Committed Relationship: The Best Thing Ever
The best thing I ever did for myself
Kate Feldman MSW LCSW
Commitment to marriage was one of the best things I have ever done for my development. I think I was already pretty well adjusted; I had spent many years doing intensive spiritual growth work, from which I learned to be in intimate relationship with myself. I practiced spiritual disciplines that led me into mystical spaces, and I entered into relationship with a community of people doing service that was deeply satisfying and soul- expanding. I learned the art of making my heart big enough for everyone and set aside my personal desires for the good of the larger community. I built a powerful foundation on which to build the future expression of my life.
But when I decided to marry I was responding to a call within me to experience the natural impulse to love and be loved personally. At the time I was deeply in love, but the inner work I had done gave me trust that the romantic experience of in love-ness was the tip of a profoundly rich iceberg that was to be the rest of my life. In the years of my marriage to Joel extraordinary inner transformation has occurred. I am not saying that I am finished growing, but I can say that through my partnership I have experienced growth and development in ways that were unavailable to me as a single woman.
How did that happen? I often ask myself the same question. When I observe each day of our lives together I don’t experience altered states of consciousness or the feeling that there’s anything special happening. Yet when I look back on a week, or over a couple of months, and especially over several years, I know I have changed dramatically. I am going to make an attempt to describe how marriage has transformed me. I don’t know if it’s a universal principle. All I know is that I am more uniquely myself, more available emotionally and energetically, and more content in my life than I have ever been.
The first thing I want to address is commitment. For me, commitment arises out of my desire to know love. I yearn to be loved. I yearn to express love. I feel urged from within my soul to find the love within all things. I am always looking for ways this can happen in every one of my interactions. Sometimes a love connection happens, sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends on my limited concepts, which keep me boxed into certain ways of experiencing love. But I am always yearning.
When Joel and I married, we made this commitment: No matter what, we will stay in the ring of this relationship. We will not run away. We will do what is necessary to keep building love and trust. We will honor the yearning of our hearts and find it together, no matter what it takes. We believed that within our marriage lay the key to our individual inner transformation.
We didn’t have to make a formal commitment. We could have been partners, or roommates, or friends. We could set conditions and limits on our loving, and we might feel better and more in control of our lives if we did. But that’s not what either of us is about. We are about the passion and aliveness that results from staying present to whatever comes up in each other and ourselves. We want to explore the full range of human intimacy. For us marriage is the commitment to explore love in all its depth, subtle nuances, fear, and glory. It is a choice. It is the ground on which we stand as our lives unfold, cross paths, even diverge.
As a result of our commitment I feel absolutely safe to show up. When we fight, I know I can be mad as hell, and even if Joel hates me in the moment, or withdraws, or yells back, I feel certain in the core of my belly that we will eventually work it out. Once we were in a conflict and I was furious about the way he was interacting with me. I was using all the wrong tools to express myself. I was making him wrong and he was feeling angry, upset, and pushed. In his upset he was being mean. I got so mad that I told him “This is it! I refuse to interact with you in this way. I have no tolerance and I’m out of here!”
Actually I was terrified and unable to tolerate my own feelings of anger and upset, but I was unable to own that at the time. What “out of here” meant was “away from this situation and all this pain until you change.” I was scared and didn’t trust myself to work it out. I slammed doors and ran downstairs. Outside in the cold I thought to myself, “I love this man. He is being a jerk right now. I am being a jerk right now (even though I desperately want to be right about my position). I have no idea how to do it but I am determined to build love out of this.” I went back inside. He asked me if I was ready to talk about what was going on. He was still mad, but I could tell that he was also thinking about our commitment to work it out no matter what.
We went back and forth for a long time before either of us was willing to let go and be vulnerable. We hurt each other many times as we talked. We almost gave up several times; thinking it was too hard and maybe we could pretend the hurt and blame would just go way.
But I knew better and so did he. “You can’t run away,” I coached myself. “Face yourself now. Be present now. Open your heart now”. It was really hard. I wanted so much to be right. But in our marriage, being right is not what brings growth and deeper trust. So I let go. I am committed to being in relationship no matter what. And he let go too. Little by little we took responsibility, owned our stuff, shared our wounding, asked to have our needs met, and negotiated where one of us felt we couldn’t stretch any further.
The result? Not all of our needs got met. Neither of us proved we were right. Our hearts felt sore from bringing forth so much of our pain and inflicting it on each other. But a fabulous thing happened. Each of us had the opportunity to be completely and fully ourselves. The freedom to be all of me, bright as well as dark, is the greatest gift anyone can give me. When I am free to be I integrate pieces of me that have been split off, and I grow.
This is what commitment looks like in our relationship: We are committed to our own personal growth. We are committed to each other’s. We are committed to the growth of the relationship. Some of the time it’s really hard, lots of the time it’s blissful and exhilarating. All of the time it takes a lot of work.
I want to say something about the relationship between marriage and spiritual transformation. For me transformation means dissolving core patterning from early childhood and other lifetimes through the process of whatever spiritual disciplines one happens to be practicing. The result of such transformation is no less than the birth of new consciousness. This consciousness is expressed through my individual personality and life. As I evolve I am able to contain more life energy because I am less clouded by old patterns. As I expand in consciousness I am closer to the experience of my true nature, which is unity with all of life. For me committed partnering is the perfect daily practice, designed specifically to unwind my deep karmic patterns.
