Grownups Being Babies

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”—Victor Frankl

Choice evolves in a context of opportunity, maturity, and experience. In crafting our relationship, in transforming our marriage into “art,” we can aspire to choose, over and over again, to be compassionate and loving grownups, capable of making compassionate and loving choices. Babies don’t do relationships very well, especially when it comes to making plans and deals, settling differences, coping with hurt, delay of gratification, and disappointment, and sustaining the perspective that “we both count all the time”. They are inexperienced, and lack the judgement and self-control to make good choices. Babies are great. Being childlike can be great. The child in our souls can be cute, and fun, and creative, and charming, but, “as wonderful as children can be to have on our trip, we don’t want them driving the bus.” (Somebody smart said that).

Grownup: loving, compassionate, kind, generous, fair, patient, empathic… maintains awareness that we both count all the time… listens…. works out solutions that serve both partners…

Baby: Fun, creative, adorable, charming, capable of great kindness… AND, also: impulsive, impatient, self-serving, needy… little concern for how outcomes impact the other… manipulative (whiney, demanding, threatening, name-calling, tossing put downs, withdrawing, withholding, being duplicitous, throwing tantrums, employing silent treatments, ganging up with help of others),

Unfortunately, unless we work on ourselves fairly consistently and intentionally, we face the danger of spending much of our time in “baby” mode, and can find ourselves acting like less than transcendent, loving partners. We often trip into the “baby” place when we are worried, preoccupied, stressed, disappointed, tired, hungry, horny, irritated, had a bad day… when we are depressed, anxious, needy, have unresolved issues stemming from childhood… are struggling with mental illness or addictions… when we are bound by obligations and compulsions… or fear…

A couple was camping in a beautiful mountain forest on their anniversary weekend. Evening was descending rapidly and they knew they had to hurry to get things put away before it got too dark to see. Suddenly, the husband saw a large shadow start to move at the periphery of their campsite.

”What’s that?” he asked nervously.

“Oh my God! It’s a huge bear,” answered his wife, just as frightened.

”W..w..what should we do,” stuttered the husband.

”I’m going to run for it,” answered his wife, already running.

”You can’t outrun a bear,” shouted the husband after his wife.

Over her shoulder the wife yelled back, ”I just have to outrun you.”

Maintaining a commitment to exist in our loving, compassionate “grownup” mode takes enormous intention and focus. It is so easy to be “triggered” and to find ourselves reacting to a word, deed, or circumstance, (real or imagined), and to immediately fall into our “baby” mode. Once there, we are adversaries instead of partners. Then, we are squared off and ready for battle; then, we will use every manipulative trick we have; then, the goal is to win… and we cease to care about what happens to the other guy. Often we can work our way out of it. Eventually, if at least one of us can remain, or become, a centered, loving, compassionate “grownup,” that person can bring the milk and cookies, and make things “all better”. But if we both get triggered and go to the “baby” place we will find ourselves in a sandbox fight, and nothing will be resolved until we regroup, find our way back to our compassionate, loving adult, and create a solution that derives from that compassion and love. The more time we spend, and the more manipulative we become in our sandbox fights, the more our ensuing anger, hurt feelings, and resentment will accumulate, lowering reactive thresholds and contributing to the next triggering event.

Most of the old religions of the world direct their members to pray 2 (Hindus), 3 (Jews), 5 (Muslims), or 7 (Christian Canonical) times per day. Buddhists meditate up to many hours per day. In secular terms, we might say that they have all figured out that without, discipline, reminders and intentionality, people gravitate back to, or are reflexively triggered into, our immature, un-evolved, habit-dominated “baby” place. When we focus (pray, meditate, remind ourselves, stay intentional…), we can often choose to inhabit a more evolved, loving, compassionate, even transcendent, state. In our default mode we are spinning on the hamster wheel of our lives, putting one foot in front of the other, repeating the dysfunctional, habitual patterns and forgetting the intentions and aspirations we have regarding who we want to be in relationship with our beloved partner.

Remember, that a great relationship, or marriage, is not an entitlement or a birthright, and that WE have to keep growing if IT is to keep growing.

