Section I. The Basic Tools of Relationship
A. Understanding Ourselves
1. Stuff in the attic, stuff in the cellar. (Family of Origin/John Bradshaw)
2. Deciding where we're going and how we're getting there. (7 Habits/Stephen Covey)
B. Sharing with Our Partner
1. I'm listening.
2. May I please get a word in here?
3. My friends understand me. Why can't you? (Communication/Deborah Tannen)
4. Looking and listening beyond the words. (5 Love Languages/Gary Chapman)
5. That was good for me.Was it good for you, Dear?
Section II. Going for the Brass Ring
A. Who has time for relationship? (Voluntary Simplicity/Duane Elgin)
B. In love and loving it. (Road Less Traveled/Scott Peck)
C. Can I really depend on you? (Hugh & Gayle Prather)
D. Let's grow mindfully together. (David Richo)
Section III. Relationship as Spiritual Path
A. You and I are indeed One. (Stephen & Ondrea Levine)
B. Relationship as a People-Growing Machine (David Schnarch)
The following material was complied for use in a variety of interactive workshops for both committed intimate partners as well as for singles interested in establishing enduring partnerships. This material is the fruit of my efforts at integrating my personal experience with marriage, my work with couples in psychotherapy and information I've gathered from many wonderful books and various courses over the years. As you will see, many of the articles are written around books that my clients have found especially helpful over the years, and I have included their titles and publishers for your later reference.
I am offering this material to anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of this wonderful dance we know as "intimacy" regardless of their current relationship situation. While my focus is primarily on traditional, heterosexual marriage, the topics discussed apply to any "committed, adult, emotionally-connected" couple regardless of sexual orientation.
This booklet is intended to help get you started on a journey to a more healthy relationship. It is not intended to serve as an all-inclusive self-help manual. My hope is that you will find this material interesting enough to continue exploring the topics that most closely relate to your current struggle, confusion, frustration or pain. While there is certainly overlap among the topics covered, the material seemed to naturally break into four sections. The information included addresses the basics skills of interpersonal interaction and moves to a level of commitment to relationship which is rarely found in our culture.
The material in first section addresses the importance of self understanding and values clarification in establishing a solid foundation for relationship. The second section focuses on the critical skills of interpersonal communication and intimate exchange in their many varied forms. The third section offers guidance on moving a relationship beyond the level of pleasant co-existing into a place of sincere commitment to personal and spiritual growth. The last section offers encouragement for committing to seeking the highest potential of relationship, relationship as spiritual path.
I suggest you begin working with the topics that address the most obvious problems or concerns in your relationship and once you reach a comfortable level of resolution with these problems, move along to more subtle issues. Remember, relationship is always a work in progress so try to be both gentle and disciplined in your approach.
Several things will be helpful in getting the most from this material: an open mind, a good sense of humor, curiosity, patience, an attitude of forgiveness and appreciation toward your partner and yourself, and acceptance that your problems may take time to resolve. Growth and progress are often gradual, but the results can have life-altering effects. I hope that you will enjoy the journey!
Part One:: The Basic Tools of Relationship
A. Understanding Ourselves
1. Stuff in the Attic, Stuff in the Cellar.
As our very first intimate relationships are within our family- of-origin, it seems reasonable to start with a discussion of common family issues. How we experience the early years of our life can shape our future in powerful ways. We can leave our family with unconscious motivations and conditioning which can hinder our growth and our freedom to act from our highest wisdom. Understanding how our past has impacted us allows us to better direct our future.
Family Systems Theory is, in my opinion, one of the best and easiest-to-understand theories relating our childhood experiences to how we act as adults. There's a wide variety of excellent material available today including a host of books and audio and video tapes. With some dedicated effort and some time invested in reading, we can begin to figure out where we came from and how our early experience is shaping our life and our intimate relationships today.
One of my favorite books on this subject is John Bradshaw's On the Family. From Bradshaw's perspective, we all have some left-over baggage we carry away from our families. It's not that all families are "bad" or "abusive", simply that none are "perfect". And even if they were, the world isn't and we would still have a hard time getting along with everybody. Imagine trying to adjust to the real world if you never had a disappointment or experienced any pain or losses. The argument goes that whether positive or negative, unless we are familiar with our scars and our wounds, and our strengths and our trophies, they will influence our life without our knowledge or control. We miss the negative, so we can't fix it. We miss the positive, and we can't appreciate our blessings and use them in seeking health. We are left unaware of our "true selves" and carry our excess baggage everywhere into every relationship.
