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Are good relationships possible?

In the troubled, confusing times we live in, many of us long for the deep satisfaction of a fulfilling intimacy—a good marriage or lasting partnership. Yet a glance around at the couples we know—not to mention the divorce rate—suggests that such relationships are most elusive. No sooner do we enter into intimate partnership than we are tossed on an ocean of painful feelings: resentment, anxiety, sadness. Nothing seems more calculated to disturb our inner equilibrium. It's almost as though pain and sorrow were the inevitable consequences of being close to another person. But though the feelings are inevitable, the way we deal with them is not. How we respond to the challenge of our own negativity will determine whether it erodes the foundations of love and trust, or instead becomes the raw material for greater understanding and compassion.

What goes wrong

Do any of the following stories ring a bell for you?

"We've been together about four years. After the first two we started scrapping over small stuff, like how I don't get the pots really clean, or leave my clothes around. Then the arguments started getting serious. I began noticing how critical Beth was of every little move I made, and it started to get under my skin. I mean, I'm not perfect, but like if I wash the dishes she'll point out that I didn't wipe the counter. Always something wrong, you know, something I didn't do just right. Not that I handle that stuff very well. I should just let it slide, but instead I start arguing, and that just gets her going worse. Now we spend half our time fighting. There are still good moments, but they get fewer and farther between. If something doesn't change I don't think we're going to last much longer."

"We've been married sixteen years and have three teenagers at home. Rick has a job he loves, and I'm doing the community mom thing. I thought we had a pretty good relationship, but lately we seem to be drifting apart. Rick has to work a lot of evenings and weekends, which I understand the need for, but the thing is, I sometimes feel he'd rather do that than be home with me and the kids. When they were little he managed to plug in every day, but now it's just an occasional movie or ball game. And he certainly has no interest in spending time with me. In the house he just wants to zone out—read or watch TV. When I try to talk about it, he acts like I'm the one with the problem for not understanding how stressed he is. If I bring up anything serious, like money, or the kids' school, he goes into a funk and withdraws. Our sex life has about disappeared. I wonder, is he having an affair? If he is, I doubt he'd tell me. I've kind of given up. We just lead parallel lives."

"I really love my wife. She's been a wonderful mother and a great companion all these years. We have lots of friends and interests in common, we enjoy each other's company, and our life is pretty much on an even keel. Now that the kids are grown we should be excited about having more time to share. And yet there's something missing—that's the only way I can put it. Maybe it's that we're so damn nice to each other all the time. I mean, there are little things that bother me, but I couldn't bear to complain to Janet—she's so good to me, it would seem ungrateful. So I stuff it till the feeling passes. Neither of us likes to talk about anything painful. When we lost our infant daughter years ago we hardly ever spoke about it again after the first few weeks. We've had some sexual problems, but of course we don't talk about that. It's like we have to stay on the surface all the time to keep things smooth. It's not a bad life, but the terrible thing is, some days I feel I could walk away from it all and not miss it a bit."

These stories—and the thousand variations on them we've heard in over 25 years working with couples—illustrate graphically the incredible challenge of intimate relationship in today's world. The authors of the above quotes are perfectly fine individuals; they lack nothing in the way of intelligence, good will, and the capacity to love. Yet they—like so many of us—are experiencing the almost overwhelming difficulty of maintaining a stable, lasting, loving relationship. This raises some obvious questions: Why is this so? What is the force that ought to hold couples together? And why does it not seem sufficient?

The quest for gratification


There was a time in our society when economic pressure and social/religious convention was enough to keep couples together—regardless of what feelings they had (or lacked) for each other. But the world has changed. Today what most of us ask of relationship seems clear: to provide sexual and emotional gratification to ourselves as individuals. One has only to look at the idealized picture of love offered in the media to see the power this idea has over our hedonistic culture. We are all supposed to be adoringly in love every moment of our lives, like perpetual adolescents. And yet to actually enter into intimacy with this expectation is to embark on a path of pain. We may find steady passion and delight for a time in the early, romantic phase of a relationship. Yet as soon as the reality sets in—that no other person can always please us, or fill all our empty places—that hope turns to disillusionment. Each partner begins to resent the other for not fulfilling their impossible assignment. A new phase of relationship commonly begins, where both partners experience a growing negativity they are sorely unequipped to handle.

