Soul Mates or Cell Mates: Nourishing Love Relationships That Last

When I think of love relationships, I think of dancing. It’s how my wife Laura and I originally met. I was in my last year in college, back in Texas, and I needed to complete my physical education requirement with just one more class. So I took ballroom dancing. I didn’t do it to meet girls-I had figure skating in my blood, and there weren’t any ice rinks around as far as I knew. Ballroom dancing was the closest thing I could find. So I took the class, and there she was. Laura. We became partners in the class-dancing the lindy hop, the polka, the tango-and it would eventually lead to our becoming partners in life, seventeen years so far, almost eighteen. Moving to the same rhythm, now side-by-side, now face-to-face, quick quick slow, quick quick slow…. Patterns unfolding, which are patterns of mutual respect, patterns of mutual acceptance, patterns of trust, patterns of taking joy in the other.

This is what comes to mind when I think about intimacy with loved ones-the beauty and grace of the dance. But this also comes to mind: a poem by Sharon Olds called, “I Go Back to May 1937,” where she says:

“I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges, I see my father strolling out under the ochre sandstone arch, the red tiles glinting like bent plates of blood behind his head, I see my mother with a few light books at her hip standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks, the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its sword-tips aglow in the May air, they are about to graduate, they are about to get married, they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are innocent, they would never hurt anybody. I want to go up to them and say Stop, don’t do it-she’s the wrong woman, he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things you cannot imagine you would ever do, you are going to do bad things to children, you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of, you are going to want to die. I want to go up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it, her hungry pretty face turning to me, her pitiful beautiful untouched body, his arrogant handsome face turning to me, his pitiful beautiful untouched body, but I don’t do it. I want to live. I take them up like the male and female paper dolls and bang them together at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to strike sparks from them, I say Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”

This poem from Sharon Olds comes to mind as well. The grim possibility that soul mates can become cell mates, and at times our relationship dance is NOT unfolding a pattern of mutual respect, is NOT unfolding a pattern of mutual acceptance, is NOT unfolding a pattern of trust, is NOT unfolding a pattern of taking joy in the other. The dance is not graceful, but it is one in which people bang against each other, and sparks fly. I saw it first hand in the relationship my parents had, and I have known moments of it personally-no relationship, however strong, however true, can escape adversity and difficulty. It’s just as psychotherapist John Welwood once said: intimate relationships bring us “face to face with our gods and demons.” They surely can, and do.

This morning I want to focus on something that is essential to any relationship with long-term potential: the dance of mutual enjoyment. There are of course other essentials we could look at, but another time. For now, the focus is on taking delight in our spouse or partner: the way they think and speak, their looks, their quirks, the way they walk…. Doing things together, from special things to ordinary things like cleaning dishes, or shopping, or just hanging out. Enjoying the other’s enjoyment of something, even if you don’t happen to be particularly interested yourself. Finding relief and reassurance in each other’s company when life throws a curve ball. My focus today is on how this capacity for mutual enjoyment plays out over time, and how we can recover it, if and when it goes away.

And we begin with the insight that for most people, mutual enjoyment comes easiest during the honeymoon phase of the relationship. Neither a brilliant nor surprising insight, I know, but it is interesting to take a deeper look at why this might be so. Part of it has to do with how, in this earliest phase of love relationships, the body is flooded with an endorphin called phenoethalymine, or PEA, which contributes to that romantic “falling in love” feeling which is so delicious and makes the dance so spontaneously free and easy. And then there is this. Psychological dynamics like idealization and projection. We can overestimate the things that attracts us to and intrigue us about our partner, such as the ways in which they are very different from us. The differences at this stage are all intriguing and exciting; and we anchor this judgment by projecting meanings and intentions upon them that come from us and are not necessarily faithful to what’s really going on with our partner. So we choose not to notice the times when our partner steps on our toes. Some people can make this choice even in the face of genuine verbal and physical abuse, which can start up even in the honeymoon phase-but because it is the honeymoon, with all that that involves, it gets explained away. The honeymoon is preserved. You feel fun, alive, complete, connected, sexy, and it is all so spontaneous, automatic, effortless….