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Beware of The Witching Hour

Carol came home from work at her part-time job at 6:30. She had had a bad day: unreasonable deadline, a heated argument with a co-worker, and then a dead car battery and a half hour wait for AAA. She was fried. All she could think about was getting in the house, kicking off her shoes, hugging the kids and then crashing in front of the tv and watching the news. Dave had taken the day off to stay home with the 5 year old who had to miss school because of a low fever. Carol wasn’t really thinking about it, but she expected that Dave would be pretty chill after a nice day at home and would be making dinner.

“Houston. Tranquility base, here. The Eagle has landed.” 

— Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 Astronaut, 1969

As soon as Carol walked in the door, she found a mess of toys and clothes all over the downstairs floor, and smelled a burnt odor wafting through the house. Dave came out of the kitchen, said hello, and gave Carol a peck on the cheek. Without missing a beat he went into a story about how everything in his day had gone unbelievably wrong and he was stressed to the max. He had been attending a toilet bowl flood caused by piles of toilet paper stuffed in it, when he lost track of the dinner, which burnt to a crisp on the stove. He said that he had to call the plumber and that it cost way more than he thought possible and that they just couldn’t afford those kinds of unexpected expenses, especially since they needed a new oil burner. He was wondering if Carol could go to the market and get some groceries and then help him put together another meal, while he tried to scrape the burnt pot. He expressed his annoyance that Carol hadn’t bought the non-stick cookware that he had asked her to get months ago.

“Are you going to figure out a way to blame this on me?” she asked. “I can’t believe you can’t spend a single day at home without creating a freaking flood and a fire at the same time.  Maybe now you can appreciate that it’s not so easy. Look at the mess I had to walk into!

“Well, you sure didn’t think it might be good idea to tell me about Jared’s little game of stuffing toilet paper into the toilet. What a mess! And it cost a mint. And you left me with a drawer full of moldy vegetables, so that I had to use that frozen crap anyway.”

“He never does that kind of thing with me. You always let him get away with murder, because you want to be the good guy all the time. You just don’t get it. And you don’t give a damn about the kind of day I had. And I’m not going to any damn grocery store, and everybody can eat corn flakes for all I care. I’m going in to lie down, and don’t bother me unless the house is on fire. Again!” Door slam.

Jared asks, “Is mommy mad?”

“Yes. And so am I. Go up to your room, and don’t ever let me see that toilet paper trick again.” Tears, more slamming doors.

And the evening limps on.

The witching hour. Homecoming Touchdown. “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Humans under stress. Needy. Depleted. The Witching Hour. Somehow, as partners, as we are reconnecting after a stressful day, we imagine that the other person will, magically, make it all better. We believe that there is a support team back on the ground (in Houston?) looking out for our every need. “As soon as I (he, she) walk(s) through the door, it will be all better. My partner (good mommy, good daddy, NASA support team) will fix it. The day’s stresses will dissolve in a warm bubble bath of caring, nurturant, perfectly tailored indulgence.” “Here, sweetie, sit down and put your feet up so that I can massage them. I’ll take care of the kids, cook dinner, clean up, bring you your milk and cookies, call your sister and work out that ‘thing’, finish writing your report for tomorrow, and then watch your (movie; Netflix series; game; news-show; reality series) with you. Then I’ll have (not-have) sex with you, as you wish. Do you know why? Because I love you, and I know exactly what’s in your head and I’m going to give it to you, because you’ve had a rough day.” Or, maybe not.

What if everybody had a rough day? What if Houston was hit with an earthquake and there is no one there to support your mission? Probably the thing to do is to become an angry baby and start berating and punishing the other guy. If you need them, here are a few infantile, manipulative, options: name calling (stupid, lazy… great old standards), getting into the other guy’s head (‘you don’t care about me’, ‘you’re just angry because I wouldn’t let you get those Rihanna tickets’…),  withdrawing (‘I’m going to watch the news’, ‘I’m out of here’), withholding love (silent treatment, withholding conversation, affection and sex), tantrum-throwing, threatening, whining, yelling… The infinite variations on those options should be enough to keep you bitter and resentful for a few decades or until the relationship explodes.