The downward spiral

Whenever our partner shows us a lack of love, we tend—if we are human—to react. The quotes above illustrate a few of the typical ways we do: lashing out in anger and judgment; withdrawing; hiding resentment behind a false front. Such reactions stem from the deepest patterns of our childhood, which means they are the hardest things about ourselves to change. Helpless to control these reactions, we unleash them on our partner, letting them know, directly or indirectly, how their lack of love disappoints us. Usually we attribute this to some shortcoming in them: insensitivity, selfishness, neurosis. ("You just think of yourself all the time. You don't care about me.") Does this persuade them to become more loving? Hardly. Rather, they experience our judgments as equally unloving, and the bad feelings start to become mutual. ("You're the one who's being selfish.")

This is the downward spiral familiar to so many of us. Its very essence is that things get worse. Romantic gestures turn to irritability and snappishness. A once-exciting sexuality takes on a mechanical quality. Traits once admired in our partner now seem merely annoying. As warmth and affection give way to arguments and sullen silences, as grievances multiply, as each partner feels more and more misunderstood while at the same time judging the other more and more harshly, it becomes increasingly difficult for each partner to see what in the other initially attracted them. Left unchecked, this downward spiral commonly ends in the relationship blowing apart. Those who remain together end up either bickering chronically or putting an emotional callous around their negativity—accepting a relationship without joy or passion. Few couples who experience the pattern avoid one or another of these dismal outcomes; they are the inevitable consequences of viewing relationship as a means of mutual gratification.

A new purpose

Fortunately there is another way to look at relationship, and that is to see it as a spiritual path. Lest that sound like a mere cliche, let us look at what it means. To view something spiritually is to challenge the assumption that we know what is best for us at the deepest level. It is to release our calculations of petty advantage, which do not take into account our unfathomable bonds with other people and with the rest of the universe. A spiritual perspective tells us that we cannot be so sure what is good and what is bad. It tells us that things are more complex and mysterious than our rational, egocentric minds can comprehend. Most importantly, it says that difficulties, setbacks, conflict, pain, and other negative aspects of our lives can, if seen rightly, become immense opportunities for growth and fulfillment.

What happens if we apply this perspective to relationship? For one thing, we begin to see that the occasions of hurt, confusion, anger, and fear in any relationship are not necessarily bad things. Instead we come to view them as challenges, urging us toward a deeper harmony. In a sense they are feedback—just as physical pain is feedback—reporting to us what might be wrong or unbalanced in our bodies. This feedback—it could take the form of a fight, a mood of sullen withdrawal, or simply the wish to be a thousand miles from our partner—asks us to confront what is disharmonious in our own minds and hearts. And that, alas, is rarely comfortable.

Beyond comfort

To put other things above being comfortable is a radical step. It means when a problem comes up we might not necessarily need to make it go away—or to blame and criticize our partner for it. We may simply wish to look at it, to investigate its cause. We may even—and here is the critical insight—welcome it as a kind of emotional radar that points the way, that helps us to find and work through whatever is blocking our love.

Once two people grasp this insight, nothing is ever the same. It marks a fundamental shift in the relationship's center of gravity. No longer is our purpose in being together simply the serving of our individual needs. Our relationship is no longer a bargain of convenience. Rather our joint purpose is to bring honesty and awareness to every aspect of our life together. Instead of being antagonists in a power struggle, we become allies in a journey of exploration. All the problems we have with each other, all the annoyances, all the messiness and rough edges of our personalities, all the pettiness, stupidity, meanness, and selfishness we are capable of, cease to be faults that disqualify us from the fellowship of decent partners, and become simply material for our work together. Conflicts and struggles are no longer tragic failures, but revelations; all that we learn from them becomes compost enriching the soil. The most difficult times are seen as blessings in disguise.

Psychological and spiritual: finding the balance

How does one apply this perspective to everyday life? Is there some way to "work on" our relationships, to improve them? Historically, our culture offers us two main approaches to this task: the psychological and the spiritual. Each has its own truth, yet each has its pitfalls. Modern psychology gives us the understanding that we are all full of angry, confused, conflicted feelings left over from childhood, while its handmaiden, psychotherapy, encourages us to explore, or "get out", these feelings. Such a process can be profoundly cathartic, and can help us identify the true cause of our emotional distress—which, of course, is rarely our partner. The risk comes when we take our negative feelings at face value. If we fail to see them as simply feelings, we can easily identify with them, turning them into judgments against those who upset us, a vehicle for justifying our grievances. ("My parents were monsters!" "I can't stand this obnoxious behavior!") When we do this, we in effect hold others responsible for our pain. Obviously this does not further the cause of harmony, particularly if both partners are indulging in the same futile exercise.

