Have a question?
Message sent Close

In recent months I’ve been having the same conversation over and over with people who are involved in personal development, building emotional integrity and improving the quality of their relationships. There is a hole at the heart of their most significant relationship, their marriage.

It’s the hole where we hide our truest selves from the one we love the most—because we’re afraid they would reject us if they saw what was inside.

It’s the hole where we hide our truest selves from the one we love the most—because we’re afraid they would reject us if they saw what was inside.

So, what’s in this hole?

Our deepest and darkest emotional and sexual truths… the stuff we hardly dare think let alone speak. Unbearable childhood wounds. Things about our partner—or perhaps our in-laws—that trigger us but we never dare mention for fear of rocking the boat. Desires for sexual experimentation that flit through our mind while we engage in the same dull, disengaged sex we always have.

The hole lies at the heart of emotional unavailability.

Emotional unavailability is a key component of what I call the Patriarchal Operating System, the acquisitive, consumptive and destructive psychological model that’s crippling humanity and the planet.

Agreed Zone of Non-negotiation

A friend of mine calls this hole the Agreed Zone of Non-negotiation. It’s an unconscious agreement between two people in a committed relationship not to question or challenge each other’s core emotional and sexual wounds. Which, of course, ensures these wounds—and the dysfunctions they manifest in—remain unresolved. And then perpetuated through the couple’s children.

Patriarchal Operating System - Emotional unavailabilityAt the moment, few people seem to be aware of this hole. Yet I suspect it exists in most relationships. Many people seem blissfully ignorant of its presence. Others battle its malign influence but lack the emotional vocabulary to call it out. Only those with a high level of emotional sensitivity can articulate its presence.

This invisible hole stems from our collective shame of the emotional and sexual aspects of our lives. I’ve written extensively about this unconscious shame and its origins in the rise of patriarchy, when masculine qualities (strength, intelligence) became paramount and feminine qualities (emotions, sexuality) were denigrated in the fight for the survival of the fittest.

We like to think we live in an egalitarian society where the imbalances of the past have been corrected. The reality is that revealing the aspects of ourselves that were punished for thousands of years—often severely—is so frightening that we still unconsciously repress them.

Should either partner violate the Agreed Zone of Non-negotiation, the result is betrayal.


In Down and Out in Paradise, biographer Charles Leerhsen describes the hole at the heart of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s marriage to his first wife, Nancy:

“They had an understanding, those two… And it was something like this: the couple that steals horses together stays courses together. Neither of them, under this probably never spoken about but nevertheless very real accord, was allowed to suddenly find religion, become a nine-to-fiver, join the army, or make any other kind of lurch toward so-called respectability that would result in the other suddenly being at loose ends.”

This was their unique, unspoken Agreed Zone of Non-negotiation, papering over their unique wounds. Bourdain broke it to become a TV star. That was, as Patrick Radden Keefe wrote in the New Yorker, “the betrayal of his life.”

That’s what happens when we puncture the Agreed Zone of Non-negotiation, the hole at the heart of our relationships. That’s why we need to recognise, approach, and heal it first.

Tackling the hole

Tackling this hole is no easy task. It takes two partners, both committed to full emotional honesty. It’s not something one partner can tackle alone. Tackling the hole is risky—who knows what might come out and destabilise—or even end—a relationship? This is scary stuff. But we all reach a point on our emotional journey when tackling the hole is no longer an option.

Here kindness, compassion and the long-term view are the tools to reach for. The toxic material in the hole goes back at least to our childhoods, perhaps including issues inherited from the unresolved traumas of previous generations.

Underlying this toxic debris lie ancestral traumas, buried deep in our psyche, going back to the dawn of patriarchy and the brutal suppression of emotions and sexuality that occurred back then—and created the hole. The history of civilization is the history of humanity’s futile attempts to numb the pain of this hole through over-consumption.

Whether you’re ready to tackle the hole or not, the first thing is to understand its existence and its origins. This isn’t about one or other partner in a relationship being right. It’s about cleaning up unresolved traumas to create an emotionally healthier world for the future.

Photo by Joshua Wilking on Unsplash

Leave a Reply