Or we can try something else. In all my thinking about relationships, and marriage in particular, I keep returning to the idea that we will never change the other guy, so, what’s left is the challenge of changing ourselves. Difficult enough. I also perseverate on the idea that when we are in “baby mode”, that is, when we have lost hold of the kind, loving, compassionate, generous, fair, empathic “adult” who we are at our best, then all relationships go to compost. We stop caring about each other when we are in “baby mode”. Our beloved partner is no longer in the frame. We can no longer make “transcendent” decisions. We can no longer push ourselves to higher expressions of love, sacrifice, and maintenance of our commitments. Babies don’t do any of that stuff well. Babies are all about “me, me, me,” and “now, now, now,”  and, although, we all spend a good deal of time in that place, we should understand that when we are there we are not contributing to the kind of “artful” relationship that we are striving for. Another problem is that when we are in it, it’s hard to get out, because, duh, we are babies. Babies are notoriously poor at self-reflection and self-correction.

The trick is to work on ourselves constantly,  and plan ahead for when we are likely to be in “baby mode”.  As “adults” we know that at some time in the near or distant future we are going to get tired; we know we are going to be stressed; we know that we are going to be hungry or horny or irritated; we know that we are going to confront very challenging demands of work, home, parenting, and relationships. When we are in our best “adult” place, we stand half a chance of preparing ourselves, rehearsing options, planning for contingencies, making plans, and deals with our partners for when stuff hits the fan. This is where it is incumbent upon us to get disciplined, creative and even artistic. If we don’t, we’ll crawl through our relationships pouting and whining. 

So, what are some ideas for Carol and Dave?

Carol could stop on the way home and down 3 Bloody Mary’s before walking in the door.; (just KIDDING!!)

Carol could alter her homecoming fantasy and plan for the contingency that the other members of the household might be in some less-than-transcendent state and prepare herself;

Dave could practice some of his meditation strategies and get to the point of seeing the Louie CK humor in his domestic sit-com day, breathe deeply, and prepare his loving “adult” for his wife’s homecoming;

Dave and Carol could have a conversation during a pleasant walk (obviously prior to the next double melt-down) and devise a plan and a deal for the next time they are both feeling stressed at the same time (an inevitability): someone can be designated disaster coordinator and the other takes direction and does as they are told, with roles reversed on successive occurrences (once again, inevitable).

Finally, whatever strategies we might pre-plan, things can go awry. When we have shared meltdowns, we need to practice recovering as quickly as possible. Let’s remember that we love each other, that we are all capable of falling into that baby place (triggered by the world, or each other.) Don’t necessarily search for “deeper” explanations unless the cycles are frequent, abusive, repetitive or revealing of deep-seated, unresolved resentments, in which case seek counseling. Otherwise, as grandma might have said, “Get over it,” as quickly as possible, and get on with the job of loving each other.

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Valentines Day: Yet Another Day Of The Year to Act With Love

Here’s to a Happy Valentines Day! For a surprising history of this day of love click here. But what do we moderns do with a day like this? I guess it’s easy to get cynical about the $18.5 billion that the economic engines will grind out of us on this holiday, but as every artist knows, there is an opportunity to create art everywhere, even in the shadow of the commercial behemoth that is Valentines Day. Those of us in relationships can use this as a day perfectly designed to focus ourselves and clarify our intentions. What are we doing here? What does our love mean to us? How do we celebrate it, today and every day?

Casablanca kiss for The Marital Arts

Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca 1942

“A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” Ingrid Bergman

Love is both a noun and a verb. The noun, the feeling of love, is something over which we have little control, although it often responds to, and reflects, the actions of love. Love, the verb, is a challenging complex of actions. The way we choose our loving actions is probably the central focus of Marital Art. As partners, we behave lovingly, or we do not. We make choices in our lives to act with love and respect, or we do not. We are pro-active in behaving lovingly, committed to the processes that enhance our relationship, or we react to some real or imagined hurt, and respond with vindictiveness, manipulation, bitterness, rejection, contempt, hurtful words (or worse), dismissive avoidance or withdrawal. We let our exhaustion, or hunger, or horniness, or anger, or disappointment, or hurt, or self-doubt dominate us and impel us to act unlovingly. I guess we need to accept that the personal demons we fight everyday in order to be the partners and lovers we want to be are native inhabitants of our emotional landscape. Although we can and do judge ourselves for these primitive impulses, we will likely generate them forever like bubbles rising from a boiling pot. We can only keep working at creating the Marital Art that will turn those bubbles into warmth and contribute to an atmosphere that nurtures us until the liquid inevitably boils away. Since Valentines Day is here, let’s use it, as we might use every other day: as an opportunity to sharpen our intention to act with love.

To purchase The Marital Arts by Larry Stallman at Amazon.com click here.

