Marriage, Romantic Realism and Relationship without Attachment
January 01, 2017
I've been a hopeless romantic for most of my life, but I am becoming increasingly disillusioned about love. I don't see disillusionment as a negative thing, but as a positive process: letting go of illusions, and thus becoming less romantic - and more realistic - about relationships ... especially long-term committed relationships ... especially the one I am in. I don't love my wife any less, but I'm striving to love her differently, more maturely, with greater acceptance and less expectation or attachment.
This maturation / disillusionment has evolved over many years, often unfolding in fits and starts. I may never complete the process, but I'm making progress. I wanted to share a few notes on the journey here, to collect and synthesize some relevant influences I've encountered along the path, both for my own future reference and in case it may be helpful to others.
One of the first realistic descriptions of a healthy relationship I encountered was in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's timeless tome, Gift from the Sea. My wife and I included a passage from this inspiring book in the readings at our wedding.
A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is built on some of the same rules. The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern, intricate but gay and swift and free, like a country dance of Mozart's. To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand, only the barest touch in passing. Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back -- it does not matter which because they know they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it.
The joy of such a pattern is...the joy of living in the moment. Lightness of touch and living in the moment are intertwined. One cannot dance well unless one is completely in time with the music, not leaning back to the last step or pressing forward to the next one, but poised directly on the present step as it comes... But how does one learn this technique of the dance? Why is it so difficult? What makes us hesitate and stumble? It is fear, I think, that makes one cling nostalgically to the last moment or clutch greedily toward the next. [And fear] can only be exorcised by its opposite: love.
My wife has always been the more pragmatic and realistic partner in our relationship, probably due both to her general temperament as well as her greater experience with prior relationships before the two of us got together. I have tended to operate more toward the idealistic end of the spectrum, and have at times practiced more of a possessive clutch than a bare touch in passing. Fortunately - although it hasn't always seemed that way - the wisdom embodied in these two paragraphs has been re-presented through many lessons in many contexts over the years.
A related source of wisdom is David Schnarch's book, Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love & Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships, which I first encountered - and found very unsettling - several years after we were married. Schnarch describes marriage as a crucible in which the role of our partner is not so much to be affectionate, appreciative and approving - though some partners may exhibit any or all of these characteristics at times - but to support us in our growth as differentiated and resilient individuals.
In my last post, I wrote about the pitfalls of depending on external validation. Schnarch contrasts external validation - or what he calls other-validated intimacy - with self-validated intimacy, in which "you don't expect your partner to validate or accept what you disclose. You validate yourself by showing your partner who you really are." I'll include a few other resonant passages from the book below.
We're driven by something that makes us look like we crave intimacy, but in fact we're after something else: we want someone else to make us feel acceptable and worthwhile. We've assigned the label "intimacy" to what we want (validation and reciprocal disclosure) and developed pop psychologies that give it to us - while keeping true intimacy away. We've distorted what intimacy is, how it feels, how much we really want it, and how best to get it. Once we realize that intimacy is not always soothing and often makes us feel insecure, it is clear why we back away from it.
Our self-made crises are custom-tailored, painstakingly crafted, and always fit perfectly. We construct emotional knots until, eventually, we are willing to go through them.
Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be part of a group.
Lack of differentiation alienates us from those we love. Emotional fusion deceives us into thinking that we're not connected and we move away in defense. But the deeper truth is that we have to move away to counterbalance the tremendous impact we feel our spouse has on us.
A more recent source of wisdom describing a healthy, illusion-free, non-attached way of relating to one's partner that I encountered is from Alain de Botton's evolving online compendium, The Book of Life. One chapter presents Romantic Realism: a term used to describe "a correct awareness of what can legitimately be expected of love". A reformulation and refinement of some of the wisdom in that chapter (and some of his other writings) appeared in another chapter, On Marrying the Wrong Person, a version of which became the most read article of 2016 in the New York Times. To my way of thinking, despite its title, this chapter/essay is not so much about marrying the wrong person as it is about marrying any person based on the wrong goals or expectations. Here are a few of the passages I find most resonant:
All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We’re distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature, but don’t know quite the details because no one ever encourages us too hard to find them out. An urgent, primary task of any lover is therefore to get a handle on the specific ways in which they are mad. They have to get up to speed on their individual neuroses. They have to grasp where these have come from, what they make them do – and most importantly, what sort of people either provoke or assuage them. A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet), it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.
The problem is that knowledge of our own neuroses is not at all easy to come by. It can take years and situations we have had no experience of. Prior to marriage, we’re rarely involved in dynamics that properly hold up a mirror to our disturbances. Whenever more casual relationships threaten to reveal the ‘difficult’ side of our natures, we tend to blame the partner – and call it a day. As for our friends, they predictably don’t care enough about us to have any motive to probe our real selves. They only want a nice evening out. Therefore, we end up blind to the awkward sides of our natures. On our own, when we’re furious, we don’t shout, as there’s no one there to listen – and therefore we overlook the true, worrying strength of our capacity for fury. Or we work all the time without grasping, because there’s no one calling us to come for dinner, how we manically use work to gain a sense of control over life – and how we might cause hell if anyone tried to stop us. At night, all we’re aware of is how sweet it would be to cuddle with someone, but we have no opportunity to face up to the intimacy-avoiding side of us that would start to make us cold and strange if ever it felt we were too deeply committed to someone. One of the greatest privileges of being on one’s own is the flattering illusion that one is, in truth, really quite an easy person to live with.
We believe we seek happiness in love, but it’s not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity – which may well complicate any plans we might have for happiness.
We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. It was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up may not have been straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come entwined with other, less pleasant dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating, in short: suffering.
One of the best definitions of suffering I've encountered is from Tara Brach, who has shared the following formula from the Four Noble Truths in a few of her dharma talks:
suffering = pain X resistance
I think the risk of pain always accompanies the prospect of intimacy in a relationship: anyone we care enough about can say or do things - or not say or do things - that hurt us. One may not be able to eliminate pain in a relationship, but one can reduce resistance by acceptance of what is ... and letting go of attachment to what is not.
And the themes of abandonment, suffering, acceptance and letting go of attachment bring me full circle to yet another gem of wisdom I gleaned from a recent re-reading of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From The Sea, with which I'll close:
When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity - in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.
The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits - islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.