Bradshaw proposes that there is great value in examining our individual experiences within our family. He encourages looking at the mix of our personality with the personalities of other members of the household. We can explore how our motivations may have been shaped by "family rules" and the "unspoken expectations" of others. With this self-understanding, we can take control of our motivations and direct them where we choose not simply respond to some vague ghosts or echoes from the past.
I see such lack of self-understanding played out often in marital problems. One partner's "shoulds and oughts" will clash with the other's. Both partners hold fast to their notion of reality is "the reality", and their way is "the only way" to do whatever. It is always difficult to merge two sets of family rules into one that both can live with. With a little insight into where the "shoulds" came from, each can begin to "give a little" and begin to accept some of the other's viewpoint. A shift can then occur from defensiveness to curiosity, which is the first step to growth within the marriage and resolution of the conflict.
I find that a little understanding can go a long way in dealing with interpersonal problems that stem from old roles and ways of behaving that were "inherited" from our family of origin. Give it some thought. Maybe check out some of Bradshaw's or another author's self-help material on "Inner Child" or "Family of Origin" issues. Remember, it's not the stuff we know about ourselves that causes us problems, it's the stuff that we don't know.
2. Deciding where we're going and how we're getting there.
In my work with couples, I often see painful and frustrating struggles around issues of values and life goals. Very often neither partner has a good understanding of their own, let alone their partner's value system nor have they spent much time working on life goals together. It is as though these questions were never considered; each just assumed there were no important differences between them. At the time of marriage or other commitment, each simply hitched to the communal wagon and began pulling. All went along fairly well until they came to the first crossroads and both "clearly knew the correct way to go" and the wagon began to pull apart without their even noticing. The normal "push and pull" of long-term relationships has begun. The trust and illusion of "two becoming one" is beginning to shatter and feelings of comfort are being replaced by feelings of loneliness and isolation. Sound familiar?
Stepping back a minute, it seems reasonable that two people coming from two different places, two different families and in some cases, two different cultures would have very different "assumptions" about things: what is right and "proper," what roles a man can fill and what roles a woman can fill, how kids are raised, how extended family members are treated. And more generally, what's all this life stuff about anyway? And how do we go about figuring it all out?
A book I have found very helpful for both individuals and couples dealing with the topic of personal values and life goals is: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Covey encourages the reader to look seriously and "long-term" at their life through a number of "exercises" such as "writing your own funeral announcement" and developing a "mission statement" much like corporations do to keep themselves on track. I encourage couples to work through these first on their own, and then to get together and work through them again as a couple. This process provides an excellent opportunity for getting to know each other's values and setting goals for the relationship that are comfortable for both.
"The Seven Habits" that Covey outlines are very practical and useful in developing all types of goals and in keeping yourself working toward them. By having a clear understanding of where the relationship and both partners are headed, much of the frustration and feelings of distrust and abandonment associated with confusion over "which way do we go?" can be avoided.
You know, a wagon generally pulls easier if both horses are headed in the same direction. Think about giving yourself and your relationship time to work on clarifying your values and setting some long- and short-term goals for your relationship. The hours you spend now may save you years of pointless struggle later on, or may just keep the wagon and the whole farm in one piece.
Part Two: Sharing with Our Partner
Interpersonal communication is a complex subject and we begin by looking at two of the basics: active listening and assertiveness and then move to discussions of more subtle nature. Recent research offers some interesting data on differences in how men and women function in conversation, how the genders often process information differently and have different priorities.
The non-verbal languages of love we speak and hear are grounded in our early experiences of feeling loved and being appreciated by others. Understanding our love languages can be tremendously helpful in establishing a flow of give and take within relationship.
The sexual dance between partners is one which seems to bring as much misery as bliss and is an area I strongly encourage any couple to spend some time exploring. This is an area where a little knowledge, curiosity and effort can pay off in a major way. Often sex is an area where many unspoken fears and resentments act out their energy with devastating results. When entered into with clarity and playfulness, sex can be the glue that holds a relationship together during trying times as well as a strong foundation of deepening intimacy.