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Manipulation: Good For Puppets, Bad For Couples

Of course I don’t do it; and I know YOU don’t do it; but SOME people, actually employ manipulative strategies in an effort to get what they want in their relationships. Can you imagine?

Punch and Judy for the Marital Arts

Punch and Judy

Punch: Oh deary me, deary deary me! Judy! Judy! Come up stairs. [He looks around the edge of the stage.] Where’s my wife Judy?

Judy: Mr Punch. What is it? What do you want? [Knocks Punch down] Why aren’t you helping with the housework?

What is manipulation? I think of it as a way for one person to get what he/she wants by using any means necessary and disregarding the legitimate autonomy and rightful wants, needs, and preferences of the other person.

Here’s a brief list of the manipulative strategies used by (would-be) lovers, spouses, partners-in-life: bullying and abuse (physical, sexual, verbal, financial), threatening (if you don’t stop it, I’ll….); posturing (puffing up large, shrinking down small, eye rolling), yelling louder than the other guy  (I SAID THROW IT OUT), name-calling (you’re a moron), withdrawing (where are you going?), coldness, withdrawal of love (don’t touch me, please), silent treatment (c’mon, honey, I’m sorry, just talk to me), guilt tripping (no, you go ahead and do what you want, I’ll be fine), employing the support of others (my cousin says you are SO wrong), passive aggression (I have no idea how your keys fell behind the radiator), pouting (long face, stomping, rattling), punishing (no sex, no affection, no sharing, no ride to ceramics class).

These are some of the major categories; there are infinite variations. Our impulse to manipulate took form in childhood, when we were truly powerless. If we wanted something, we had to figure out how to get it from the powers that that ruled our world, and we were quietly impressed by the manipulative modeling of others; we were cute, or smart, or “good”, or talented, or we pouted, or whined, or name-called, or bullied, or had tantrums, or lied. Fairness and mutual respect didn’t enter the equation. In adult “loving” relationships manipulation can still be very effective in achieving short-term victories. There is an enormous relationship cost, however, to winning by manipulation. With every manipulative victory, the manipulated partner is left with a residue of resentment, which can easily accumulate and pollute future encounters. Resentment corrodes a relationship and creates patterns of manipulation and counter-manipulation, emotional distance and ultimately, dissolution of the emotional bond (whether there is an actual breakup or not).

The alternative is not always easy, and requires awareness, a strong intention and daily practice: become aware of our manipulative strategies; replace them with a process based on love and respect, understand that “we both count all the time”, pursue conflict resolution outcomes that work for both partners, and, when all else fails, acknowledge and apologize for manipulative behaviors employed through old habit.

Let’s strive for love with no strings attached.

To purchase The Marital Arts by Larry Stallman at Amazon.com click here.

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On Resolving Differences

The challenges offered in the course of living a shared life are ceaseless. They begin when two people accept the task of occupying the same space in the universe and commit to an interdependent collaboration in the creation of a shared life that is at least tolerable, and at best transcendent.

“I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us.”

 

They make the choice to satisfy all of their most primitive biological needs, and strive for their highest personal aspirations in the context of the relationship that they have chosen to create together. The opportunities for conflict, incompatibility of needs, opposing styles, differences of pace, timing, sensitivities, and thresholds are potentially inexhaustible. The hope that these differences will disappear and liberate us to live a life of happily-ever-after, is understandable. But, alas, if happily-ever-after is to be achieved, it will only happen when partners maintain the understanding that they are, and will remain, different; that is, that they will always be distinct individuals and, therefore, they will never be the same; and that the only successful course towards the magical land of happily-ever-after will require an acknowledgement of these differences, and adoption of a process that is loving, respectful, and counts both partners all the time, as they work to resolve the differences.The alternative is a life replete with adversarial combat.

