times in my sunroom, I was sprawled on the futon and Joe was sitting on the floor next to me, with his head leaning against my belly. I’d never felt this deeply seen and held by a man before. What a sweet gift.
What I’d once dismissed as a pick-up line now rang true: This was soul work. I could feel the weight of it in my body and my being.
But, doubt crept in. I got angry at myself. I remembered the promise I’d made to God, and to myself, that the next guy I was with I would marry. And that couldn’t possibly be Joe—the logistics alone were impossible.
I thought I just had to get over it. Get over him. Move on.
Of course, I did not get over him. And every rendezvous we had in the months that followed removed a few more bricks from the Great Wall around my heart and led me to finding love and power through Shadow Work.
Next time on Work Harassment in the Sex Place, we’ll explore what a traumatic experience of my own taught me about my partner—and how hardship can lead to healing and even deeper trust in relationships.