How long does the honeymoon phase last? Six months? A year? Two years? It’s different for different couples. But what is the same is the fact that adversity at some point happens to all. And so, a relationship originally built around excitement and romance settles down, for that is what it is expected to do; and so it turns its attention and energy towards establishing and maintaining a household and paying the bills. It’s got to happen to some degree, of course. But this refocusing of the relationship can go overboard so easily, fueled in part by the astonishingly false yet powerful assumption that the energy and intensity of courtship ought to be able to sustain the relationship for the rest of its days. And so couples can get lost in the daily grind. It can get so bad, that eventually, when one thinks about one’s partner, one no longer thinks “pleasure” or even the possibility of pleasure. What comes to mind instead is stress, and work, and kids, and bills, and chores, and fatigue. If you are a gay couple, then to this list add all the special pressures of living in a world which makes it hard for you just to be a regular couple: how too many people are making what happens in your bedroom their personal business, when, at the same time, there’s not enough attention on all the practical social and economic inequities that disrupt the rest of your life. All these pressures: That’s what one’s partner can come to represent, in a relationship that has given itself over to the daily grind.

This is one kind of adversity that couples face. People too weary to dance. Another kind of adversity has to do with the inevitable loss of innocence in relationships. I’m talking about disillusionment which, in part, has to do with the natural decline (once people have been together for a while) in the production of the phenoethalymine endorphine. PEA production starts to decline, and, ironically, because we think all along it’s been the other person who’s been given us the good feelings (and not our own bodies), we can blame them and start saying, He’s not such a good dancer after all! What happened to her? This is one kind of disillusionment, and here is another: when our idealizations and projections are exposed for what they are. Even ordinary issues can give rise to significant disagreements that open our eyes. A child is born, for example, and all of a sudden conflicting and contrary attitudes about how to raise that child come to light. Studies show that 2/3 of all couples experience relationship crisis after the birth of their first child. We find ourselves saying to each other, “I had no idea you thought that way… I had no idea that that was important for you…” It’s just as a wise person once said: “Sometimes you have to get to know someone really well to realize you’re really strangers.” Thus the adversity: partners feeling duped by the other, partners feeling like some “bait-and-switch” has just taken place; partners too busy feeling resentment, too busy quarreling, to dance.

So many kinds of adversity that couples can face, which knock them out of the honeymoon. Here’s the last kind I’ll mention: when one or both partners in the relationship have a hard time receiving pleasure and just can’t enjoy. Sometimes the block is depression-one’s body chemistry is out of balance, and you feel robbed of passion and energy and optimism, and you just can’t dance. Then there is the kind of attitude that says, “having fun together is frivolous,” that says, “fun time has to wait until after the job is finished.” This too can block enjoyment, for in truth, the job is never finished, there is always something else to be done… And then there is this block to enjoyment: anxiety, as in, for example, the anxiety about getting older. Age adds to the hips, adds on wrinkles, diminishes physical stamina, causes a person to start losing hair or to grow it in weird places; and if we can’t love ourselves as we are-if we cling to media images of the ideal woman and man, and judge ourselves in comparison to them-then we just won’t ever feel comfortable in our own skin.

Faced with all these kinds of adversity, and more, the honeymoon phase in relationships ends. The dance that used to be so spontaneous and effortless and free falters, breaks down, stops altogether-or, as in Sharon Olds’ poem, people are banging against each other, and the sparks are flying.

At this point, some couples call it quits, only to look for different dance partners. Sometimes this is as it should be. Other couples stay together, but they resign themselves to constant fighting, or to a life of simply keeping up appearances and going through the motions, faking it for the good of the kids, faking it out of fear for what others might say, faking it so as to fool the IRS. Still others do this: they take their resentments and rage out on others who are completely innocent. They scapegoat. I’m talking in particular about people who want to strengthen heterosexual marriage today by tearing down the committed love relationships of gays and lesbians. Now someone help me understand how this sort of thing can ever be constructive in the long haul. Last I checked, committed love relationships of any kind-no matter what sort of plumbing is involved-make the world a better place. The world needs all the committed love relationships it can get. How can stifling love ever be a positive thing?

My point is this: adversity is going to happen. The honeymoon is going to end. But must this mean the end of our relationships, or never-ending bickering, or endless going through the motions and faking it? Must soul mates becoming cell mates?

Henry David Thoreau once said: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” And I love it. It’s good news for everyone, whatever the particular circumstances. News that we CAN survive the end of the honeymoon. News that we CAN learn how to strengthen or even recover a capacity to enjoy our partner or spouse, even if the dance right now is not so good. News that, even if our relationship is over and done, we CAN dance again.

There’s good news here. And it’s all about foundations. Foundational dance practices, that keep the dance alive and vibrant.