Marital conflict is complicated because it exists in an environment of complex emotions, which, by definition, are not rational or reasonable. Feelings just are. We want what we want. But sometimes, if we step back and give ourselves an opportunity to be really thoughtful about it, we can make rational decisions about what we want most. We can prioritize and assert our highest values in the service of organizing our other wants. For Marital Artists, this process begins with a commitment to organizing their wants in a context of love for their partner. A marital context of love, respect, and “we both count all the time”, provides a safe haven within which all conflicts and differences can be addressed. We can foster a trust in the understanding that very few of our other “wants” are as important as the establishment of a climate of connection, trust, partnership, and love, that embraces partners who behave lovingly. Let’s emphasize that in this context we are talking about love as loving action, and not necessarily loving feeling which may ebb and flow. There is an implication, an assumption, a faith, if you will, that loving action will lead to the re-kindling of loving feeling, over and over again. Alternative ways to do this “marriage thing” include establishing some kind of a business model, or a role based model, or surrendering to an acceptance of a winner-take-all, red-in-tooth-and-claw jungle model of competitive survival strategies. The latter approach, in the best of cases, may allow moments of good feeling, laughs, sex and getting the trash taken out, but it will also probably contribute to suspicion, distrust, and strategic maneuvering which inevitably leads to resentment and alienation.

Here’s an exercise that we can all practice: Identify all manipulative “arguments” as sandbox fights between inner babies, and stop them immediately (these are different from “spirited” discussions, and are characterized by employment of yelling, guilt-tripping, nagging, contempt, name-calling, withdrawing, pouting, threatening, withholding…)  Go to your own spaces individually, and meditate on the value of loving action. Breathe. Clear your head of all of the bullshit that get’s in the way of your ability to express loving action toward your partner (not getting what you want, resentments, thoughts of unfairness, disappointment, anger, revenge and payback, winning strategies, evidence for your argument, rationalizations for manipulative behavior). Breathe. Grow up in that moment and become, once again, the loving, respectful adult that you can be. Go back to the task of resolving your differences with an understanding that very few outcomes are as important, that is, will contribute to your marital and total life happiness more, than sustaining a process, that is loving, respectful, and wherein both partners count all the time.

If we can practice this for a lifetime we may eventually get good at it. If either of us is incapable of doing this, or unwilling to do this, then, good luck to us. We’ll continue to fight it out with all the manipulative strategies at our disposal, and, most likely, when one of us eventually wins we will both lose.

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Arguments

Often, when clients enter my office, they will report, “We argued a lot this week;” or “We didn’t argue much this week;” as though that reflects a measure of their progress or the status of their relationship. They’re often confused when I tell them that I don’t much care whether they argued or not. Everyone argues. The real question is, “How did you argue?”

 

“The business of art lies just in this, — to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible.”

– Leo Tolstoy

 

Even in our enlightened age, many partners maintain the romantic notion that they should feel the same way on every question, that they should feel the same way about every object, person, event, sensation, plan, memory… The ideal, if we follow this reasoning, is to eliminate argument by achieving congruence on every perception and desire. To the extent that we want different things, different kitchen colors, a different restaurant, different educational strategies for the children, different sexual activities, different vacation spots, different organizational strategies, different levels of order and cleanliness, etc., it follows that we will have more arguments and our relationship will be proportionately deficient.

Partners who seem to have it together, those who are more satisfied and less resentful, don’t really think about arguing as… arguing. They don’t think about arguing and they don’t think about not arguing. Arguing is just not a very useful concept when it comes to thinking about the resolution of differences. Marital Artists assume that differences are inevitable. Arguments imply an adversarial approach with consequent winners and losers and Marital Artists condition themselves not to think that way. They work to develop a learned reflex which orients them to conflict resolution based in a process that, regardless of the future outcome, is loving, respectful, and seeks to count everyone all the time. They understand that in the resolution of marital conflict, if one partner wins then both partners will probably lose. Adversarial conflict resolution is often rooted in manipulative behaviors; yelling, demanding, threatening, withdrawing, pouting, ganging up (with the help of friends or family), triangulating, or in some other way denying the rightful feelings and autonomy of the person whom they promised to love, honor and respect.

It should be neither surprising nor controversial to observe that we humans always want what we want. But one of the defining qualities of Marital Artists is that their “wants” include a desire to help their partner have a great life; they “want” more than most other particular outcomes to fulfill their commitment to behave lovingly and respectfully; they “want”  to make sure that both partners count all the time. They do not want their differences to lead to adversarial “arguments” that quickly devolve into manipulative, adversarial contests ending with an alienated or guilty winner and a resentful loser.

