We all know the depressing statistics of marriage – Roughly half the marriages world wide will end in divorce, and at least half of those couples that remain together describe themselves as not particularly happy or possibly even unhappy. The problem is love, or the lack there of. All too often we hear the statement: “I have fallen out of love” or, “the spark has died”. Considering this gloomy reality about marriage, one naturally asks the question: Is there hope for long lasting love in contemporary marriage? I believe there is, but it is our increased consciousness of ourselves and our commitment to the growth of ourselves and the concomitant growth in our marriage.
If we plant a shrub in the garden, we consider the different variables, like sun, soil and water, and then we stand back and wait. It is growth that we are waiting for. Growth is what we expect, what we have come to consider as natural. Similarly, a good marriage is a growing marriage, a relationship where our capacity to love each other as well as ourselves increases over time. Like a plant, a marriage can stagnate, not necessarily die, but just simply stop growing.
A stagnant marriage is a relationship that is not changing – same old, day in and day out. It is often characterized by a neutral feeling description, “Its okay”, “better than nothing” or “good enough”. It is not necessarily bad or difficult. There is usually no constructive conflict and sometimes no conflict at all. These relationships are functional and usually look good from the outside. It is only on the inside that the couple feels the gap, a sense that something is missing. To put it another way, a stagnant relationship is functional but it lacks depth and energy. Nobody chooses or desires this kind of relationship. It seems to creep up from nowhere and only when it is more obviously pronounced do we notice it.
Although at times our relationship dynamics may be difficult to define or understand, and change appears to be out of our hands, it is possible to ensure that our relationship remains in a cycle of growth and change.
The following ideas may help you direct your marriage into a healthy growing entity. There are no text book formulae to ensure growth in your marriage. This is largely due to the fact the every marriage is made up of unique people and emerges in a unique context. In addition to this, and probably more significant, is the reality that marriage is a journey between two people, a journey of discovery where we will find the answers within ourselves and within the interpersonal space that exists between us. The answers do not lie outside of ourselves or in the other, but rather in the in between us and in ourselves.
I hope that these ideas will guide your perceptions and help you gain insight into yourself and your relationship. Increased understanding will naturally enable you to be different and empower you to facilitate change and growth in your marriage.
1. Conscious effort
A good marriage does not emerge spontaneously. Falling in love is effortless and is often experienced as being spontaneous. It just happens. However, staying in love is not easy and it does not just happen. We cannot assume that if we are deeply in love in courtship, that that love is going to automatically extend into marriage.
For that deep love to continue we need to apply ourselves and make an effort. Furthermore, the old adage applies, “No pain, no gain.” This is similar to physical exercise. If you are training to run a marathon or even simply going to pilates, you will not feel you are progressing unless you are experiencing a degree of discomfort or muscular stretching. This is true for marriage. For love to last we need to experience some degree of discomfort. We need to constantly push the envelope in terms of our tolerance for emotional discomfort and pain. We need to work at emotional fitness to remain in love.
This fitness requires the following:
a. Stop! Take the time to be mindful of your relationship
b. Look! Dare to notice, both yourself in relationship to your spouse, as well as your spouse in relationship to you. Adopt a reflective disposition, noticing feeling and being curious about your inner responses in that relational space.
c. Listen! Listen to self and listen to the other trying to understand you.
d. Practice! Make an effort to be different, to consciously not perpetuate automatic habitual responses that create the “same old” experience.
Communication is arguably the most important vehicle to growth in marriage. It is through communication that we are able to engage with the other and feel in relationship with our spouse. It is in communication that we express who we are as well as receive the other. Without communication, it seems impossible to give and receive love.
For the purpose of this article, I would like to divide communication into two aspects, firstly the issue of technique and secondly, the concept of levels.
Technique refers to the way in which we express ourselves and receive the other. Being mindful of our technique is helpful in keeping our conversations on track, which in turn will allow for progressive depth. The follow techniques are helpful in working on our communication.
a. “I” messages, rather than “you” messages
b. Non-blaming communication
c. Win-win attitude
Levels of communication
Communication can happen at different levels of depth:
a. Everyday conversation
This is a more superficial form of communication and constitutes the bulk of our daily interaction. This type of talking is not intense, and will sometimes be referred to as chatting, simply sharing ideas, experiences or tasks. In marriage, this type of conversation is relevant and necessary and most couples enter into it more or less effectively.
b. Problem solving
These conversations move down a level in terms of depth. At times problem solving can become intense, particularly when we encounter differences. A different way of seeing the world, different needs, opinions and different strengths. Some couples can become stuck in a conflictual space when it comes to problem solving, given their difficulty with each other’s differences. If this remains unresolved, it can affect their ability to communicate at both the previous level as well as the next level of depth.
c. Sharing or dialogue
This level constitutes a deeper level of conversation. It involves sharing your inner world with your partner. We allow the other to know and experience our inner-self, that part of us that we do not readily show the world, particularly our more vulnerable emotions, fears, hurts and dreams. Sharing at this level has great value for developing a closer bond sometimes referred to as emotional intimacy.
The growing edge of our marital relationship then, is the establishment and maintaining our culture of deeper sharing and conversation. What does this sharing entail? Let’s just back-track a bit. We emerge into this world as vulnerable infants. We know only our insatiable needs and the concomitant inner emotional responses as our needs are addressed or neglected. We find ourselves completely dependent on our caregivers for all our physical and emotional needs.
As we mature, and our cognition develops, we soon learn ways of more deliberately making our needs known. We are constantly learning about what to expect and how to work with disappointment and frustration. We find ways to adapt and position ourselves in relationship to get what we want. This subtle formation in our early years is what we can term our presenting self, the self that we create to manage life and deal with the world. This self is sometimes referred to as the adaptive self, the ego or the false self. It is an important and valuable part of ourselves and has relevance in terms of our functioning and overall wellbeing, but it is not the sum total of our being. There is another part of us referred to as the true self, the inner child or the soul. This self for the most part is partly or completely hidden from our consciousness. As we move into adulthood we are more able to access this inner self.
To experience love at a deep level, we need to first access, and then bring this inner self into the relationship. It is important to not see this as an either/or concept. Most people do this to some extent. If we want to move a relation from being a good functional partnership with some love, into a deeper more intimate connection, we need to get in touch with who we really are and the express that deeper self, and experienced being received at this deeper level by our spouse.
Moving this concept into a more pragmatic level, we can consider the concept of honesty. Saying what you really think or feel in a given moment can be challenging. We often fear the other’s reaction or are anxious about how we will be received. However, there is a strong correlation between love and honesty. The more open and honest we are in the relationship, the more the love will grow.
Clearly, we cannot express what we do not know. The more we are able to see and know who we truly are, the more we will be able to bring that self into our relationship. Developing intimacy involves a journey of self-discovery. Find yourself and then dare to allow this self to be known. In turn your partner will then be able to know and love who you truly are and not simply the mask or functional self you are to cope with the world. Inherently, we will only feel deeply loved if we reveal deeply.
This process is daunting, primarily because we struggle to see or love ourselves. There are parts of ourselves that we have chosen to hide because we experience them as unacceptable or bad. The first step then to being love by the other involves seeing and the loving self first.
The journey of love is a journey where relationship with self and relationship with your intimate partner is intertwined. The more we are able to know and love self, the more we are able to give and receive love from others.