The goal of our life is…to bring more love and truth into the world. We marry to assist each other in this process. Leo Tolstoy
A dear friend of mine said on the eve of his oldest daughter’s thirteenth birthday, “Today is my last day to be an expert on adolescents!” I giggled when I heard him say this thinking of the myriad of times I have had to learn this lesson. It is so easy to think we know something before we are knee deep in the complexity of what it is REALLY LIKE! That is certainly true of marriage. The onlookers view of marriage and what pulls us into its gravity are only a painter’s brushstroke on the landscape of the actual nitty-gritty day to day of wedded life. The descriptor is hardly the same as the lived heartbeat.
People get pulled into partnership through the disguise of a person they cannot live without. A person who initially reminds them in countless delicious ways of their inestimable value, talent, humor and creativity. A person who for a time, invites only the best in them. But in time, as our uniqueness to each other gives way to familiarity and life’s demands bring forth our frustration and discouragement, we begin to reveal our cracks; our places of fear and insecurity. This often invites us to act toward our partners in less than generous and loving ways. If our partner is not already in their own cycle of frustration and discouragement, fear and insecurity, our new behavior toward them, usually takes them there. Their response to us is one of defensiveness and criticism, anger and withdrawal. We begin a cycle of relating which does not bring out the best in each other and does not give each other the benefit of the doubt. Instead it inadvertently reinforces our insecurities and deepest fears – that we aren’t lovable or valuable after all … and our partner knows it and is on the verge of rejecting us.
So if marriage is not the stage of a never ending play of happiness and delight, what is the larger purpose in marriage? If this pattern of challenges in relating is inevitable, how do we rise above it? Transcend it? Or are we meant for a series of short albeit intense relationships?
We know from research the yummy ‘love’ feelings and the brain chemicals that produce them last for about four years. The “Your job is to make me happy” marriage lasts less than eight. With all of the centrifugal force pulling partnerships apart, what are we to do if we want our relationship to last a lifetime? How do we do that? What do we need to do to cultivate a love that thrives? How do we defy the statistics?
Here are 3 tips that can help a relationship go the distance:
- Marriage is not about your partner making you happy
No one will make you more crazy, more frustrated, push more of your buttons or triggers than your partner … because no one will be closer to the nucleus of who you are and where you need to grow. At the heart of what your partner will demand is usually an invitation to learn to love more fully and unselfishly. He or she will ask you to listen better, be more emotionally engaged, understand their perspective and be more patient. All these requests are requests that ask you to love more deeply. Their behavior may require you to grow more voice or understand yourself more fully. Their behavior may require you to understand your infinite value and believe in yourself more. All of these things are also invitations to love more deeply. I often think of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. This commandment is predicated on the fact that we love ourselves. The degree to which we can love someone else is always limited by the degree to which we love and accept ourselves. Marriage is precisely a spiritual path because it is a path that teaches us to love ourselves and love someone else better … especially when it is most difficult to do. When we extend grace to ourselves and seek to learn instead of condemn; when we extend grace to our partner and seek to learn instead of condemn, we learn to love. When we extend the benefit of the doubt to ourselves as well as the benefit of the doubt to our beloved, we learn more what it means to love. This is the larger purpose in marriage – to grow us up; help us show up and shape up. Ultimately, to teach us to love a perfectly valuable perfectly imperfect beloved other.
- Marriage is not about having someone who will always put you first
Here is another paradox of marriage. When we go into marriage expecting this person to continue to make us happy by constantly affirming how awesome we are, and by channeling their life energy toward helping us achieve our goals, we spin a self-focused and self-centered dance that eventually leaves our partner feeling unseen, unloved and uncared for. This happens slowly since initially in a relationship both people are usually singing each other’s praises so much that it gives the false impression that each CAN EXPECT THE OTHER TO STAY FOCUSED ON THEM ALWAYS. Of course that does not happen. Marriage and love are dances of paradox … when you put your needs and wants first and foremost, you find yourself frustrated and resentful with a partner who feels neglected and uncared for. But when you put the other first, you are much more likely to find your needs being met. Ironically when we put loving and affirming our partner and our relationship at the top of our list it has a way of affirming and supporting all other areas of our life. It is as if all other areas are made stronger and put in clear view when we make this person and this relationship as loved and strong as we can.
I once challenged a client who ran a consulting business to put his partner and his marriage first for a month. He had a habit of letting his anxiety cause him to work longer and longer hours, putting undue strain on their marriage but often without the financial result he wanted. I had him put together a grid where he tracked how he invested time with his wife based on ideas they had drafted up together – ways she especially felt his love and care. Then a grid monitoring his consulting opportunities and jobs. At the end of the month he learned that as he intentionally invested in his wife, his wife invested in him and his career. She partnered much more with him around his work needs and did not see his work demands as a threat to their relationship. He actually spent more time focused on work and had many more successes. They worked as a team, spent more quality time together, felt more connected, had more fun and he was much more successful and happy that month!
- Marriage is an advanced spiritual practice and not for the faint of heart
I once heard a quote that said, “If you want to love God don’t get married, but if you want to love like God, get married.” A person could be sitting alone on their prayer cushion studying the practices of compassion, forgiveness and loving kindness and have one experience. But I believe it is quite another to try and keep your heart open in the face of the fear of rejection, or intense conflict, disappointment or betrayal from someone who you are deeply attached to. Intimate relationships such as these are a fire, a kiln, where we are challenged to put into practice all the great spiritual teachings of surrender, compassion, forgiveness, patience and love. There is no place to hide in the reflection of intimate partnership. Our beloved reflects both our inner beauty and all the areas left to grow and heal. Our partner is the one who lives with us behind closed doors and sees our darkest corners and uncleaned closets. There is no hiding. And if they love us well, they invite us to grow – to clean out those closets – to not settle for what can be healed, learned or strengthened. They gently push us forward into uncharted waters where we can be more of who we were created to be.
The optimal marriage is when BOTH partners see their relationship as a place of intense learning, a place to practice the paradox of putting the other first, and ultimately a spiritual practice of compassion, surrender, forgiveness, patience and love. When this happens both can walk with eyes of wonder and discovery observing what is being crafted in their hearts and lives. They can marvel at how they are becoming better lovers through this process as they see where body, mind, soul and spirit come together in the way they talk and touch and are together. They are free to see conflict as a time of growth and learning, instead of a sign of trouble or an opportunity to blame, shame or criticize. Rather than focus on what their partner is doing wrong, they can look at themselves in conflict and examine their communication, their attitude, their approach – because conflict is THEIR opportunity for growth. There is enormous liberation when couples see marriage as a lifetime spiritual practice rather than the latest purchase guaranteed to make them finally happy.