In the context of these relationship “wants,” there is usually very little need for argument. Our differences challenge us to think creatively and to find solutions that are acceptable to each partner even if no one gets exactly what he or she wants. Sharing of the personal significance of the issue for each partner can often lead to an obvious solution that addresses the wants and needs of both. If not, than strategies of compromise, turn-taking, consulting with trusted others, or even random decision-making can help us resolve the apparent conflict without jeopardizing closeness and trust. More than any particular outcome Marital Artists value a process that remains loving, respectful and counts both partners all the time.

When Marital Artists find themselves spinning into adversarial argument, when they find that they have slipped into childish, manipulative behaviors and have lost track of their higher purpose; when they fail to maintain love and respect and a creative approach to conflict resolution; they take a time out and try to become loving grownups, friends and partners again before re-engaging in the task. In the end, they understand that very few outcomes are as important as engagement in a process that they both feel good about.  

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Marital Values

The Marital Arts reflect a set of attitudes, values, intentions and skills that contribute to the lifelong process of creation and re-creation that is a committed relationship. The Marital Artist is a person who dedicates him- or herself to the pursuit of a transcendent relationship, and who never takes the process for granted.

 

“All fine architectural values are human values, else not valuable.”

-Frank Lloyd Wright

 

Awareness of these attitudes, values, intentions and skills becomes a profoundly important part of the daily experience of life for the Marital Artist, in the same way that awareness of sound and rhythm is elemental to the musician’s work; awareness of form, color and line is essential to the painter; awareness of volume, form and texture is vital for the sculptor; and awareness of movement is indispensable to the dancer. And like the martial artist, the Marital Artist is committed to pursuit of a centered, transcendent self-discipline that shapes all of the decisions of his or her life

Marital Artists see a creative challenge in the task of working out value and attitude conflicts. However, they also understand the need to start with a shared sense of the fundamental values that shape the processes of their relationship, among these being, commitment, trust, respect, and counting each other all the time.

 
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Marriage Offers a Transcendent Opportunity

A marital relationship with the right person at the right time can provide a transcendent opportunity; an opportunity that offers an alternative to the somnambulant march through a life shaped by the accidents of our birth. The accidents of birth to which I refer include all of the factors that helped to form us, and over which we had little or no intentional control.

 

“There is nothing in a caterpiller that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”

– Buckminster Fuller

 

These might include our physical attributes, such as skin or hair color; gender; our parents and kin stretching back to the first man and woman; our gifts, such as intellect, judgment, impulse control, empathy, imagination, physical beauty, grace and strength, and personality attributes, (need for control, order, recognition, attention, intellectual stimulation); our time in history and geographic place on the planet; our social status and wealth; the culture we inherited from our parents and neighbors; our primary language and the way it shaped our thinking; the media we were exposed to; the propaganda and marketing; the illnesses we suffered; the ecological conditions during the time of our development.  Clearly, the list can go on and on. And without getting into lofty discussions of free will and determinism, suffice it to say that there is much over which we have had little or no control.

 There is a time, however, if we are very lucky, and if we have embraced the requisite sense of humility, that we may become aware of this existential condition and make a conscious decision to transcend it. It is at this point that we can begin to make the efforts to transform our values and reshape ourselves, and seek to become the person that we really want to be, and not the one we came to be through the accidents of our birth. What a wonderful opportunity this provides for Marital Artists partnering in a relationship: the opportunity for each to help the other transcend the “accidents” of their births and to metamorphose into all that they can be.

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Marriage in Context

Our impulse to bond is such a primitive, complex and essential force, that cultures throughout the world have deemed it necessary to provide oversight through ritual and rite. Where this occurs, individuals, for better or worse, inherit a whole set of rules, spoken, written, or unspoken, concerning the details of the roles and expectations of marriage. The implication is that to be a “good” person, and to have a successful marriage, you must work very hard to perform your roles and to meet expectations.

Georgia O'Keeffe quote for The Marital Arts

Petunias by Georgia O’Keeffe

 

“To create one’s own world in any of the arts takes courage.”

-Georgia O’Keeffe

 

But in today’s Western societies, expectations and social injunctions have loosened to such an extent that they barely exist. Now it has become the responsibility of each individual to clarify his or her own vision of the relationship s/he wants, to choose partners, to define the nature of the relationship, to choose to maintain or discard the relationship over time, and, most problematically, to create the rules.

