My work with clients seems to arrive in themes. This week’s theme was, “How do I know that we can sustain a long-term marriage when I have so few healthy role-models around me?” As I was falling asleep last night, I remembered a section of “The Conscious Bride” that had to be edited out for space reasons. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from that unpublished chapter as an attempt to answer the crucially important question of what it means to be married today and how to move forward into marriage with faith and vision.
“Love is…a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake; it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.”
– Rainier Maria Rilke
My work has focused on the challenges, questions, and joys of the wedding process. But as challenging and joyous as getting married may be, the challenges and joys of actually being married are infinitely greater. And when the intense focus on the wedding dies down, we begin to ask ourselves many important questions about marriage: what does it mean to have a good marriage? How can we avoid falling into the high percentage of couples who divorce? How can we maintain the passion and vitality that initially attracted us to each other?
There are no easy answers to these questions. There are countless books on the subject of maintaining an alive, healthy marriage, each offering their own prescription for working with one of the most intricate of human relationships. The truth is that we are on the threshold of a new frontier regarding relations between the sexes. Never before, or not in recent history, have women and men been regarded as equals and the sex roles been so blurred. Just as we struggle with what it means to be a wife, so we must wrestle within ourselves for the answers to what it means to be married.
In the past, men and women entered marriage with a clear set of expectations about what their partner should provide and fulfill. Men were expected to “bring home the bacon” and women were expected to create a loving, harmonious home and family; men were the providers and women were the nourishers; men provided financially and women fulfilled the emotional needs of everyone in the family. The primary question in determining a suitable marriage partner has always been: How is this person going to complete me and meet my needs? The needs were clearly delineated and the primary task was to find someone who would skillfully and peacefully fulfill these needs.
For some couples, this traditional model may still work. Some men are content going out into the world and serving as the primary financial provider and some women are content in their role as homemaker. However, as women seek to further their development in the outer world and men seek to further their growth through developing a relationship to their inner, emotional world, the old model ceases to work. Women and men have been expanding their capacity for self-growth for the past thirty years. We are pushing the boundaries of the ways we have always functioned in the world, within ourselves, and with each other, and this monumental change necessitates monumental shifts in the models of our most intimate human relationships.
Women and men are becoming more balanced and self-contained as individuals. As women develop a relationship to their masculine side–through meaningful work in the world–and men learn to relate internally to their feminine nature–through feeling their feelings and becoming their own nurturers–we find ourselves gaining independence and no longer needing each other in the survivalistic ways we once did. Gary Zukav refers to this shift as becoming “the new man” and “the new woman.” He suggests that each sex is striving for internal completion and that it is no longer fulfilling to look to our partner to complete us. If we do not seek each other to fulfill missing pieces in ourselves, what is the glue that hold us together? What are the new binding principles of marriage?
It is important to have a viable vision to support us through the rough patches that inevitably arise in marriage. When the vision of “you provide and I’ll nourish” collapses, what is there to replace it? Several cutting edge thinkers in the psychological world–including Zukav, John Welwood, and Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks–believe that the purpose of marriage has shifted from a model that supports dependence on one another to one that encourages interdependence. They espouse the concept that we are brought together to grow as individuals, and that one of the great challenges of the marriage path is to be willing to look within ourselves, as opposed to our partners, for the source of our problems.
Welwood, in Love and Awakening, offers: “Of course, facing the challenges of this path takes great courage and daring.
This is where a guiding vision becomes essential: It helps two partners take heart and gather their energies when they feel lost or bogged down. What can sustain a couple through the most difficult times is knowing that they are together for a larger purpose–helping each other refine the gold of their essential natures by working through obstacles in the way of their deepest unfolding.”
Patricia shares that her view of marriage as a path to personal growth sustains her through the difficult times and keeps her faith buoyed atop the stormy waters. Even in the first six months of marriage, when she felt like she was going to die because of her sense of feeling trapped in the relationship, she knew that she and Peter were brought together for a higher purpose. She beautifully articulates her views on the wedding and marriage:
“The journey of getting married and being married has been so different than I ever would have imagined. Peter and I both hold the view that marriage is not just to have fun or to have kids, but it’s something that helps us evolve on a spiritual level. It is as important a vocation as it is to be a religious person. Supposedly, in the ideal sense, the married couple is evidence of God’s love in the world. Someone said that being married is a crucible, and I think that is very true. We feel like in being married each of us is helping the other to strip of the ego, we are like gold being refined. All of our issues are coming up and we are learning, in some fundamental way, how to be less selfish and more loving. We very much see a spiritual purpose behind this whole thing and believe that is why we are together.”
There is no doubt that several issues will surface in the course of a marriage. These issues could be psychological and emotional–confronting the ways in which we attempt to control or feel controlled, coming to terms with our fears of abandonment and suffocation–and they could be ways that the external world creates obstacles–issues around money, work, living environment, illness, death. If we enter marriage with the belief that we will “live happily ever after”, each time a challenge arises we will view it as a problem that we must get rid of. If, on the other had, we accept that part of the function of marriage is to learn more about ourselves and others, to become more loving and fulfilled people in the world, then each difficult situation becomes an opportunity for growth.
Michael, married twenty years, offered this wisdom when asked what he would say to couples entering marriage:
“Be aware that marriage will bring up some of the toughest issues you’ll ever have to look at, and that that’s a gift, not a burden or something to be avoided. Recognize that conflict is a blessing in disguise, and that it is through resolution of conflict that peace comes. And the greater the conflict, the greater the peace and joy. Be compassionate with yourself and your partner. Recognize that marriage is the most sacred and complex of all interpersonal relationships.”
Viewed in this light, marriage becomes a spiritual path. Woman and man are bound to one another the way a nun is bound to her convent and a monk is bound to his monastery. Like the nun and monk, who take vows upon entering their spiritual dwelling, so the married couple take vows upon entering the sacred union of marriage. The vows are a covenant which ask the married couple to abide by certain laws, abstain from certain behaviors, and hike the arduous terrain of their souls as they continually learn what it means to love themselves and another. Marriage is a mature, rigorous discipline. It is also a glorious, rewarding path, for the fruits of this labor are to find one’s true nature and to share life with someone who intimately knows the tiny paths of your soul.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., is regarded as an international expert in transitions. In 1998, she pioneered the field of bridal counseling and has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, “The Conscious Bride” and “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” her websites, www.consciousweddings.com and www.consciousmotherhood.com, and her blog, http://conscious-transitions.com. She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone and Skype sessions available internationally for all types of transitions.