Relationships are funny things. They torment us, they make us say and do things we never thought we could do. They can make us feel sullen on a sunny day and often energize our fantasies in ways we can’t talk about in polite society. Yet everyone I know wants one.
Research indicates couples can-with great effort-overcome all kinds of marital horrors like infidelity, heated political disagreements, even sagging body parts. Yet couples who become mired in an intractable conflict roundelay are not looking good for going the distance. When there is contempt, their chances are bleakest of all.
Why is it that one marriage can encounter the tragedy of losing a child and survive, and then another, where the husband habitually jokes about his wife’s weight problem in public, is destined for the marital trash heap? The answer is complex but can be boiled down to this basic law of relationship: Intimacy is the realization that you have a profound effect on the other and treating that knowledge with the utmost respect.
Like I said, these matters are complex. Stress happens, and when it enters the marital system, two things can occur. The full diaper can hit the fan and have both parties scampering to their corners, sticking their thumbs in their respective mouths, and plaintively wailing, “What about me?!” Or, like the adults they pledged to be when they committed to each other, they can come together and work to clean up the tender “baby bottom” of their relationship and dispose of the mess together.
I am reminded of a poetic image my colleague Lisa O’Connell, MFT, once shared with me. Before her marriage, she had a dream that beside her marital bed were three bowls: one large one in the middle and full of water, and two smaller bowls, also filled with water, on each side. In the dream, she and her husband would awake and begin their day by dipping their fingers into their respective side bowls, and as the drops of water fell from their fingers into the larger bowl, they would share one thing they were grateful for about the other.
This “collective dream,” as Lisa called it, has become a totem for their relationship. She and her husband Scott came to understand the dream this way: “We always have to give of ourselves to the relationship; the drops of water from the small individual sources of water to the larger one signifies this. The dream also meant to us just how important it is to express gratefulness daily. There is something greater than each of us which is the relationship, the love we share, the family we create, and we must do the best we can to feed this.”
Lisa pointed out that water is often an archetypal symbol for consciousness, adding, “We deeply value consciousness and the water in the dream reiterates for us how we have to bring our own consciousness to the relationship and how the relationship has a consciousness. This gives us permission to look at ourselves to challenge each other to look at the relationship honestly.”
Do Lisa and Scott actually do this ritual with the water bowls? “Not literally, but we do begin each day with a directed intention toward each other, both to be grateful for the other and to our relationship before we go out into the day. Maybe it is as simple as having coffee with each other, a hug, or just pausing to say ‘I love you.’”
So how does a couple effectuate this “conscious relationship”? Next week in the online version of Healthspan, I will look at the three essential ingredients of such a relationship as well as some suggestions on how to put it into practice.
Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his web site/blog at HealthspanWeb.com for more information on the topics covered in this column.