Start with this one: simple awareness. Just knowing that the honeymoon is going to end, and that this is absolutely normal, is tremendously comforting. Understanding the role of the phenoethalymine endorphine, and how, when production of it slows down, we can mistakenly think that something is wrong, and our partner is to blame. Awareness helps us to avoid this mistake. Awareness poises us. Awareness prepares us to be thinking, from the very beginning, of how we can sustain enjoyment in the relationship over the long haul, and build a weekly discipline for this into the schedule. Never taking this for granted. Knowing that effort and planning here are key.

Simple awareness is foundational to keeping the dance alive and vibrant. Jungian psychotherapist Robert Johnson illustrates this in an intriguing way as it applies to the shadow assumptions and agendas that we bring into our relationships, which stay hidden during the honeymoon phase and come out only later. He says, “I recently heard about a couple who had the good sense to call upon the shadow in a wedding ceremony. The night before their marriage, they held a ritual where they made their ‘shadow vows.’ The groom said, ‘I will give you an identity and make the world see you as an extension of myself.’ The bride replied, ‘I will be compliant and sweet, but underneath I will have the real control. If anything goes wrong, I will take your money and your house.'” Robert Johnson goes on to say that “They then drank champagne and laughed heartily at their foibles, knowing that in the course of the marriage, these shadow figures would inevitably come out. They were ahead of the game because they had recognized the shadow and unmasked it.”

Awareness is about being ahead of the game, meeting it face-on with clarity and courage. That’s the first foundational dance step, and now here is the next: communication. Especially a willingness to rediscover the power of this when there hasn’t been much genuine communication in a while.

Say that right now, you and your partner are too weary these days to dance. Your relationship is overwhelmed by the daily grind. You look at your partner, and all you can see are responsibilities, duties, bills, chores, and stress. This morning, I’m inviting you to talk to each other about this. Talk about what’s going on. Now, don’t open up the dialogue with an attack or accusations or complaints-don’t say, “You’re no fun anymore” or “Our life is a total bore.” Open things up in a more constructive way. Ask, “Do you ever wonder where the fun has gone?” or “Does it scare you like it scares me that we don’t enjoy ourselves like we used to?” It’s about establishing common ground where no one is the enemy, no one is the victim. You are both in this together. The dance needs you both.

Then, move the focus of your conversation. Remember the good times you used to share in the past, from big thrills to simple moments of contentment. Don’t get lost in sentimentality, though, for this is not the point. The point is for you to be as specific and concrete as you can about what made the times so good, so you can use this information to help you move forward into the present and future. Use it to spark brainstorming about activities that would work for you now, in the present and future. Perhaps each of you might brainstorm a list, separately, and then share them, and THEN make some plans. Decide on something mutually agreeable that is also very doable. A weekly date night at the movies. Something like that. But do it. Follow through. Reminds me of a Family Circus cartoon with just two panels. In the first panel, Mom and Dad are inside watching a very learned gentleman on television speak on the fundamentals of having fun. The next panel shows the kids outside having fun. We have just got to get out there and do it. Make a commitment to make more room for enjoyment in our lives. Don’t allow the daily grind to keep on grinding us up….

Finally, there is this foundational move that can help keep the relationship dance alive and vibrant. And there’s a sense in which it is the most important one of all. For if we in our own separate lives are in a rut and having a hard time enjoying anything, then how can we expect to bring or receive enjoyment in our relationships? And so the final foundational move: vitalizing ourselves. Physiologically, it means taking care of our physical health. Exercise and eating right. If you think you might be suffering from depression, see your doctor. It’s not about character, it’s not about willpower, it’s about biochemistry. Get help.

Other ways of vitalizing ourselves include expanding personal horizons. If you are at home all day with the kids, or if you at the job all the time, or at a job you don’t like, create opportunities to be exposed to something different. Perhaps a decline of enjoyment in your relationship is a disguised call that you are ready to reinvent yourself, ready to rediscover a passion and a purpose that will bring you back to life… So be open for a change. Make the time for solitude. Make the time for silliness. “Only away from the serious and significant can we relax enough to reveal our less dignified, less admirable, less impressive selves. It’s where we share these things that we keep on falling in love with each other again and again.”

The relationship dance. A wise person once said, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” My hope is that we can discover and rediscover a vision of love relationships rooted in compassion, and aspiring to grace. Despite all the adversity, learning and relearning how to move to the same rhythm, now side-by-side, now face-to-face, quick quick slow, quick quick slow. The dance our relationships can be and become again.