1. I'm listening.
Don't we all have people in our lives that at one time or another we just wish would shut up and listen! If so, it's a safe bet that this same someone has had these thoughts about us at some point too! It's generally easier to talk than to really listen and carefully attend to another.
Active listening is an important skill to learn and practice. To really hear what another person is saying with their words, tone of voice, eyes, body and attitude is work. But without first listening, any conversation is rather meaningless. They're just two people with separate voices trying to get two separate points across. Or, they're just burning up time with chatter. For intimacy to grow, we need to listen and to hear as much of our partner's message as we can before shifting into our ever-ready "talk" mode. We have to learn a little patience.
To really listen we need to fully focus our attention on the other person, listening for their opinions, feelings and wishes while keeping our need to express our own "in check" for the time being. It may be helpful to break the process of active listening into three stages: (1) prepare (2) listen and clarify, and (3) acknowledge.
- Prepare yourself by becoming aware of your feelings and needs. Are you calm enough to listen patiently, will you invest the time and energy to hear them out? If not, plan another time when you feel you can.
- Listen carefully to their perspective, hear their needs, wants and feelings. If you are at all unclear, ask them to expand or to clarify with more information. Ask related direct questions until you feel comfortable with your level of understanding.
- Acknowledge them by giving honest, unemotional feedback on what you heard them say and on what you understand about their feelings, wants and views. Then, express your feelings about what they shared with you. What emotions did this conversation bring up for you? Let them know how they have touched or effected you. Finally, show your appreciation for their effort and encourage more of the same.
These guidelines may seem very simple yet most people find it difficult to put them into practice without first making a conscious commitment to do so. It may all begin by noticing how you listen during our everyday exchanges. Do you listen with part of our attention while developing a quick-fire response to what's being said. Or, do you take a breath, relax and let yourself get lost in the other's sharing without a thought to having "the right answer" the instant you can spit it out.
Remember, intimate communication is not about having "right answers" or simply "problem solving." It's about growing in the process of sharing with each other. So give yourself a break. Relax. Listen. Understand. Then respond from a position of concern for your partner's feelings and opinions.
2. May I please get a word in here?
One of the major "nuts and bolts" skills of really effective conversation is assertiveness or how to get at least some of what you want without beating up the other guy in the process.
Assertiveness can be thought of as an attitude or way of acting in a situation where you need to, (1) express your feeling, (2) ask for what you want, or (3) say no to something or someone.
Contrary to what some believe, assertiveness is not being "rude", "pushy" or being a "bully." It is not even being "selfish" or "disrespectful of others". These descriptions better fit with "aggressive" which is stepping on other people to get what you want without regard for their feelings. Assertiveness on the other hand, is simply standing up for yourself and your legitimate rights while showing respect for the rights and feelings of the other guy.
The other extreme of aggressive is "passive" or not standing up for yourself and not showing yourself the respect you deserve. Obviously, this is not healthy either and will also interfere with effective communication. Both of these "non-assertive" habits prevent honest exchanges and only lead to more problems rather than solutions.
Many people find they are comfortable being assertive in many situations but have problems "finding their courage" in others. Expressing our needs within an intimate relationship is often one of these difficult areas. We may feel that the stakes are too high, "my partner will get mad if I take a stand," or too low, "there's no point in going any further with this, he/she will never give an inch on this one." When we do this, we give up on ourselves and this often results in feelings of anger or resentment that can then feed a destructive process such as depression, venting rage on others (e.g. your kids, your partner or your pets) or being passive-aggressive (e.g. spitting in someone's soup when they aren't looking when you really want to spit in their eye). All for the sake of avoiding a little honest talk between friends!
Often we may not know our own feelings about an issue and this contributes to our discomfort. We may feel angry or threatened by something and not know why. We may be afraid we'll hurt the other person without meaning to. Just being patient with ourselves and taking some time to sort through our feelings and reach some level of self understanding will allow us to deal more assertively with our partner. It is important to avoid venting misplaced anger or becoming defensive during these uncomfortable times. Just stay with the feeling. "I feel uncomfortable" is a great place to start an exchange between two people. Be as open and honest as possible and focus only on the current issue.
So, assert yourself within your intimate relationship, let your feelings and needs be heard! After all, you have rights too! For further information on this topic, check out: "Don't Say Yes When You Want to Say No" by Herbert Fensterheim and Jean Baer, Dell Paperbacks.
