On Special Relationships in A Course in Miracles

In terms of A Course in Miracles, a special relationship is any relationship (with anything though we tend to think of it as between people) that we use as a substitute for Oneness with God. It might be a special hate relationship, in which we feel justified in projecting hate and anger onto someone, or it might be a special love relationship, in which we believe that only a special person can meet our needs. Though they look quite different in form, both follow from the same error: that our separation from God can be healed (or solved or amended) through an external relationship.

So, in a sense, when we are talking about special relationships (with a person, a landscape, an artist, an object, etc.), we are talking about what we are always talking about: we can’t fix an internal problem of perception by rearranging what is external. The problem of perception is internal: that is where the problem must be accepted and that is the only place where it can be solved.

A Course in Miracles suggests that all special relationships can be transformed into holy relationships – that is, relationships bent on truth, in which Oneness is revealed rather than hidden or hindered. So the issue isn’t about giving things up – becoming celibate or fasting or never haunting another used bookstore or voting for the right candidate. Rather, it is about learning how to see, or perceive, differently.

This healed perception is not limited to a particular relationship; it is more pervasive, more broadly applicable – it touches everything. But it does seem to come into existence through particular relationships. So it behooves us to give attention to these relationships, to give them a close and sustained look – no matter how uncomfortable or distressing that looking might be.

To learn this course requires willingness to question every value that you hold dear. Not one can be kept hidden and obscure but it will jeopardize your learning (T-24.In.2:1-2).

All our relationships hinge on ideas of value – they reflect what we consider necessary to survival and happiness and all that. Thus, when we question those relationships, we are really questioning our values, in particular those that might not harmonize with our ideal of ourselves as spiritual, generous, loving individuals and so forth. This is the part of A Course in Miracles that a lot of students tend to gloss over – the looking-at-our-blocks-to-love part. We can put it off a long time, but ultimately there is no way to peace but through what seems to block peace.

Questioning in this case is akin to looking at something with the Holy Spirit, and it really just means the willingness to honestly consider our motivations, goals and agendas and so forth. And we have to do this for the relationships that work and for the ones that don’t. We have to remember that both flow from the same error (that what is external can be causative), and it is that error that we are trying to see clearly in order to correct.

I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to get too worked up about this. Nobody should feel guilty for having a special relationship: it’s part of the deal with bodies. We all want to be held, kissed, fed, walked, read to, whatever. The problem isn’t that we have those needs, but rather that we become attached to them as means by which to either heal or perpetuate separation from God.

So what do we do? We give attention to each relationship in each moment as it happens.

Let me give you a personal example.

The other night the coydogs started up. We live on the cusp of deep woods and you can hear them in their packs – it is a bloody sound anyway but sometimes you also hear the animal they kill screaming as it dies. I don’t like it but I grew up with it. But my wife, Chrisoula, really hates it. It makes her want to check the kids, the cats, the chickens . . .

Anyway, I was reading and the howls started, and Chrisoula was in bed, and I thought: “I should go in and just be a comforting presence.” And I saw that on the one hand that was a very beautiful sentiment that Chrisoula would really appreciate. But on the other hand, I also liked how heroic it made me look – how deserving of praise – and then I thought that maybe I even deserved a little sugar for being such a thoughtful husband.

You see? Very quickly this potential kindness becomes about me: my need for praise, attention, gratification, and so forth. It becomes special.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! We just want to see those motives. Seeing them means we are no longer lying to ourselves. We aren’t stuck in the illusion, but rather are moving into or at least towards the light of understanding. So we can laugh at ourselves – “man, I can be selfish” – and then, with a minimum of drama, just go and be helpful.

When I see clearly the egoic action, then I can utter a little prayer and go do the right thing without bringing all the specialness into it.

I am not saying I have this down perfectly – you can ask Chrisoula if you doubt me – but I am saying that this can work if we are patient and attentive and are willing to keep a relatively good sense of humor about it.

I also think that we get better at this as we go, the more we do it. And the more we do it, the more far-reaching the helpfulness goes. Things that used to distract us for hours don’t. And when they do distract us, we remember quicker that there is a way out, that peace is not a distant goal but a present reality presently unrecognized.

I am not afraid of the fact that I have these special relationships – with my wife, my children, people who read me, Emily Dickinson and Max Ernst, New England, black bears, chickadees, writing, and on and on and on. Nor am I afraid that future special relationships may develop: new artists to love, new poets, new pets, new friends, new trails to walk . . . That is the nature of life in a body, and I see no reason to resist it because when lived through a lens of attention and awareness it becomes not this life but Life itself, no different than the holy and beautiful one that you live.

