Work and Blessing

An Interview with Joyce and Barry Vissell
By Melissa West


Joyce and Barry Vissell, a nurse and medical doctor, have been married since 1964. The authors of four books on relationships, parenting, and healing, they travel internationally conducting workshops. The Vissells are the founders and directors of the Shared Heart Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing consciousness to all our relationships. They live with their three children, Joyce's parents, four golden retrievers, five cats, and one horse at their home and center on a hilltop near Santa Cruz, California.

Their latest book, "The Heart's Wisdom," is a guidebook to integrating the two paths of spiritual growth and loving relationships. According to the Vissells, "the highest spirituality is attained through loving relationships." Based on their own rich thirty-five-year marriage, and decades of work with other couples, the Vissells propose that relationships offer a precious chance to grow as individuals. Every relationship, they maintain, serves as a mirror in which we can see and understand the deeper, hidden parts of ourselves. "As the two of us have traveled throughout the country sharing our work," write the Vissells, "we have often heard people describe the same spiritual longing a longing for deeper connection not only with other people but with their own hearts as well."

Personal Transformation: What do you mean by the "soul mirror" approach to relationship?

Barry Vissell: The concept of soul mirrors is where every intimate relationship holds a mirror in front of your face: the closer you are to someone, the more gets mirrored back to you. It's an opportunity for your own spiritual growth.

PT: So someone can practice this even if they aren't in an intimate committed relationship?

Joyce Vissell: Yes! The key is, the closer you get to another person, the more the mirroring occurs. If you want to get closer to your parents, stuff is going to come up. When you're close to your children or friends or co-workers, you're going to see in them reflections of yourself that you may or may not like.

PT: So the soul mirror approach is a way of life, rather than a concept reserved for relationship with one other person?

Barry: Right. That's really the essence of "The Heart's Wisdom." The path of relationship is a spiritual path, a path of the heart.

PT: You write in "The Heart's Wisdom" that "positive projections, the goodness in ourselves that we can only see in another, can just as much stand in the way of relationship growth as negative projections." Can you explain that?

Barry: People talk more about negative projections, or projecting shadow aspects of yourself onto another person. In reality, projecting anything on another is going to get in your way. For example, say you see something beautiful in another person and attribute it just to them. You need to realize that to see beauty, you contain that beauty within yourself. If you don't take responsibility for being the beauty that you see in another person, you're missing the point.

PT: How does a person go about reclaiming these projections, both positive and negative?

Barry: That is the key for getting into the heart! It requires courage to own what you project. It's not easy to reclaim everything that you see outwardly. When you're angry and pointing the finger at someone, it's a challenge to admit to yourself that what you're angry at is not just outside of you. You have to look inside and ask, "What is it in me that I'm not accepting right now?" We don't need to metaphysicalize everything that happens and take responsibility for everything "out there," though. Sometimes it's appropriate to get angry with another person. However, the deepest and quickest way to the heart is to take complete responsibility for what's going on inside: our feelings, our thoughts, our inner world.

PT: To allow for both realities, that there is another person "out there," but to also take full responsibility for my internal experience.

Barry: When Joyce and I have an argument, we fall into blame and anger. What heals the fight is to come back into my own heart and ask, "OK, what is it that I did to contribute to the disharmony? How am I upset or disappointed in myself, as well as in Joyce?" It's a balance of external and internal.

PT: With this compassionate coming back to oneself, I am reminded that you wrote in "The Heart's Wisdom" that the challenge for each of us is to be our own soul mate.

Barry: Yes! That is the challenge in every committed relationship. We knew a man who was really convinced that he'd found his soul mate in his wife. She found someone else and left him suddenly. He was very hurt. A month or two later he met another woman and jumped in. We felt it was premature but he did the same thing: he made her the soul mate. She, too, left him. A couple of months later I bumped into him and he told me he was engaged. I had the feeling, "Oh no, don't do this again to yourself," but he smiled and said, "I'm engaged to myself." He actually planned a wedding ceremony in one of his favorite places. He was so happy. I could see that he finally got it: until he really acknowledged that the soul mate he was looking for was within himself, it wouldn't be manifested outwardly. Of course, he's much happier. He created a ritual to symbolize the marriage of his inner man and woman. We recommend everyone do something like this.