3. My friends understand me. Why can't you?
Research has revealed interesting differences in the how men and women react to the words and process involved in intimate conversation. Of course, none of the following statements will be true for all men or for all women. I am simply exploring common stereotypes of verbal behavior seen in our culture. I hope that you will take from it what is helpful to you and simply leave the rest. I will draw from the best-selling book, You Just Don't Understand Me: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., published by Morrow and Co., NY, 1990
Tannen's research as a sociolinguist focuses on how common differences in socialization between men and women in our society affect the very complicated process of conversation. She proposes that the way boys are raised leads to a more defensive and competitive style while common ways of rearing girls leads them to focus more on peace-making and cooperation. It is as if men and women are raised in different cultures even within the same family. The "rules of conversation" are different. This may not be a big problem but nobody knows what the other guys rules are! Without meaning to, both partners assume the other is playing by the same rules. Tannen's research and everyday observation by any interested party suggests otherwise. Just watch an average couple (or yourself) in heated debate about a commonplace issue. Do they always act like they are on the same page or even in the same book? Miscommunication between the sexes is so common we may just assume it's unavoidable. If we began to understand each other, what would the stand-up comedians do for material? What a boring place the world would become. Hey, just kidding! We're nowhere close to fixing the communication problems between the sexes, just working to keep our head above water seems like a full-time job!
How many times have you found yourself in an argument with an intimate partner without being able to say just what all the fuss is about. It may have started out innocently enough with some well-meaning comment by one of you that was misinterpreted, blown out of proportion, turned over the emotional bucket and your partner suddenly became the focus of your anger or the source of your pain and hurt feelings. What is interesting about Tannen's perspective of this common situation is her finding that both partners may have equally valid conversational styles. Nobody is at fault! It's not a case of one being "right" or "better" than the other. It's just a misunderstanding and a lack of appreciation and respect for the differences that Tannen traces back to our culture and common ways of bringing up our kids.
This "no-fault" approach will hopefully make it easier for couples to cooperatively begin the complex process of understanding what emotions are behind their words so they can address them directly without fear of blame or embarrassment. From this view, it is not that "men don't communicate well" or that "women are just too sensitive for straight talk." Both are simply reacting to their respective training and attempting to play out roles they didn't know they were playing.
Some of the couples that I work with have found this book to be very useful in getting past long-standing communication blocks, senseless anger and hurt feelings. It is not a cure-all for dysfunctional relationships. It simply offers help for those wanting to better understand how they and their partner can see the same words, spoken at the same time in the same conversation in such incredibly different ways, and both be right!
If some of the problems described here sound more than a little familiar, I encourage you to invest the energy needed to work through this best-selling book. Remember, a little understanding goes a long way.
4. Looking and Listening Beyond the Words.
It is easy to understand that effective communication skills are vital if we are to deepen our level of intimacy with our partner. We most often think of verbal communication in this regard but in his book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, Dr. Gary Chapman makes a strong case for the importance of a broader, more inclusive form of communication. The ways in which we naturally show our love to another and the ways in which we naturally feel loved by another are often ignored in our effort to connect. As Dr. Chapman illustrates, when we dont have a clear understanding of this more subtle form of intimate communication, we can find ourselves working harder and harder to experience love in our relationship while all the while slipping backwards into greater and greater frustration for both parties.
It's like two people speaking different languages trying desperately to connect more deeply by speaking more loudly. The words are the same only the volume and effort applied have changed. Each partner can never get enough of what they really don't want so both come to see pretty soon that they're giving more and more and getting less and less appreciation in return. The reward for this futile effort is an ever widening intimacy gap. The very opposite of what both are working so hard to accomplish.
The resulting frustration and feelings of isolation this cycle can produce often lead to an ending of the relationship. All because of a simple misunderstanding. Both are offering what each feels are loving actions, both are seeking loving actions of a different form. It's clearly time to learn how to effectively communicate love in a language that each partner understands.
The analogy of languages and dialects within languages carries the message of Dr. Chapman's book very well. While there are five typical patterns in his model, there are many variations within the patterns and many of us are bi- or even trilingual. Many if not most of us, have a couple of languages that we naturally speak well and perhaps some that we speak in a limited manner. The more we understand about our own and our partners love languages, the more effective we can be at showing our love and commitment and feeling loved in our relationship.
