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.