That is really where we are going with all this specialness: we are going to where we see past the pale specificity of form to the abstract wholeness that is Love itself, infusing everything without exception or qualification. We are just slowly learning that it’s all one thing and we are it.

That is the transition from specialness to holiness: it is not trading one external form for another – this partner for that one, this diet for that one, this landscape for that one – but rather seeing beyond specificity altogether. We already know how to do this, but we need to be reminded. Attention to the details will reveal to us the gift that was given to us in Creation that we might – sooner rather than later – return to God.

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  1. Wonderful Wonderful!!

    Your Joy shines thru (:

    I love seeing you with your family.
    And your good humor and love for all is so inviting.

    I’m ready to start my day and go and make myself helpful.

    Keeping it Simple and Kind ♡

    Thanks Sean-enjoy your day and weekend!

  2. Hi Sean! Thanks for sharing this. And thank you also for the help you have given me this year as I go through the lessons. I am grateful for your blog and your newsletters and also emails to help me along the way. I was on my deck reading the course, and thought to check your blog, and here is a passage about special relationships. It is helpful to me to see that the idea of “special relationships” isn’t just about people. For me it has been about writing. I this weird yoyo relationship with creativity as I move along in the course. I have back and forth reactions to the creative urge i have- once in a while I’ll just go through and delete all of the starts to books that I have on the computer, and feel relief, like writing was an ego distraction- kind of that carrot on the end of a stick thing to keep “me” always thinking that I am a body that has a future. Once in a while I hit on that deep down feeling that I am not a body and this is all a lucid dream, and if I am the dreamer of the dream than why in the world would I try to create something illusive? It is a super fleeting feeling, one that I love and try to get to by reading reading reading or meditating or hemisynch or whatever. Then what happens is the pendulum swings back the other way and I’ll have a day where I can’t even stop myself I just want to write. And I let myself imagine how great things will be when I manifest a book and a career as a fiction writer because why not just enjoy the game while i’m stuck here thinking I’m in time anyways?

    I guess reading this helps me to understand that it is not about what I “do” behaviorally (madly deleting files in order to save myself time and just get right down to it haha) or fantasizing about the perfect career…all of that is external and the real work is in my mind. I still have questions about how that could possibly work…because I’m still not sure how deep the whole “mind” thing goes. Am I my thoughts? Is there work to do with the thoughts I have…like those word monologues in my head? Or is that kind of work still behavioral just like “doing” something out in the world?

    Thanks for your kind easy perspective. It helps me to read it.
    Love BOnnie

    1. Hi Bonnie . . .

      I think those yo-yo relationships (mine is with music – playing guitar in particular) have a real teaching potential in them.

      The trick with the external – no matter what form, no matter what importance we assign or don’t assign it – is to simply give attention to it, and allow the lesson to be given back to us.

      A Course in Miracles isn’t really about transcending the world – that is the God-takes-the-last-step part for which most of us, for the most part, are not ready. Rather, it is about helping us to figure out how to learn in this world what the truth is – which is not really learning so much as remembering how to recognize.

      And that learning/remembering is accomplishes in form – the illusion or dream takes the shape that is most helpful. So if you have a longing to write, to be this or that kind of writer, then go for it! And something will happen, which may or may not be what you expect or long for, but which will certainly be what you need in order to learn that truth is true and nothing else is true.

      I love this line from A Course in Miracles:

      Your special function is the special form in which the fact that God is not insane appears most sensible and meaningful to you. The content is the same. The form is suited to your special needs, and to the special time and place in which you think you find yourself, and where you can be free of place and time, and all that you believe must limit you (T-25.VII.7:1-3).

      We aren’t running away from form – we are accepting form, embracing it even – in the interest of allowing ourselves to be taught through it.

      And so there is a nexus between our desire and our ability – our longing to write, our ability to write, or our longing to play guitar and sing, and our ability – and there is a real sweet spot in that nexus – a spot where we are just humming with Love, unafraid, not even really thinking, just creating – and that is a good place to be! That is a fruitful place to be!

      I am saying that writing may matter not just because you need something to do while you’re stuck here thinking you’re in time – but because writing might be the very means by which you learn you are not stuck and are in fact home . . .


      1. Thank you Sean! this is so helpful to me. It feels helpful to read it and I am sure I will read it many more times- when I feel confused! Thank you:)
        Love Bonnie

  3. Thank you very much Sean!! I’m reading ACIM and just wanted some clarification. I really am grateful that i an privileged to learn in this manner and as you said in one of your posts,it all starts with us asking questions or wanting to know more about us,life,God,i was led to ACIM.

    1. Thank you for reading & sharing, Nkechi. The course is a real gift in our journey – I agree totally. Grateful to share this way with you!