Dr. Chapman proposes that the communication patterns of love can be fit into five basic categories: (1)Words of Affirmation: words of encouragement, kindness, and appreciation. (2) Quality Time: time spent together giving each other focused attention, having quality conversations, doing interesting activities together. (3) Receiving Gifts: large and small signs of being thought of, not necessarily expensive gifts, just the act of thoughtful giving, the gift of self, making sacrifices for your partner, being there when needed. (4) Acts of Service: washing the dishes, working hard at your job, making a meal, washing and ironing the clothes, keeping the cars or yard up. (5) Physical Touch: holding hands, having sexual intercourse, touching one another as you pass by in the normal flow of activities, giving foot and back rubs.
Dr. Chapman uses examples that just about anyone who has been in a committed relationship for more than a year or two (i.e. past the in love and lust phase) can easily recognize. The book is a quick read and one that I highly recommend for couples who find themselves working hard to keep love in their relationship alive but are finding that one or both are suffering from what Dr. Chapman refers to as an empty love tank.
5. That was good for me. Was it good for you,Dear?
Judging from my work with couples, the research I have read and my limited personal experience, sex is surely one of the most powerful areas of intimate relationships. For many, sex serves as a reflection of the overall functioning of the partnership. "If sex is working well for both of us, it must mean we're OK". For some of the couples I see in marital therapy, sex seems to be both the chicken and the egg, both the cause and the effect of good and bad feelings. An active, mutually-rewarding sex life can help smooth over minor annoyances and aggravations that otherwise might lead to major arguments.
On the other hand, frustration with sex (e.g. too much, too little, too early, too late, too gentle, too rough, too creative, too boring) can lead to fights and resentments over even the most insignificant of problems. If a couple is getting along in other areas, barring some physical limitations (self-induced or otherwise) sex will commonly be seen as satisfying, if the emotional connection is troubled, their sex life generally follows suit.
Problems with sexual intimacy can take many subtle forms and have roots in the distant past but often result in disinterest by one of both partners. Research showing that twenty-five percent of Americans (one third of women and one fifth of men) suffer from "inhibited sexual desire." It is recognized by sex therapists as the most common sexual problem and is a growing problem among those in their 20's and 30's, in their physical prime of life. Obviously sexual desire for one's partner is not based solely in youthful lust and vitality. Lack of understanding, unrealistic expectations, poor communication, stress and frustration often drain the energy even from young lovers who only months before enjoyed an active and rewarding sex life.
In addition to inhibited sexual desire, research suggests two common sources of disruption in sexual performance in an otherwise healthy couple: alcohol use/abuse and underlying depression. A third common cause is side effects of medications taken for physical problems (e.g. high blood pressure, side effects from medications) that lead to motivational and functional problems with sex. Left untreated, these problems can lead to a cycle of rapidly deteriorating desire and ability to perform. As this is an area most people treat extremely personally, it is one where open honest communication can be the most difficult. Hurt feelings, anger and resentments often lead to performance anxiety where the issue of sex is avoided or only tolerated without emotional investment or intimate sharing. It is often very difficult to break through the defensive walls between partners once this destructive cycle has been running for some time.
Fortunately, there are many options available to a couple seeking to break such a deadlock or to a couple simply looking to add some new excitement to an already satisfying sex life. For many, several sessions of marital therapy or even a "Marriage Encounter Weekend" may offer the greatest hope of working through the issues interfering with their sexual relationship. If the lines of verbal and emotional communication are open and active, a "Couple's Massage" course or similar activity may help reintroduce gentle, caring touch while providing a wonderful release of physical tension for both partners. The bookstores offer a growing number of books aimed at helping couples find long-term sexual happiness. Many of the video stores offer what many consider "soft porn" that seems aimed more at the stereotypical male viewer than at increasing intimate sexual communication and sharing between a couple. For some, such videos might add some spark to a dull situation but for many, such videos only increase feelings of isolation, separateness and dissatisfaction.
On the other hand, there are "video programs" available which address couples' sexual issues in a manner that is respectful of the emotional involvement of a committed relationship and offer some good advice in the "how to" category as well. Some of the best I know of come from a research group that has a good reputation: The Better Sex Video Series. Each video set costs between $20 to $35 and can be well worth the investment.