In cultures like ours the commitments to intimate partnership are stressed by the competing commitments to individuality and to the actualization of self. We want to be part of the partnership, but we also want to maintain our own individual identities and boundaries. Relationships, and specifically marriage, without socially defined, shared, and supported roles, is very anxiety provoking. We never quite know what to do; at every step in the process we have to make it up. But roles and rules make us anxious; they inhibit us and thwart our creativity, personal expression, and actualization of self. This is the social context in which modern relationship partners find themselves, and it presents this challenge to aspiring Marital Artists: how can we abandon restrictive role expectations, and commit to creating and re-creating our relationship, over-and-over again, so that it uniquely reflects the transforming shapes of our needs and aspirations throughout our life together?

Marital Artists strive to maintain the understanding that their relationship is an organic, transforming process, and always a work in progress.

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Marriage. What’s the Point?

What is the point? Why do any of us do this “marriage” thing? Many of us don’t. For many the institution of marriage seems archaic (who wants to live in an institution anyway, har, har).  We can certainly do most of the things that married couples do without being married. We can love each other, be affectionate, loyal, have sex, have babies, live together, own property, travel…  Many people are not impressed by the “piece of paper.”

“I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; and it wasn’t our love that protected them — it was that promise.”

Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth

When married people are asked, “Why are you doing this?” they often answer, “Because we love each other and we want to spend our lives together.” This is a very good answer on the face of it. But many of the unmarried couples will say, “We love each other, too, and we also plan to spend our lives together.” But as long as we’re talking about “love,” How many marital partners actually share an understanding of what love is? Is it a feeling? Is there ever permanence to the feeling of “love,” or do we have it for a while and then move on when the feeling goes. Everybody knows that feelings change. Hamburger tonight, arugula tomorrow; red hair this week, black hair next week; blue jeans this year, three piece suit next year; station wagon this decade, sports car next decade… We can be a fickle lot. Does marriage help us “lock in” so that we can’t leave when we get tired of each other? That used to be more true than it is today. These days it’s relatively easy to jump ship when the voyage no longer suits us.

Historically (See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History) marriage provided practical solutions to many of the core problems of living. It contributed to functional social organization and for stability in individual lives: credentialing for adulthood, stabilization of the rearing of children, ensuring the orderly passage of property from one generation to the next, the extension of kinship bonds for economic, social and security reasons, and formalization and control of the potentially chaotic vicissitudes of sexual desire. We have different ways of looking at all of those socio-cultural elements today. There’s also a biochemical cocktail somewhere in the mix; evolution has provided us with hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin that impel us to bond (like Canadian geese). Some people feel that the Gods want us to get married, however, many of the rest of us feel that even if the Gods have preferences for our coupling behaviors, we’re not smart enough to know what He, She or They want.

OK, blah, blah, blah. Here’s the thing. The truth is that, in contmporary times, there is probably no rational reason to get married. And it doesn’t matter.

Those of us who want to be married (or make a serious commitment to another person), (and remember, we don’t have to because it won’t be on the test) do it for a lot of  irrational, personal reasons that I won’t go into here. Let’s just say we want to. For those of you who do not want to be married, or involved in a committed relationship, that’s ok, truly. It is much better to be aware of that than to feel a need to be where you don’t want to be, or with the wrong person, or at the wrong time.  I would hope that everyone can feel great about whatever relationship choices they wish to make.

For those interested in being married, or getting married; those who are not currently experiencing the acute pain of having had marriages shattered by tragedy or forces beyond your control; the question becomes, “How do we do this ‘marriage thing,’ or enter a committed relationship in a way that works for us?”  What is the commitment? What are we committing to? What does this commitment really mean for our life together? And what’s love got to do with it, especially since we understand that we can love each other without making this kind of commitment?

Here’s the answer that I explore in The Marital Arts: We are committed to developing love, not only as a feeling, but also as a process, and as a set of values, attitudes, principles and habits that inform choices and actions. We are committed to helping each other define, pursue and achieve the best life possible; we are committed to helping each other grow and actualize ourselves in every possible way; we will each commit to becoming everything we can be, and to helping each other become everything we can be. We will help each other grow morally and spiritually, sexually, materially and socially; we will help each other become the best parents, grandparents, friends and citizens; we will support each other in pursuit of our passions; we will help each other master our demons. We will develop skills and engage in a process that strives always to be loving and respectful in the resolution of differences and  impasses. We will both count all the time. We will help each other transcend the accidents of our birth that have brought us to this point of awareness and choice. We will transform our marriages into art.
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