Joyce: To try and find this special one person who's going to fulfill everything it's so overwhelming. We like to see it instead that people are destined to be with each other. For some people, they're destined to be with a number of people. It's not that the relationships that ended were mistakes. They were destined to be with each partner and learned and grew. Their souls received tremendous benefit and then it was time to move on.

PT: Given your relationship challenges, which you write about openly in "The Heart's Wisdom," how have you thrived for thirty-five years?

Joyce: When we got married, it was with a resolve that whatever came up, we were going to work it through. So much came up! It was really difficult, particularly in the beginning, because of our very different childhoods and upbringing. We never put anything aside. When we were angry, we worked through it. We talked, we tried to understand the mistakes we had made. It took real dedication to work through all the hard places and trust that there was more love on the other side. Also, we've made our relationship and our children a huge priority, bigger than our career. We've met people in all different fields who, when they have decided to make their relationship a priority, found that their career has blossomed as well. On the other hand, when people make their career a priority, the relationship often just withers and dies from lack of attention. When you make a relationship a priority, it richly blesses your whole life. There's nothing more important.

PT: So to see relationships as blessings, not just as "work."

Both: Yeah!

Joyce: Relationships are a lot of work, but they are such blessings to your overall life. The main thing for us was the dedication to work through every hard place that came up. And many, many things came up; we haven't had an easy time at all.

Barry: I would add that our spiritual focus, developing a common spirituality, has been an important key to why we're together in a very deep, intimate bond. We pray together, we meditate together, we do the spiritual work, alone and together. That brings so much joy and depth to the relationship.

Joyce: It's also so important to have a sense of purpose together. It could be raising your children in a really loving home. Barry and I feel a tremendous fulfillment working and serving together. There can be so many purposes where your relationship is really for the higher good.

PT: You write about intimate relationship being a vehicle for service to the planet.

Barry: When two people deeply love one another, and become really bonded in love, we feel that the relationship releases an energy of love to the entire planet. It blesses everyone, like a flower opening and releasing its perfume to the whole world. That's what it's like when a relationship opens and two people work through challenges and come to a higher state of love together. It makes the whole world a better place.

PT: You mention praying together in "The Heart's Wisdom." How might a couple do that?

Joyce: Often in our workshops couples pray together for the first time. We ask each of them to speak a simple quiet prayer from their heart asking for help for their relationship, or giving thanks whatever they're feeling. It's always a very positive and powerful experience, something people take home and continue to do.

Barry: For people who are religiously wounded from their childhood and turned off by prayer, there are other ways that aren't couched in religious terms to bring spirituality into a relationship. For example, people can make a conscious practice of appreciating each other every day, which brings new love into the relationship. Or they can be in nature together, or plant a garden together. All of these are spiritual practices, and yet different from traditional praying. Each one, though, requires a willingness to make the relationship a priority in your life. Most people give so much more time and energy to their careers than to their primary relationships. There are a lot of people in this country who give more attention to their cars than to their relationship!

Joyce: One of the most frequent complaints we hear from couples is that they don't have the time to nurture the relationship. One couple we worked with had three children under five years old. In all reality, they didn't have much time. We realized they could appreciate each other right in the moment of their busy days. For instance, if the wife was changing the diapers, the husband could thank her and appreciate her for the love she was showing in that task. Even in this very active stage of having young children, they found a way to reach out and show gratitude, so that each knew they were being noticed and appreciated.

PT: So even if a couple is extremely busy, there's always the possibility of acknowledging each other with love in the present moment.

Joyce: Yes! Being too busy is never an excuse. Even this couple, who was probably the busiest we've ever seen in counseling, found a way to deepen their relationship.

PT: You write in "The Heart's Wisdom" that anger is a cry for help. What do you mean by that?

Barry: To realize that all anger is really a cry for help allows people to go deeper both into themselves and the relationship. What comes before anger is hurt, always. Sometimes it takes only a millisecond for the hurt to be covered up by anger; you don't even notice it. Instead of just indulging in anger, if you can feel and express your hurt, there's more of a chance of bringing healing into the relationship.

PT: What if my partner acted quite angry with me? How could I work with that as a cry for help instead of being reactive?

Barry: This can be some of the most difficult work. It's very hard for me when Joyce expresses anger at me; often that throws me into feeling like a little boy who blew it again. When I can realize that she's hurting, it makes all the difference: I don't have to go into feeling like a guilty little kid. I can be a mature adult who sees that Joyce feels hurt, and the anger is the call for help. Then I can be there to help. It's about staying aware.