I would encourage anyone who is interested in perking up the sex life within their relationship to spend some time researching your favorite bookstores and video shops. Perhaps it time to add a few toys to your sex play toolkit as well. You'll find lots of options to choose from at "Good Vibrations." Invite your partner to join you in this search to insure that the materials and toys fit both of your value systems. That way, these purchases will more likely enhance your relationship, not add fuel for further conflict and disappointment. Happy coupling!
Section II: Going for the Brass Ring
A. Who has time for relationship?
Moving into a higher level of commitment in our relationship obviously requires a greater investment of that rare commodity, time. Without making some often difficult lifestyle changes, our best intentions for setting aside time for working on our relationship will not be met.
Many of the couples I see in therapy report feeling overwhelmed and being constantly stressed out and exhausted. And they often blame each other for these problems. As we explore more deeply, we come to see that the culprits are the couples' lifestyle choices. The material accumulation years of the 20's and 30's rather than coming to a comfortable end, are in many cases extended into the 40's and 50's and beyond. If we expect to move into a space of greater intimacy with our partner, we must shift priorities in this direction. We have to make time for relaxed communication and intimate sharing of our deepest selves.
Often this insight is not well received by those who up to this point, have invested their life in getting more and more of the creature comforts and luxuries which are our culture's obsession. They find it difficult to step off the ladder leading to what's bigger, better, more expensive. However, others respond gratefully to this shift in understanding and are open to cutting back on work and business obligations and scaling down in areas of excess. A handy guide to this liberating process is Duane Elgin's book Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple and Inwardly Rich (William Morrow, New York).
Elgin interviewed a large number of working men and women who have reached a comfortable level of "success" in our society who have simply chosen "to live a more simple lifestyle". These folks share a number of interesting habits and beliefs such as: (1) spending a great deal of time with partners and children; (2) working toward a well-rounded life with regular exercise, emotional growth, taking classes, following spiritual interests; (3) feeling a strong personal connection with nature; (4) having a concern for and a kinship with the world's poor and needy; (5) consuming less, buying fewer clothes, less jewelry; (6) eating less meat and more vegetables; (7) recycling; (8) practicing some form of holistic health care; (9) using less expensive and less damaging forms of transportation like walking, bikes and buses instead of cars or trucks.
It is important to realize that Voluntary Simplicity is not about embracing poverty. It is not giving up on your job or your important commitment. It is not rejecting civilization by living in the woods without modern conveniences, rather it is choosing to invest less energy in selecting, buying and caring for things, making room for deepening self-understanding and intimacy with your partner. And this can be done while maintaining an acceptable level of creature comforts and luxuries in your lifestyle.
Think about it: Less stress and less worry. More walks and hikes in the woods. Less TV and more books. Fewer times eating out and more simple healthy meals at home. Fewer objects and unhealthy habits and more room to add new interests and activities. Not a bad sounding deal, huh? And your relationship will thank you for it.
B. In love and loving it.
A great deal of time and money is spent on maintaining the illusion of "being in love." We watch romantic movies, read romantic books, are fascinated by the romantic conquests and entanglements of stars and sports figures. Love is often presented as some bewitching power that makes all things possible, all pains not only bearable but somehow worthwhile and meaningful. While this overly-romantic notion of love may be appealing on some level, in reality striving to keep this illusion alive leads to frustration and disappointment. Perhaps worst of all, chasing this illusion costs us the opportunity of moving beyond our biological drives and the "thrill of the chase" to an actively growing intimate relationship.
When the "honeymoon is over", we realize developing intimacy and keeping love alive is a difficult challenge. At this point we must shift from an easy and passionate "in-love" to a more difficult and often frightening "loving." We begin to move beyond our biological drives and toward true emotional intimacy.
The experience of being intimate and vulnerable with another person is often frightening. Pushing beyond our usual comfort level usually means some anxiety and discomfort. We may retreat from this task and simply build walls to keep us safe. This "safety" only leaves us feeling shutout, cutoff and empty. We may try to fill our emptiness with distracting and unhealthy habits that only deepen our sense of isolation. In our confusion we blame our partner for our own emptiness because, "he/she isn't making us happy anymore." Then we can leave (or worse yet storm out of) the relationship and seek another partner where we repeat the same pattern with the next partner until we catch on that the problem's not "them," the problem is based in our misunderstanding of how healthy relationships work.
