Much of the material in Waking Up, Learning What Your Life is Trying to Teach You is very useful for creating more conscious (and less volatile), intimate relationships.
The four strategies, Awareness, Personal Responsibility, Inner Work and Action are actually very helpful for manifesting love and understanding in any relationship!
It is helpful to know that, if we are in an intimate relationship, we do not need our partner’s cooperation, knowledge or consent to do our personal, waking up work. Doing the work on our own can be very beneficial, obviously for ourselves, but also in our relationships with others. I have had many clients who have altered their various relationships by simply bringing the four strategies from Waking Up into their own lives. Sometimes, as they change in a positive way, their partner becomes interested in the work as well. Often, just through their own efforts, the relationship improves greatly. And, if a relationship ends, as they sometimes do when the truth becomes present, they come away with more wisdom and confidence. Often, they have grown and changed enough to avoid making the same errors in their next relationship.
For me, it is natural to view spiritual growth through the lens of intimate relationship. My wife, Babbie, and I have been married for forty three years. We also have five children, now grown. The work is often challenging, even after so many years. As Rumi says, “not for a second has this flowing towards me stopped or slowed!” We are not trying for the perfect relationship in which there is never any conflict. All relationships are already perfect because they are the one we are in right now, and contain the exact lessons we need. In our relationship, we are looking for a deep abiding love and mutual respect, and this must include allowing our partner to have their emotions and be who they are, no matter how uncomfortable this sometimes makes us. This allowing space also lets in humor, joy and passion. The more safety we can create for our partner the more our intimacy deepens.
It is said that intimate relationships that are long term, like ours, can be divided into two types: functional relationships and dynamic relationships. At any point, we have choice.
In the functional relationship, we develop a system for dealing with that which is uncomfortable or unpleasant. Our goal is to avoid emotional disturbance. Each of us has an assigned role, and we learn to avoid conflict through various coping mechanisms we develop consciously or unconsciously. Once adopted, the rules and roles go largely unspoken. Each partner knows what they are supposed to do. Conflict is minimized over time, until anger and passion have been deliberately avoided and repressed so often that they seem non-existent. This looks like a good formula for relationship doesn’t it? There is no conflict, it is long lasting, and everybody does their assigned part. There are many variations on the theme, of course, as every couple has their own unique system. However, once the main pattern has been established and accepted, things tend to remain the same, that is, dry, stagnant, with a lack of liveliness, passion and shared joy. The relationship loses its ability to help us grow personally and together. It is reliable, but in the same manner as a cuckoo clock.
In the dynamic relationship, on the other hand, emotion is allowed. Obviously, this means that there will be some conflict along the way. When we don’t learn anything about ourselves from these conflicts and make changes, they can grow tiring and frustrating. We keep going around and around, with the same issues popping up over and over. We might indulge our emotions and dwell on painful stories, and, each time a story happens again, we plunge ourselves into the emotional cauldron. The dynamic relationship is the relationship that most often fails, as it evolves into a perpetual arena of painful stories and constant conflict that become to difficult or impossible to bear.
It seems we have a dilemma. We can go with the functioning relationship, lose our passion and joy and grow numb, or we can go with the dynamic relationship and possibly end up with a failed relationship, with all the emotional pain that entails. We might develop a pattern, traveling from one relationship to another, often encountering the same old dance. If we try to live in between the two styles, with occasional moments of emotional truth, we end up with confusion and uncertainty. What to do?
Fortunately, there is a third choice, often called the “conscious” relationship. As in the dynamic relationship, we allow emotion, but we view our unskillful actions and painful emotions as teachers. The underlying dynamic in a “conscious” relationship is the work of keeping the heart open when it wants to close. Since this is the main work of spiritual growth, moving out of the ego, we can also call this type or relationship “spiritual.” In the spiritual relationship we use difficulties as practice points for moving beyond or letting go of the ego. This is the magnificent gesture of choosing love in the face of the ego and it’s fears and defenses. We can choose to have a spiritual relationship at any time, no matter what type of relationship we have previously chosen. There is always hope for change. This type of relationship requires real courage and commitment. The rewards are not free.
Which brings us to the usefulness of the four strategies.
Because it is so challenging, relationship is undoubtedly the most difficult spiritual path. We are constantly challenged to keep our heart open. In intimate relationship our partner, almost intuitively, knows all of our weak spots, the places we are not whole, where fear or pain or anger still reside. When they are upset, their ego uses this knowledge to attack us, to cause us emotional pain, to protect itself. We think they “make” us feel a certain way, but they are just pushing the buttons that are connected to our deep uncertainty about our safety in the world. Once we are aware of this dynamic, and take responsibility for our reactions, we are on our way to healing. We investigate our reactions, do our inner healing work and finally we take new and more skillful action with our new understanding.
Living in the world is about living with other people, whether it is people we encounter briefly, or it is people with whom we have deeper and more intimate relationships. Using the four strategies, we can learn what our difficult relationships are trying to teach us, and we keep growing. Everything we need is always right in front of us. Now we have the tools to make necessary changes and to create the life of harmony, peace and joy we have always wanted.