PT: In "The Heart's Wisdom" you write about saying "no" in a positive way, which surprised me, given that most of us tend to think of "no" as negative. Can you say more about that?

Joyce: Say one partner really wants to make love, and the other is not in that space. What is important to realize is that "no" can be said with as much love as "yes." When you give yourself permission to say no, the no can come out as very loving. You can put your arms around your partner and tell them that you love them very much and you appreciate their interest and affection, but that you're not in the space right now to make love. I think when no comes out in a hurtful way it's because we don't know it's okay to say no, that we feel we have to go along with whatever our partner wants.

PT: You're talking about sexuality here, but this can happen in any area of a relationship.

Barry: Joyce, I'm thinking of a time just a couple of days ago when you were wanting something very much and it didn't feel right to me. I simply said to you, "I'm sorry, I can see how much you want this, but it just doesn't feel right to me," and I said it in such a way that I didn't close my heart.

PT: So often we feel like we have to close our hearts in order to say no.

Barry: Definitely. But the openhearted no is so much more effective.

Joyce: And for anyone who was never given permission to say no as a child, to be able to say no with love and authority within themselves is the most healing thing that a person with that kind of wound can do.

PT: In your own relationship, you have periodically taken retreats from each other. I notice, however, that you call them "advances." Why do you take these "advances" and how can they help a relationship grow?

Barry: Partners in relationship can get trapped, afraid to give each other space and time apart. Fear of abandonment, rejection, whatever the reason, many people are afraid to take a step back from the relationship. Sometimes there's no more positive work that can be done than to take that step back. These times of separation can really be an advance, not a retreat, a healing way to work on the relationship that's just not possible when you stay under the microscope together. There's an objectivity that can happen with enough time apart. Joyce and I have had several lengthy separations, especially early in our relationship.

PT: What can a person do on these "advances" to help their relationship?

Barry: "The Heart's Wisdom" is filled with practices. For instance, there's one we call "practicing the presence of your partner." It's being with your partner, but not physically, really seeing who this person is with your consciousness, in your inner vision. Appreciating them, feeling what you love most about this person. It's a very powerful practice.

PT: You write that the only thing you consider a failure in relationship is shutting the other person out of your heart. If someone has been involved in a very painful breakup, why is it important to keep the other in their hearts?

Joyce: Because until they can open their hearts fully to their ex-partner, they cannot fully open their hearts to another person, or even to life. As long as your heart is closed to one person, you cannot fully open your heart to anyone or anything else. Even if your ex-partner won't have anything to do with you, you can do this work on yourself, by yourself. It's harder, but very possible. Just the one person doing that work to open their heart and seek understanding, remembering the parts of that other person they did love and appreciate, heals the one making the effort, but it also energetically affects the other person as well. This practice is absolutely critical if there are children involved.

PT: It's so refreshing in "The Heart's Wisdom" to see your honesty about your own ups and downs. What has led you to be public about your relationship?

Barry: Our relationship has been a powerful teacher for both of us. We have been blessed so much by all the growth we've experienced in this relationship that it feels very natural for us to share that. It's our service; to be able to share what we've learned is what gives us joy and allows us to feel even more love together.

Joyce: When we were twenty-four years old, we read a little book by John Powell that had a huge impact on us, "Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Really Am?" Powell wrote that when you tell a person who you really are, they will then feel safe to tell you who they really are. After reading the book we realized that's what we wanted to do. We didn't want to hide from each other; we wanted to be totally real. And it's worked. When we're having a hard time and we're leading a workshop, we let people know what's happening with us. Because of our honesty about where we are, people feel safe to be honest with us and each other.

PT: Looking back on your rich thirty-five years together, what is the most important lesson each of you has learned in the laboratory of your own relationship?

Barry: I've learned that after thirty-five years, I love Joyce more than ever before.

Joyce: Awwwwww.

Barry: What I've learned is that love keeps growing. That each time Joyce and I go through something difficult and come out the other side, there's more love.

Joyce: In the beginning of our relationship I felt that I needed to go off by myself and meditate to experience God. Over the years I have learned that it is just as deep to experience God's love coming through Barry, or the love that comes through both of us when we are joined together solidly in our hearts.