One of my favorite books, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, contains a wonderful chapter on love. Peck proposes that in a mature, healthy relationship, rather than "fall hopeless and powerlessly in-love", an active choice is made to love the other person. He proposes that "work" and "courage" are needed to keep intimate love alive. The "work" is following through on our commitments to struggle and hang in there with the rough times and to make time for sharing our deepest thoughts, fears, joys and concerns. Courage is needed to keep ourselves open with our defensive walls down, even when we hear things that are threatening or critical of us.
It often takes a great deal of courage to face the bare truth about ourselves, our faults, our weaknesses and our needs. From Peck's view, work and courage from both sides allows a relationship to become a source of spiritual and psychological healing and growth. Work and courage on just one side, by only one partner can help create an atmosphere where communication can grow and deepen. One partner's efforts at listening and sitting still in the face of anxiety and fear can allow the other partner room to relax a bit. With time and a great deal of patience, even a wounded partner can overcome mistrust or doubt and move into a more healthy, less-defended style of relating.
It's very difficult to step back and observe ourselves and change the way we deal with our partner, to move from defensiveness which adds distance, to curiosity which adds closeness. Opening ourselves up in the presence of another person can be very frightening. The reward of this brave effort is a marvelous opportunity to come to know ourselves and another in all of our glory and all of our shame.
Scott Peck's views of loving relationships don't match what Madison Avenue and Hollywood are selling. His views are not flashy and wouldn't sell many cars, much make-up or beer. They are simply powerful ideas for dealing with real world struggles between two people bravely attempting to share their lives.
C. Can I really depend on you?
In discussing commitment, I will draw from a book written by Hugh and Gayle Prather, both ministers and counselors, entitled: "Notes to Each Other" (1990, Bantum Books). This couple's marriage has survived many significant obstacles (e.g. infidelity, dishonestly, betrayal) and they speak with the "earned wisdom" of those who have been there and been through it. The book came simply from thoughts scribbled on a pad at the couple's bedside over the course of several years. It begins:
"This diary begins with the commitment we made to each other in 1965 to remain together for life. We were soon to discover that this act alone, although fundamental to creating a climate of trust in which love can grow, does not solve all problems, and we want you to understand that we did not begin as a well-matched couple or with any other advantage except this commitment. We were not brought together through signs and wonders; we did not even particularly love each other. We were married on impulse the night of our third date without 'hearing a Voice,' and things went rapidly downhill from there."
Within an intimate relationship, I think of commitment as having the courage and strength of will to struggle endlessly to understand one's partner. For me, this means having (internal) and showing (external) a willingness to tolerate discomfort (e.g. fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, etc.) without giving in to distractions or diversions and not withdrawing from or overpowering the other but simply sitting, listening and trying to hear. It's sort of like Scott Peck's view that "real love requires work and courage" with a much stronger focus on the work part. We can decide and work to commit ourselves to an intimate relationship with another person. We can chose to let that commitment grow into a calming, centering force in our lives that can be more powerful than the misery and disappointment we may face, no matter how grave. As the Prathers put it: "Any form of pressure on a relationship - infidelity, the death of a child, a business failure, children from another marriage - can be walked beyond. This is always a possibility."
One of the common problems with long-term commitment is our tenancy to look for greener pastures when the going gets rough. The Prathers state, "perhaps the primary way we subvert our happiness is to carry with us the question of whether there is something better that what is at hand... thus we prevent ourselves from having the experience of devotion, out of fear that we might blind ourselves to a good change."
It is as if we thought that having "the right partner", would allow us to arrive at a place of constant happiness without having to put so much effort into the process of being "a couple." We may think: "It should get easier than this. I shouldn't have to work this hard to keep this feeling of closeness." The Prathers argue otherwise:
"The essential recognition is that two people do not finally arrive at a state in which concentration is no longer needed and can now fall back into separate egos and rest. Separateness offers no rest, and the world never stops presenting sufficient reason to be miserable."
So, it must go on forever, this struggle to find and to know ourselves within this relationship dance with another. This book offers an entertaining look at this never-ending process. It offers encouragement to keep putting one foot in front of the other, concentrating on loving the other while respecting our selves, simply because, "We promised that we would never leave each other." Maybe an old-fashioned idea, but a very powerful one in moving through the maze of society's many diversions that are often only opportunities to lose sight of our direction and purpose.