  4. Wow.. what a beautiful and clear explanation of special relationships ✨ have been studying ACIM just under 2 years.. and so helpful ..thanks 🙂

  5. Thanks Sean. This has been challenging me for sometime and is very helpful. The language as i read it seems to say special relationships are “bad” and we can’t have them and you have quieted that in my mind and provided great comfort.

  6. Hello, Sean.

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I have just started ACIM, and have no one with whom to discuss issues raised by it.

    This whole “special relationship” topic has been a source of great resistance for me, and, because it occupies such a prominent place in the first part of the course, of resistance to other aspects of the course as well. I have tried to separate the “special relationship” from other course teachings, but that hasn’t really worked.

    My most important “special relationship,” and the one that always comes to mind, is with my husband. Although I am not suggesting that that relationship is “holy,” it is “different” than what seems to be being discussed in ACIM. My husband has always encouraged me to do whatever I feel is right for me, even if he doesn’t join me. At a time before I started ACIM, when I needed support, he gave me what is probably the closest thing possible in this life to unconditional love. He continues doing this in every “now.” Through this, he showed me possibilities, and, in a way, pointed me toward ACIM. I cannot accept that this “special relationship” is based entirely on projected guilt. The thoughts that there was no other possibility and that I was supposed to just abandon him were the source of my resistance.

    You were the first one I found who seemed to acknowledge other possibilities. I expect I will be stopping by often as I encounter more questions.

    Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome, Kathy. Thanks for reading and sharing. Your husband sounds great 🙂

      We tend to think of “holy” and “special” as reflecting permanent conditions but they’re more like states of perception. Any relationship can be holy and then five minutes later special. It’s not the relationship that’s the point; it’s how we see it. It’s how we understand what it’s *for.

      Relationships are sites of learning. When we lean into this, when we allow them to be classrooms in which we can learn that we are not separate from one another, nor from the world, and when we allow them to show us God in everything we see, then they are holy.

      This usually involves caring for the other more than for our own self, which is to say, perceiving our shared equality and acting on it.

      When we use the relationship selfishly – when it’s about our needs, our wants, our appetites, et cetera, then they are special. And this hurts us and others and so it’s good when we remember not to do it.

      The language that you use to describe your husband is the language of holiness – he sounds sensitive and kind and utterly helpful. He sounds like a true gift. It is not an error to be grateful for that, and it is not an error to go ever deeper into that relationship, the better to learn about unconditional love.

      Thank you again for sharing!


  7. Thanks for your response, Sean!

    The way you described “special” relationships made about 100 light bulbs go off! And your insight that relationships change according to our perception of them at that moment added about 1,000 more!

    My husband’s response to you would probably be: “I can’t be anyone but myself. I tried being someone else once, and it hurt!”

    Thank you, again.


  8. I am still a bit confused. Your interpretation seems lovely and resonates deeply, and then I read “the special love relationship is the ego’s chief weapon for keeping you from Heaven”.

    I have a special relationship with my two sons. They help me grow and learn daily. How can these relationships be “a weapon keeping me from Heaven”?

    1. Your relationship with your sons could also be a holy relationship!

      Remember that special relationships aren’t a comment on the people in them; they’re just a reflection of what we are learning and what we need to learn. If a relationship emphasizes the world and the body, then it’s special. It exists for what we can get from it – usually some form of attention, some confirmation that we’re okay.

      Parenting is a good site of learning in A Course in Miracles. In a lot of ways, my kids bring out the best in me – I am probably at my most selfless with them. But also, there are moments and trends and patterns in those relationships that nurture an egoic way of thinking. “I’m a better Dad than so-and-so,” et cetera. It happens!

      And its happening is not a crisis – it’s only a problem when I don’t notice it. Noticing when my thinking produces specialness (both habitually and in one-off situations) is what healing is!

      Our work is to be attentive – to notice how our relationships are functioning, to notice what kinds of thinking are being prioritized in them, to notice what we’re getting vs. what we’re giving, and what we want and what our biases and ulterior motivations are and all of that.

      There is almost always room to learn, even in the holiest of relationships.

      In a deep way, ALL relationships are holy at their foundation. Specialness is just the confused thinking that obscures it and, yes, ego is VERY devoted to defending specialness.

      It can be helpful to look at our most intimate relationships – our kids, our spouses, our parents, our lifelong friends. Where those relationships are holy, they teach us how to extend that holiness to the world, and where they are special, they teach us where we need to let go and let the Holy Spirit remind us again of our shared holiness (which is always as close as a hug or a kind word).

      Thank you for reading, Hillary 🙂 I hope you and your sons have a lovely day!!

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