The first step to using relationship conflict as a path is to shift our focus away from the heat of the struggle and explore its source inside ourselves. Any serious relationship can always point us to wounded places inside ourselves that we have turned away from, and that need attention and healing.
~ John Welwood
Everyone desires to have loving relationships in their lives. We all want relationships that bring us happiness and fulfillment, that give us a deep sense of connection and of belonging to something larger than ourselves. We desire relationships that spark a feeling of aliveness and love and passion within us.
A loving, intimate relationship draws a circle around itself as an alchemical container, deserving reverence and respect, in which each partner assists the other in becoming his or her highest self. Each partner is devoted to the other and to the relationship itself as a third entity. The relationship in essence becomes a vehicle for service. This form of service includes serving the other partner, serving the development of each partner and the union as a whole, serving the social network surrounding the relationship, and serving spirit.
In the 1960’s and 70’s we were culturally in a phase of individuation, we were trying to strike out on our own and break with traditional roles and structures. But individuation can only go so far before it becomes destructive and begins to split off parts of itself and the world, creating shadows and dysfunction. We are now entering a cultural phase of integration, bringing with us all that we’ve gained and learned from feminism, civil rights, and newfound psychological insights. It is no longer enough anymore to just individuate, to cut-off relationships without conscience, to dispose of all social structures in search of individual freedom. We now have the ability to think and behave in more complex and sometimes seemingly paradoxical ways. We can challenge ourselves to work through conflicts and differences and wounds in order to become more conscious and aware, and in order to act from a place of mutual love and devotion.
As we begin to relate in more complex ways that integrate honoring both the individual and the other, we become more whole. This integration is a new structure that includes the individualism and freedom we incorporated during the social rights movements of the 1960’s onward. This form of relating and living is not like that of China, for instance, where self is denied. We can now live in a way that integrates the respect for self with the respect for the whole. It is not one or the other. We can hold an awareness of both self and other, and when we encounter a conflict, we can look for the best solution while holding these opposites in tandem. Devoting ourselves to another within a loving relationship becomes a practice for dissolving our egos, and for expanding our love and care for others. This practice assists our personal development toward wholeness and maturity, and then ripples outward, touching the lives of those around us. This may seem like a difficult undertaking, but it is a way of relating and living that will bring us the fulfillment, aliveness, passion, and connection we desire.
Numerous people today believe in a romanticized version of love and marriage, and perhaps have no role models showing them a more authentic version. We are a society addicted to celebrity culture and entertainment. We see celebrity couples on TV and magazine covers announcing their recent divorce, only to see them the following month with new partners, purportedly in a torrid romance – and we begin to believe this is reality.
Popular psychology has often encouraged people to be individualists and to find personal happiness at any cost, without regard for the web of relationships in their life. Psychologists who dispense this advice are only seeing a part of the picture. People do need to individuate, to become themselves, and to have identities separate from others. But individuating doesn’t always mean leaving a relationship for a supposed better one. One can individuate and still remain connected to others they are close to, providing there is no abuse or severe circumstances. These two paths are not mutually exclusive. We need to remember that part of health and development is being connected to others over time, and in working through obstacles that bring us closer together and help us to develop more fully.
For those of us who choose to get married, or commit to a long-term relationship, we are given the greatest challenge of all. Rainer Maria Rilke describes it beautifully: For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult task of all…, the work for which all other work is but preparation. It is a high inducement to the individual to ripen… a great exacting claim upon us, something that chooses us out and calls us to vast things.
We achieve the deeper intimacies and riches of love by walking through the fire of surrender, chaos and selflessness when called to do so. We have to commit to the sacredness of relationship and draw a circle around us, creating a space in which we practice loving another. We cannot avoid walking through the fire if we want to experience great love. We can stay outside the fire for a lifetime, just beyond it, afraid to move closer for fear of the heat. We can play with different partners, play house, play out various fantasies, but we will never reach the true depths of what love can be.
John Welwood, a psychologist who writes eloquently about marriage and relationships says: The marriage vow establishes the boundaries of a container. We all have parts of ourselves that do not want to bother with things that are difficult. Especially in our affluent society, we want to feel free to walk away from anything at anytime. Yet because marriage is about the realization of love, not just its inspiration, it calls on us to deal with our fears of the earth – of being tied down, losing our freedom, having to deal with limitation and necessity. In taking a vow, we begin to subdue these fears and bring them under the yoke of our higher intelligence. We pledge that when things get hard, we will bring our combined energy to bear on the difficulties and see them through.
The realization of love that John Welwood writes about is possible. It requires that we begin to develop ways of relating that incorporate more complexity, awareness, understanding, and patience, both for ourselves and the other. Of course, this form of relationship is not always possible for a number of reasons, one being the fact that people may simply be at different stages or places in their lives, and therefore unable to fully come together. We have to be able to discern when the relationship is harmful or damaging, and doesn’t have the capacity to transform or grow, and when it is just wounded or changing, and has the potential to grow even stronger if given time and attention.
Without a doubt, approaching intimate relationships as a path toward emotional and spiritual development can be arduous, but the gift – an ever-expanding love, is worth the journey.
A lovely poem by Rumi encourages us:
Drumsound rises on the air,
It’s throb, my heart.
A voice inside the beat
Says, “I know you’re tired,
But come. This is the way.”
© 2011 Lisa Nave