D. Let's grow mindfully together.
In his book, "How to be an Adult in Relationships: the Five Keys to Mindful Loving," David Richo (Shambhala, 2002) presents a useful model for integrating the practice of mindfulness into our intimate relationships. He proposes that five keys or necessities are required in our movement into full adulthood: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection and allowing. Dr. Richo states, "The five A's are not extra. They are the components of the healthy, individuated ego: attention from others leads to self-respect. Acceptance engenders a sense of being inherently a good person. Appreciation generates a sense of self-worth. Affection makes us feel lovable. Allowing gives us the freedom to pursue our own deepest needs, values, and wishes."
Attention is at the very heart of mindfulness. Within a relationship, attention requires genuine interest and curiosity in our partner. A superficial connection is not adequate to meet this need.
Acceptance means that we are received respectfully with all our feelings, choices, and personal traits and feel supported through them.
Appreciation gives depth to acceptance. It is a validating, a loving and cherishing without conditions or demands.
Affection refers to a closeness on both a physical and feeling level. It includes playfulness, thoughtfulness, romantic gestures as well as physical touch and sexual intimacy.
Allowing gives one permission to be themselves, to have their own thoughts and feelings without fear of being judged or criticized. By allowing, we create spaciousness for our partner to grow to their fullest potential.
Perhaps it's no surprise that some of these keys were not adequately provided by our parents. As a result, we can enter adulthood lacking the skills for giving and receiving these key elements of successful adult intimacy. And there's more. Being unaware that these deficiencies lie within ourselves, we tend to blame our partner when they are not satisfied rather than assuming responsibility for them ourselves. This projection only deepens our pain associated with these unmet needs. The relationship becomes just another place we feel unloved and trapped within our limited range of expression.
The good news is that we can come to recognize our level of incompleteness regarding the five keys and take steps to come into fullness. Mirroring is an important aspect of this process and we can learn to mirror love not only as we need it mirrored to us but also as our partner needs to have it mirrored by us. It just takes commitment, courage and work to move beyond our ego barriers onto a mutually-satisfying intimate relationship.
Richo also offers useful suggestions and exercises for choosing a partner, for recognizing when it's time to separate from a partner, when love has become an addiction. There is much to learn from Richo's writings on the art of bringing mindful attentiveness to the dance of intimate relationships.
Section III: Relationship as Spiritual Path
A. You and I are indeed One.
Once we identify and unpack the baggage from our respective pasts, establish mastery in the basic relationship skills and deepen our commitment to personal and spiritual growth, we are ready to move into a place of transcendence, a place beyond our separate egos into the loving space of the Divine. In their book, "Embracing the Beloved: relationship as a path of awakening," Stephen and Ondrea Levine share their path of relationship as inward journey. This couple describes how opening one's heart to another and facing fears that arise in this process can lead to deeper levels of self awareness and ultimately to the experience of union with "The Beloved," the non-dual space from which all arise and into which all returns.
If you think this sounds like these guys are coming from a Buddhist perspective, you're right. Meditation practice and eastern thought are cornerstones of their individual work and their path together. From the introduction: "We recognize the enormous power of relationship as a vehicle for mutual healing: physical, emotional and spiritual.
"This is not a book about how to 'make nice' in relationship. This book is about using relationship as a means for profound inner growth. Indeed, much in this book deals with embracing the pained mind that just wants to 'make nice' to maintain safe territory, cowering in the corner, unwilling to engage that which keeps us frightened and absent. This is about cultivating a relationship where the mind turns easy and the heart bursts into flame. This is about the enlightenment of relationship.
"This book approaches relationship as spiritual practice. It is a merging of techniques for clearing the mind and opening the heart."
The Levine's writing is inspiring and encouraging of our taking a deeper, longer-range view of intimate relationship. They show us that the path of spiritual union is indeed a wonderful journey to share with a committed partner. This path requires strong dedication to facing one's fears and working through the layers of armor that maintain the illusion of separateness. It also requires that we hold a mirror up for our partner and they for us so that we can better see where we need to work, where we need to open. This opening is the foundation of the experience of Oneness we all seek in one way or another. What a wonderful gift to move into that spiritual space of Emptiness, non-duality in the presence of another. The rewards of connection with the Beloved, the One, the All are sweet indeed. So much sweeter still when shared with a courageous, committed partner.
The Levine's material on mindful relationships is also available in an audiotape series entitled: "To Love and Be Loved" and may be purchased through Sounds True.com