I believe that Joel and I fell in love and chose each other specifically. The patterns in each of us that needed to be catalyzed and worked out actually made us fall in love. What have emerged through our closeness and commitment are deep-seated, unmet needs, which in our adult lives have turned into behaviors and personality traits. As we have lived together and our masks have gradually dropped away, the old wounds have surfaced and challenged our relationship in ways we never expected.
As I was growing up I felt a great sense of emotional and spiritual abandonment and a lack of personal validation. Much of my search through life has been to fill what I have considered an insatiable, gaping hole. As I said earlier, I yearn to love and be loved. When my need for emotional fulfillment shows up, I experience an intolerable ache. There are various ways I try to fill my need, usually manipulative. One way is to engulf and saturate others with my loving heart, thus ensuring they will like me. When that doesn’t work, I get demanding, controlling, and rigid. Like the time Joel and I argued for twenty minutes about which corner of the mat the front door key belonged under.
I was feeling out of sorts that day, my heart a bit contracted and my need for special attention up in spades. Then Joel let me know that he hadn’t been able to get into the apartment the other night because the key was gone… and where had I put it? He was irritated.
Hating to feel wrong and already needing to feel better about myself, I didn’t let him know how I was feeling, nor did I take the time to hear what he was saying. I very politely and condescendingly explained to him how silly he was for not having found the key. After all, it was only five inches further away from the corner where it normally lives! He tried to communicate his point of view to me, but I was not to but I was not to be proved wrong on this one. After awhile he grew quiet and let it go. I had won, or so I thought. I certainly didn’t feel better about myself, or more in contact with my husband, even though we ended with me being “right”.
My manipulative, controlling fear pattern was operating on the assumption that if I proved him wrong and could improve him for next time, I would feel safe, happy, and loved. Yeah, right! It sounds absurd, but I have developed great skill in controlling my loving and being loved even though it’s obvious that it rarely fulfills my real need. Inside I am still terrified of being abandoned. Even when the behaviors work superficially I never end up satisfied, because I never let anyone know what’s really going on and I never really take in the love that does come my way.
In my human heart what I am wanting- and never feel I have received enough of- is true listening and compassion, understanding of and respect for my feelings, ideas, and differences, and reassurance that I am not going to be left again. When I am really scared, the way I go after these, especially in my marriage, is by demanding, controlling, and shaming. I have a unique style of guilt-tripping Joel into coming through for me. I demand that my needs be met.
Joel’s wounding and needs are different from mine and the combination of our patterns creates a unique dance. When Joel was growing up he felt surrounded by people who didn’t understand him. His unique qualities and sensitive nature did not have a chance to develop, and he grew up with a sense of not being good enough. So he shut down part of himself and learned to withdraw and be silent in order to protect himself. Inside he quietly raged.
To come forth now and heal those patterns he needs patience, appreciation, and trust. He needs to feel his friends and loved ones making him right, valuing his uniqueness, and drawing forth all of who he is so he no longer has to close in on himself.
Here is how our wounds and defense patterns look when we’re really in conflict: I need him to be present and reassuring, not withdrawing; he becomes silent and withdrawn. He needs me to validate, trust and not shame him; I become controlling, demanding, and shaming. Each time one of us goes into the reaction pattern that protects us from the pain of our unmet childhood needs, the other’s unmet needs are activated. This can be disastrous, and has been. There have been times when we have reached such an impasse that neither of us thought we’d make it through.
However, by listening to each other through many dialogues, we have made an interesting discovery. The very thing that he needs from me to support his healing is the hardest thing for me to provide. It is hardest for me to change my controlling and engulfing behaviors because they are my ways of making sure I will be loved and cared for. And the very thing I need from Joel is the hardest for him to give. He is least likely to come forth from his silent protective place when I am scared or acting out because being there helps him feel OK and secure. When I am demanding, why would he want to come forth when there is such a possibility of being shamed? And when he is silent, why would I want to come forth when there is more possibility of being abandoned again?
At first glance it may seem that our patterns and needs are contradictory. In fact they do create conflict between us. However, we see the patterns as complementing each other and pointing toward a significant spiritual practice. Our commitment, as I shared earlier, is to use our relationship as a tool to dissolve whatever is in the way of our true inner freedom. We have learned that providing healing to each other is the key to our individual transformation. By actively owning behaviors that hurt, instead of heal; we embrace parts of us that were previously split off. By stretching into new, more supportive ways of relating and communicating, we are continually birthing new consciousness for each of us. This is what keeps our relationship exciting and fresh.
So together we practice feeling our needs without going into reaction behaviors. We tell each other what is happening and own up to the moments when we can’t change. We acknowledge to each other that we’re transforming ourselves through the rigorous disciplines of communication and letting go. We look to see how our patterns are complementary and remind each other that we are open to meeting conflict and pain because our marriage is a spiritual journey. For example, we try to embrace rather than avoid discussions about the proper location of keys.
I imagine that you, the reader, might be wondering what happened to all the fun, cozy, and partnering aspects of a partnership? It sounds like a lot of work. Can’t relationship just be a safe haven where I feel good and get my needs met?
In our marriage, the fun, the cozy times, the great sex, the fulfillment from raising our son – all rise out of our commitment to transformation. Nothing gels without the deep inner work we are doing together. We are not satisfied with an average life; we both want an experience of ultimate aliveness. Drawing on all that life offers me; I dig deep and take big risks. Marriage offers me the biggest risk I can imagine. The result: a wide-open, expansive life. Love that deepens every day. A relationship that supports us in being the best we can be. And, finally, an ever-increasing experience of the spirit within all things.
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