Living Intimately

Notes from the Marriage Checkup Project on walking the intimate path

God Grant Me Serenity

What if we accepted the things we cannot change?

We are all familiar with the Serenity Prayer, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that must be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference." Serenity, courage, and wisdom are the three attributes most needed in our endeavor to remain in intimate relationship with one another. Accepting, changing, and discerning are the three labors that keep us close.

An intimate relationship with another human being involves all the many qualities of being human. The things we love naturally draw us in and make us happy. We are grateful for the enormous gift that is this opportunity to love and be loved by another human being.

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If this, however, were all there was - only the things we naturally love and find comfort in - then intimacy would truly be easy, as simple as settling in to take a nap. But we all know that it is not this simple, because there is the other side of it. The things we do not like, the things we wish were otherwise, the things that make us uncomfortable, the things that lock us into fight or flight. Life and intimacy naturally weaves together both strands - the things that call us forward and the things that set us back.

The serenity prayer is not about the things that call us forward. I think we rarely reach for serenity, courage, and wisdom in the face of the things we naturally love. God grant me the serenity to accept this delicious plate of cookies (or whatever it is for you), is rarely uttered with the plaintive urgency at the heart of the prayer for serenity.

We pray for serenity, courage, and wisdom in the face of the things about the world, ourselves, and each other that we genuinely and desperately wish were different. Those things your partner does that drive you batty, hurt your feelings, disturb your peace, or make you angry are the things that wrest this cry from our throats. What I have always loved about the serenity prayer is right there in the title - the reminder that one whole and legitimate choice is a move in the direction of wholehearted acceptance. Too often we are trapped in the place where the only option is change - requested change, demanded change, arm-twisted change, change at any cost. And the fierce compassion of this prayer reminds us that being stuck in this place of change is not wise. And, of course, our own experience shows up over and over again to show us in no uncertain terms that some things will not be changed, not by us and not in the way we wanted, no matter how desperately we squirm.

Think now of something about your partner that you wish were otherwise, something perhaps that you have wished were otherwise for a long, long time. I'm sure I won't have to wait for long for you to think of something. We are all human and as human beings in intimate relationships, we cannot help but wish some things about ourselves, our partner, or our relationship were different. There is no great tragedy in this. So far so good.

The tragedy is in the turning away, our flinch back from connection because he isn't doing it right, she won't make herself in our image. We reactively break the connection because there is a mote in our partner's eye and we cannot stand to look at it. We turn away from connection; we fight or flee, trapped between coercion and hopelessness. When we are well fed and rested, we spend our strength trying desperately to jam a square peg into a round hole. When we become exhausted by our efforts, we throw our hands up and bemoan our wretched fates. But the gift of the serenity prayer reminds us that this is a trap of our own making. It is also there to catch us if we are lucky enough to fall. When we have finally exhausted every avenue, spent everything we have throwing ourselves against the unmovable object, then we might throw our voice up to plead for serenity, courage, and wisdom.

What if we accepted the things we cannot change? What would happen then? This acceptance is a great turning towards, it is a willful and loving embrace of what is, what actually is. And from this we get in return the whole world, this whole other person, to have and to hold, to honor and to cherish, all the days of my life.

For me, the bottom line here is about turning towards each other and turning towards our lives. Let us turn toward the things about each other that we love and be grateful. Let us turn towards the things about each other that we do not love and be grateful. It is in the turning toward that we are fulfilled, that we allow intimacy into our lives, and it is by this intimacy that we genuinely love and are loved.

So, in the service of intimacy, give it a try, this turning towards, this accepting embrace. You don't have to do it forever, not even for a long time, maybe just for a moment, the span of a single breath. If you are like so many other intimate partners, you may get a whiff in that moment of the freedom and connection that is your birthright and your home - in each other's arms.

 

 

James Cordova, Ph.D. developer of the Marriage Checkup Project, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and is a leading figure in the more...

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