What does it take to sustain a happy and successful relationship or marriage?
Michael Berg replies:
Relationships are a topic I thoroughly enjoy researching and discussing, specifically one between a husband and wife. It is, in fact, one of the most significant connections we will ever have, one that can impact our lives for better or worse.
What helps sustain a relationship is continuing to put as much effort into nourishing it as we did finding it. Blind dating, online dating, double dating – we put ourselves through every imaginable uncomfortable situation, and once we get married, it is almost as if it’s another item crossed off our checklist. Married, check. Children, check. Career, check. Very often we have a romanticized idea in mind as to what our lives will be like after we get married, one that’s often not based in reality. Inevitably, the honeymoon ends and life goes on. We get busy at work, spending time with coworkers, becoming close with our girlfriends discussing our relationship woes, and taking the kids out together. We end up spending more time apart and confiding in those people with whom we share our day.
We need to create time where we can come back together with our significant other to reconnect and share. This is a fundamental aspect of any relationship. We must put the time in. This connection has the potential to be totally satisfying and complete, helping us grow to levels of emotional intimacy that we are not yet aware exist.
Unfortunately, too often couples do not consistently invest in nurturing their love and when challenges arise, there isn’t a strong base from which to work. That is why I think this idea of nurturing a relationship is probably one of the most important keys. It is the very foundation on which the outcome of future experiences and conflicts depend.
Therefore, I would like to share with you four keys that are important for nurturing relationships.
1. Consciously focus on the good in one another. We need to make a conscious effort to focus on the good because this is what allows us to appreciate our partner. This is something we do when we first start dating. We de-emphasize the negative and overemphasize the positive. Unfortunately, the scales shift to the opposite after we’re married. Only through a conscious effort can we create a consistent kindness, fondness and appreciation towards one another, where we actually want to honor “until death do us part.”
2. Cherish small moments of intimacy and laughter. Finding the opportunities in day-to-day experiences to engage and create beautiful moments and memories together is what it’s all about. Making a commitment to each other that no problem or obstacle will be bigger than your commitment to each other is so important.
3. Be vulnerable with one another. I know the word itself doesn’t sound appealing, but giving your heart to somebody you trust and love is a beautiful and necessary thing. Even if it is hard to do. We may be too proud or untrusting to become vulnerable, but so much love and connection can come from this type of openness.
4. Repair. This is so necessary because after two people argue, usually one leaves the room and doesn’t come back to say, “I regret what I said.” It gets buried. And then comes the next day with another fight, usually about something insignificant like the remote control or who is going to walk the dog. This cycle becomes the norm and soon it becomes the primary part of the marriage. Coming back together for repair is crucial and discussing what happened and how to grow from it.
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” – John F. Kennedy
There are no stable marriages. There may be happy ones, but not stable ones. Either we are growing forward or falling backwards. This is true in all areas of our life. There is no constant; there is only change and movement. This is “the law of life,” which is why I believe nurturing relationships is so important. We owe it to ourselves and those we love not to settle for mediocrity in any way, and instead to nurture and allow our relationships to become the source of joy, support and love that they were intended to be.
– Monica Berg
Monica Berg is a spiritual teacher and guide. She is creative director at the Kabbalah Centre and leads a monthly forum in Los Angeles, Kabbalah for Women. She is also the co-founder of the charitable organization, Raising Malawi.
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes replies:
If any of us had the true answer to the exact and “true” ingredients that make for a happy and healthy long-term relationship/marriage, we would probably win a Nobel Prize for helping humanity. However, since this is an age-old question with no one definitive answer, we can only use our past experiences in the helping professions, as well as drawing on the wisdom of seers and sages from a variety of disciplines, to attempt to address this issue. Kahlil Gibran in his essay on marriage states, “Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup, but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping; For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together; For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
Over the years, I have worked with many couples before, during and even after their relationships have ended. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from my work and my own relationships is that “what you see is what you get.” People often fall in love and continue relationships into marriage believing that they will be able to change the other. This is interesting because we are often drawn to our mates initially because they are different from us, only to find that once we are embedded, we want the other to change to be more like us. Respect for who your partner is in the beginning of your connection is essential. A professor of mine in college once stated, “there is no such thing as potential.” I agree in terms of picking partners.
Once in a relationship or marriage, respect, empathy and giving to the other is paramount. If each partner in a relationship is dedicated to helping their mate grow, evolve and flourish without trying to control, limit or damper the other’s spirit, the couple will thrive and expand in their love.
Trust is essential. I don’t just mean physical fidelity, but rather trust in all realms of life. One should feel that they can fall backwards and have loving, nonjudgmental arms to catch them. This also includes dependability, responsibility and accountability to each other.
The sexual connection in a relationship is a beautiful gift, which should never be taken for granted. Although the sexuality in a long relationship may ebb and flow throughout the lifespan of the connection, a couple should work on the dance of their physicality in whatever form it takes at each stage.
Wherever possible, finding mutual experiences to share and enjoy is essential. Finding time to nurture and water the relationship will always cause the garden of love to flourish.
A relationship or marriage should be a safe harbor in life’s ocean, a place to find one’s bliss. Joseph Campbell, in discussing marriage states, “That is the sense of the marriage vow – I take you in health and sickness, in wealth or poverty; going up and going down. But I take you as my center, and you are my bliss, not the wealth you may bring me, not the social prestige, but you. That is following your bliss.”
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years. See her website, DrKarennyc.com, for more information.
Cynthia Bourgeault replies:
On July 5, 1997, high in a mountain meadow above Telluride, Colorado, my oldest daughter, Gwen Bourgeault, and Rod Rehnborg exchanged their marriage vows. I was honored when they asked me to be their wedding preacher and even more honored when the words I spoke seemed to move many people gathered there that day. The talk was later published as the epilogue to my book, Love Is Stronger than Death. We are reprinting it here in goop because it seems so appropriate to the question under discussion. And Happy 12th Anniversary, Gwen and Rod!
