Designing For The Shadows

Pin it button big

It’s said that traditional Japanese architects designed their buildings around where the shadows would fall, not where the light would land. As a design approach, the ability to plan for and see negative space as important as positive is fascinating to me. It also seems enlightening, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

We rarely talk about shadows, we avoid them, so let’s talk about them today. There’s wisdom in embracing them on every level, and the home is just a metaphor for our own lives.

It’s said that every real relationship has its shadows, and that all shadows grow with time until eventually they crack open, break the surface and threaten to pull everything apart. This is life.

Which is nice to know, in a way. We can expect it. It means we’re normal and healthy. It means that between two people who fall in love there is always some divide – particularly at the beginning – glossed over as it may be by the lovely feelings of completeness and warmth, and that that divide is where the shadows grow in small, imperceptible ways as two people get to know one another for real.

And we do get to know one another, liking what we like and disliking the rest, but saying that it’s really nothing, it will go away, or I’ll get used to it. But that never happens. The shadows are small in the beginning and then they grow bigger.

Until they blow up.

When it all breaks loose (@ 7-10 years) and an absolute storm hits, you may look across at one another with disbelief over how far apart you feel, how little you seem to understand one another. You may wonder what happened to the good parts. The truth is it’s all still there, it’s all real, only the shadows have made themselves visible and they demand attention.

Now we find ourselves looking across at one another without rose colored glasses, seeing ourselves as we really are, and it is often not pretty. It is a shock.

This is a new starting point.

Most often we want our partner to be the way we want them to be. We want the good parts, not the bad. We want them to change in the ways that we think are best. We want them to keep what we like, and agree with us all the time.

But true relationship is not about bending the other to our will, nor is it about being happy all of the time. True relationship is about being with someone with whom you can grow and when the shadows break open, you get your first big chance to do this.

This rupture and what they reveal about each other is unpleasant. It is ugly. It is the underbelly of our time together and it is the grist for our relationship mill. It shows us what we need to see to wake up and grow, and the person that we choose, by the way, is always the perfect person or this wouldn’t be happening. Because life wants us to grow.

So the challenge is before us, to look across at one another and grow.


By diving into the shadows, embracing them and dredging them up together until so much light has been shed on them that they are fully understood, digested and eaten up. This means talking, seeking to understand, explaining oneself fully, apologizing and taking full responsibility for one’s own side of the bargain. It means going deeper and getting a fuller picture of oneself and one another. It means being vulnerable, exposing flaws, embracing one another again for who we really are.

Wow, this is the person I fell in love with!? So different than I thought when we first met!

Look into the shadows.

Many things can happen. If both people want to open their eyes, seize the challenge and grow together, there’s a very good chance that they fall in love all over again for who they now are, which is a much fuller accounting. But it’s also possible that they could both grow, care for another, but not be in love at all anymore and decide to part ways very peacefully. If, however, one or both can’t look into the shadows and grow, there’s very little chance of either being able to stay the course peacefully.

Only by facing the shadows is there any chance of them healing. If they aren’t faced, they will remain and come back again and again and again – even with different people.

So design for the shadows, the uncomfortable parts, the space that we’d rather ignore, knowing it’s always there, and you will be rewarded.

Because life wants us to grow.

(Image credits: Maxwell Ryan)

Updated: 28.10.2014 — 00:41