Caveat: this article mentions some statistics on marriage only to reveal a trend in our regard (and perhaps capacity) for long-term committed relationships. But the discussion here applies to any human relationship, short or long or backed by a government certificate or not. I now present to you Love, Ego, and the Long Run, a letter for those who suspect there is value in a long-term relationship.
Marriage rates in the United States are at an all time low, and those of us that do marry are doing so later in life.* Although many factors contribute to this phenomenon, ultimately every person has their own unique saga of romance. At one end of the spectrum there are folks that don’t believe in commitment, or perhaps just shun the institution, and on the other end are those that want love so desperately that scare away potential mates.
Regardless of where you are relative to the possibilities (single, married, fiercely independent, lonely, etc) most of us can agree that human beings enjoy intimate and harmonious relationships. We love and we long to connect. And many of us can acknowledge that a long-term relationship offers possibilities and stability that brief liaisons can’t support as effectively—such as children, collaboration on long-term goals, homesteading, and so forth.
Over the past twenty years I’ve been amazed at the ability of some of the finest people I know to remain single. Despite considerable good looks, intelligence, talent, and dashing senses of humor, I’ve watched several people dearest to me float in and out of relationships without much satisfaction. Most of them actually do desire a healthy, stable, and thriving union, so why does the mystery of connection appear so fleeting in their lives?
From the somewhat stable perspective of a woman married nearly 13 years, I’ve noticed some patterns emerge. From candid conversations over tea to late night beer-induced confessions, your tales reveal a common thread that deserves some exploration.
What I see is a tendency in our generations (gen x/millennials) to judge everything, and harshly to boot. To judge each moment and every day as if it reveals the entire potential of the relationship in a nutshell. And on top of reading too much into every bump in the road is a tendency not to let things go. Not to forgive what should be forgivable. Breaking instead of bending when the wind blows.
It is as if despite our progressive and enlightened aspirations, we are still very prone to living through ego, just as much as those we judge. We are making more effort to live mindfully as meditation, yoga, and even tea gain popularity in this country. Yet even if you rise before dawn for spiritual practice, keep a yoga mat in the car, and drown yourself in tea ceremony there is no guarantee you will keep your ego in check at all times.
There is also a selfish air to the criteria by which a union is judged. It may seem obvious, but a relationship is not all about you (your needs, your personal growth, feeling truly seen, etc). Less obvious is that it is not even about both of you. A true union transcends the individuality of the individuals, it becomes something unique that is neither the one person nor the other. It is the symbiosis itself, not the organisms participating.
What happens if you zoom out to focus on the bigger picture? This shift of perspective away from the individuals often happens abruptly with the arrival of a child, but the benefits of broader vision are available to everyone.
My husband and I aren’t experts on the subject of marriage, yet our union works on many levels. As the years pass we argue less and less, for our relationship has grown into far more than just how well we are getting along. Our partnership is about the life we create together and the environment we provide for our children, our hopes, our goals, and how we support each other, how we manage our assets, our business, and the day to day functioning of our home, and how we navigate all the demands of modern life. It is about far more than I can possibly list here.
So while there are days where we may fall short of having a deep understanding of each other or heartfelt conversation, the other parts of our union often continue to function with ease. We do not judge our partnership on our feelings alone. Sometimes it is enough that the kids are fed, the work was done, we have a home to live in and the sun will set and rise again.
Over the years we’ve definitely made the effort to understand what triggers the other person and we are willing to grow and change. We are willing to avoid the behavior that causes the most conflict between us. An important part of that process is letting the little things go. We have our share of tense and aggravating conversations, where we fail to understand the other person’s message or intent. In these moments there is a choice—we can choose to escalate the already failing conversation by trying to force some sort of agreement (resulting in what most people would call an “argument”) or we can just drop it, often physically walking away to let the smoke dissipate. We accept that we are not communicating well at that moment.
Sometimes just one of us is triggered and acting/reacting through ego or “chimp” (our defensive and volatile animal nature). Sometimes it is both of us (chimp is excellent at invoking other chimps). So it is up to whoever is more conscious at the moment to choose not to escalate the issue.
Is this the same as passive submission? Does this feel like being a doormat? That depends on where you draw the line between what is a small issue and what is a big issue, and where you stand relative to that line, it depends on your perspective. To ego/chimp that line is always very near and all too easily crossed. That side of us is inherently defensive and readily triggered, always seeking justice, equity, and consolation.
Yet our higher consciousness, the human heart, the silent witness, has a much greater capacity for discomfort to come and go. We can observe conflict rise up out of the ocean of experience like a wave, knowing it will break and subside and that the deeper ocean is not affected by every surface wave. It is from this depth that we can sustain harmony in the life we share.
How does all this deep ocean stuff apply to everyday life and the baffling realm of dating and budding relationships? As humans we all have bad days and we might not be at our best for even weeks at a time. We all say the wrong thing sometimes, or we are not understood, or we sound abrupt or rude when we really didn’t intend to, or maybe we did. Many of us know how it feels to fail to live up to our own expectations for ourselves, so it’s no surprise that others can also fail to live up to our expectations.
Can we use a longer span of time as the scale by which we judge our successes and failures? Can we evaluate our partnerships based on how they support the various aspects of our lives? And aren’t we all a work-in-progress? If we see relationships as an opportunity to help each other grow, we can allow room for the imperfections. We recognize the difficult spots as a mirror showing us what we can improve about our life and our characters. We find infinite chances for powerful practice—how to live in the present moment, how to choose our reactions, how to forgive, and how to change and evolve as human beings.
Photo: Naked Ladies at the California Coast
* Statistics are not everyone’s cup of tea, therefore I am elaborating via footnote. Census data reveals that since the 1950s the age at which people marry has increased (men have gone from 22 to 28, women from 20 to 26). Divorce rates are down since reaching a peak in the 80s, so we are taking longer to commit, but those that do are more committed. If you love stats, here are some more details about marriage rates.