Tempering this are the various "spiritual" traditions that tell us our angry or judgmental reactions are delusions. We think our partner is "causing" us pain, when in reality it is our interpretation of their acts—as intrinsically bad or threatening—that makes us suffer. Seeing and releasing this negativity, learning to forgive and accept instead of judge and criticize, can liberate our hearts and produce enormous healing energy. And yet this outlook, too, has its pitfalls. We would like to be capable of always showing our partner unconditional love. The trouble is, something in us simply does not want to. Some part of us does get upset, is resentful and judging: it's just a fact. And the idea that we really don't mind anything our partner does ("Oh, I just don't let it bother me...") can become a pretense, or spiritual posture: a denial of the dark side. It doesn't work. The full spectrum of human negativity must be allowed, somehow, for there to be true honesty in a relationship.

Finding the safe haven from these twin perils, steering the course between them, is the basis of our work. To come safely through we must create a space into which everything is admitted: our partner's troublesome behavior and our charged or hostile reaction to it. If my partner hurts me with a vicious remark, I want to find compassion for the wounded place in them that makes them lash out. Yet I also want to find compassion for the part of me that feels hurt. Both are equally deserving. The point is not to quarrel over which of us has more of a right to feel wounded: it is to discover together, as allies, how the interaction brings sorrow to both of us. Our path must allow for all our feelings, yet preserve a loving space in which the expression of those feelings is not threatening, in which each partner feels safe. Sometimes it feels like walking a narrow ridge with a precipice on each side. The challenge is: can we respond to negativity in a way that neither represses nor indulges it, but transforms it into something higher?

The right use of difficulty: how relationships can change

We strongly believe such a balance is possible. It is not in our power to eliminate conflict and pain from relationship. Yet there is no conflict or pain that cannot be of service to a relationship. In all our teaching we encourage couples to view everything that happens between them as an opportunity to deepen their connection. The worst fights, the bitterest estrangements, the darkest feelings of despair and hopelessness—all these have their right use, and all can become important steps forward. Each time we make this leap, each time we go from seeing a problem as bad or hopeless to welcoming it as an opportunity for learning, a small miracle happens. Our hearts begin to open. Strung together, such moments begin to create a feeling of spaciousness in which our differences, our "incompatibility," the ways we grate on each other and push each other's buttons come not exactly to disappear, but rather to fall in proportion, to merge into a larger underlying harmony. In that harmony is our real happiness. By learning to embrace what is painful, paradoxically, we begin to uncover our deepest joy.

This openness, this willingness to explore negativity, is what transforms relationships. We can force neither our partner nor ourselves to change. Real change comes with understanding. We achieve it by letting go our ideas of what must happen and start to look at what is happening. We learn to hone our awareness when we would normally be mechanical, to open the heart when it wants to judge. We learn to look on all expressions of fear and anger as a cry for healing rather than as a threat to our being or a reflection of our unworthiness. We learn a new way of communicating in which we release defensiveness in the interest of our true safety. By listening deeply to our partner, by bringing awareness and compassion to our interactions, we cease trying to change ourselves or our partner and become allies in a mutual exploration, making true change possible.

A practical vision

This is the perspective we teach in our workshops and our counseling. Perhaps some of it sounds lofty or unattainable—nice in theory, but impossible to put in practice. Rest assured, this is not the case. The notion that relationship can be a spiritual path is more than a pretty thought; it is a usable tool with immense practical benefits, as countless couples we have worked with have found. Everything we offer here has been tested on the battleground; it can be applied to every moment in every day of your life together; it works. Yet all the work begins with the same fundamental insight: that the narrow, egocentric view of relationship we cling to most of the time is illusory. In truth we are joined by a force that looks kindly on all our needs; to see this at any moment we need only make the simple gesture of opening the heart. A miracle takes place when two people dedicate their relationship to this task. It is the noblest adventure a couple can undertake together.

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