A Wedding Sermon
It is a privilege to have two roles at this wedding: mother of the bride and wedding preacher.
It’s easy to look at marriage as the culmination of love – the end point of the journey that begins with “falling in love.” But as all of you who have ever been married know, and as you yourselves, Gwen and Rod, are beginning to discover – marriage is not the culmination of love, but only the beginning.
Love remains and deepens, but its form changes. Or, more accurately, it renews itself in a different way. Less and less does it draw its water from the old springs of romance, and you should not worry if over time these dimensions fade or are seen less frequently. More and more, love draws its replenishment from love itself: from the practice of conscious love, expressed in your mutual servant-hood to one another.
In making these vows of marriage, you become disciples on the path of love. It is a powerful spiritual path and if you live it and practice it well, it will transform your lives and through its power in your own lives will reach out to touch the world. What you really do today is put your own selves – your hopes and fears, irritations and shadows, your intimate jostling up against each other – become the friction that polishes you both to pure diamonds.
But how to stay in touch with that power? At those times when stress mounts and romance seems far away, how do you practice that conscious love that will renew itself and renew your relationship? After all, if you are disciples, there must be a discipline....
Here is the one that works for me. And while its particularly appropriate for married couples, it can be practiced by all of you, in all circumstances of your lives, if you wish to deepen your own practice of conscious love.
It’s contained in one sentence – four little phrases – in that great hymn of love so often read at weddings, I Corinthians 13:
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
If you understand and recognize what each of these four phrases means and entails, you will be able to practice conscious love in all circumstances of your life.
“Love bears all things...” But this does not mean a dreary sort of “putting up with” or victimization. There are two meanings of the word bear, and they both apply. The first means “to hold up, to sustain” – like a bearing wall, which carries the weight of the house. Love “holds up and sustains.” You might say this is its masculine meaning. Its feminine meaning is this: to bear means “to give birth, to be fruitful.” So love is that which in any situation is the most life-giving and fruitful.
“Love believes all things...” This is the most difficult of the four instructions to understand. I know a very devout Christian lady back in Maine whose husband was philandering and everyone on the island knew it, but she refused to see it because “love believes all things.” But this is not what the words mean. “To believe all things” does not mean to be gullible, to refuse to face up to the truth. Rather, it means that in every possible circumstance of life, there is a higher and lower way of perceiving and acting. There is a way of perceiving that leads to cynicism and divisiveness, a closing off of possibility; and there is a way that leads to higher faith and love, to a higher and more fruitful outcome. To “believe all things” means always orient yourselves toward the highest possible outcome in any situation and strive for its actualization.
“Love hopes all things...” Generally, we think of hope as related to outcome; it is a happy feeling that comes from achieving the desired outcome, as in, “I hope I win the lottery.” But in the practice of conscious love you begin to discover a different kind of hope, a hope that is related not to outcome but to a wellspring…a source of strength, which wells up from deep within you, independent of all outcomes. It is the kind of hope that the prophet Habakkuk speaks of when he says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom and the vines bear no fruit, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.” It is a hope that can never be taken away from you because it is love itself working in you, conferring the strength to stay present to that “highest possible outcome” that can be believed and aspired to.
Finally, “Love endures all things.” But there is only one way to endure. Everything that is tough and brittle shatters; everything that is cynical rots. The only way to endure is to forgive, over and over; to give back that openness and possibility for new beginning, which is the very essence of love itself. And in such a way love comes full circle and can fully “sustain and make fruitful,” and the cycle begins again, at a deeper place. And conscious love deepens and becomes more and more rooted in your marriage.
It is not an easy path. But if you practice it faithfully and well, as disciples of love itself, the love which first brought you together will gradually knit you together in that one abler soul, which from all along, even before you were formed in the womb, God has been calling you to become: true man and wife.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Rebeka Sawyer replies:
I must begin with an excerpt from a poem by David Whyte:
There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.
I am thinking of faith now...
I believe in faith, deeply.
And in romantic relationships, how is faith exemplified?
What IS the daily "practice" of our unique faith in love? How do we create a “doing”?
On January 1, 2009, I began assessing my New Year’s resolutions. I found many, many issues that needed my refreshed attention...but the one that kept coming to the front of the line was HOW DEEPLY in love I was with my husband and the question of how could I better express and animate my love daily.
My New Year’s answer to this self-reflective dialogue included an invitation, so I said to my husband of many years (lifetimes?),
“Babe, let's find a moment, daily, to surprise each other with a kiss, a DEEP one.”
This is, after all, where it ALL began, the desire, then the yearning, then the waiting....
“And let us each unexpectedly – you or me – plant (definition: set in the ground for growth) a deep kiss. Let’s remember how it began.”
It is as simple as that and it IS as powerful as that, and as simple.
Now, each day we seek and plan, (and sometimes miss – ahhh, LIFE!)
to find the surprise, to seek the unexpected,
to linger in the remembered in a kiss “a thousand kisses deep” (Adam Cohen).
That first kiss can be animated daily. And it does, indeed, still set off the delicious, exquisite realm of possibilities.
When you love,
May you feel the joy
Of your heart coming
As your love’s gaze
Lands on your eyes,
Like the weight of a kiss,
May slow sequences
Of kisses discover
Your secret echoes.
– John O’Donohue
And, and, and...
– Excerpt from A Pretty Song
And I say to my heart: rave on.
– Mary Oliver
Rebeka Sawyer lives on the West Coast with her man of 26 years....and counting (kisses)....