The wonder of first meeting and falling in love is in part due to the curiosity and passion of learning about each other. Regrettably, over time most relationships tend to wear down as predictability, distraction, communication issues and/or boredom set in. What can we do to ensure that our relations are resilient, that they have elasticity and bounce back from the stresses of life? We must learn how to keep our relations energized.
Relationships, and particularly marriages, are not closed systems that operate in a vacuum, but are open and natural systems that are part of much larger systems that greatly impact the health of the marriage. When we speak of a marriage, we are talking about so much more than the simple relationship of two people. The relationship of the couple is enormously impacted by infinite factors that would appear to be somewhat outside of the domain of the marriage, but they nevertheless greatly impact the relationship.
Many of the influences that drain the marriage come from environmental and social stressors to the marriage system. For example, raising children, caring for elderly parents, work, financial concerns and other myriad responsibilities greatly impact the vitality of the marriage. Potentially, they may all serve to deplete the energy of the marriage as the couple turns away from the intimate partnering energy and addresses the necessary challenges that life brings. For this reason, it is essential that we focus on reinvigorating the relationship with the emotional energy and intimacy that was likely present at the beginning of the courtship. When partners in a marriage disregard the sanctity of their relationship, the inevitable depletion and withering of the marriage system begins. Joy turns into boredom, passion slides into ambivalence or perfunctory sex, and respect declines toward disregard.
An open system is one that is subject to change and requires a replenishment of renewable energy to maintain its stability. Examples of open systems would be the ecology, a country, a house or a marriage. They are all affected by outside sources. The environment is much affected by greenhouse gases and carbon based emissions; a nation is impacted by its economy or matters of war and peace; while a house requires proper maintenance to manage itself efficiently and is dependent upon some source of fuel for heating. They are all impacted by events and influences from outside of their particular domain.
The system of marriage may move either toward a state of entropy and decay or toward growth and evolution. Based upon the prevailing divorce rate and, to a further extent, the rate of unhappiness in intact marriages, we might initially conclude that the system of marriage inclines toward the condition of decay. But as we’ll come to see this is for a reason and can be corrected.
In order to maintain a steady state of equilibrium, a system requires a replenishment of energy to maintain its balance. Without this new energy to fuel its homeostasis the marriage inclines toward a condition of depletion. In most cases the energy necessary was abundantly available at the inception of the relationship. The key ingredients for this energy were typically, romance, intimacy, passion and friendship. Over time the state of marriage moves toward entropy due to a diminishment of these energy sources. As we turn our relations into predictable routine the marriage tends to devolve and decay. If we become predictable and habitual in both our thoughts and behaviors, the ingredients for a nourishing relationship – previously cited – become quite scant. Routine and predictability become antithetical to the renewable energy required to sustain a healthy marriage.
The good news is that the energy required to permit marriage to thrive is renewable. Unlike the fossil fuels and other resources that we consume and deplete to power our lifestyle, which have a limited availability, the romantic and loving components necessary to keep the “steady state” of marriage are inexhaustible and available from within. They need not be imported and are not subject to the vagaries of the marketplace. All that is required is the clear intention and motivation to fuel the healthy system of marriage. The ingredients are typically those that were experienced during the period of falling in love earlier in the relationship. Try recalling them and bring them back into the relationship.
In an ordinary relationship people come to the point where they may feel that they have discovered all there is to know of one another. Indeed, if one or both people stagnate or falter in their own personal evolution and their growth halts, there is likely going to be a predictable outcome – boredom. The vitality of a relationship requires that both parties are generative enough so that they have something to add to the relationship – not just the duties, obligations and chores, but the creative energy required, which keeps the relationship thriving. We can only keep that learning alive by hoping that each individual keeps learning, wondering and exploring – resulting in more to share with their partner. Ultimately, we need to choose how we want to experience our relationship. If the relationship defaults to simply getting the “job” done, rather keeping the partnering vibrant, there will be trouble ahead.
Marriage: work or play?
Most marriages and primary relationships these days tend to focus more on expediency and structure than on substance and content. In a culture that promotes getting the job done, efficiency regrettably takes precedence over fun. Many couples have become most proficient at getting the job done well. They manage the home, the children and work, but they seem to have lost the capacity to have fun together. They may work well together, but they don’t often love well together.
The ever burdening list of things that must get done certainly get in the way of relating to one another and enjoying each other. Yet, if we don’t properly prioritize our lives, these things begin to run us, rather than the other way around. We create distractions, and having forgotten that we created them, run around in chaos trying to attend to them. In turn, this becomes our justification for not having time to attend to the most important matters in our lives.
Most relationships began with the simple experience of enjoying one another’s company and, on a very literal sense, the ability to have fun together. This comprised a core substance of the relationship. It is from this joyfully shared experience that two people typically decide to formalize their relations and, in some, cases marry.
The difficulty is that shortly thereafter they tend to focus on the form of the relationship rather than content. No sooner does a couple decide to marry then they turn their attentions to wedding plans, seating arrangements, caterers, etc. Of course, these are necessary matters to be dealt with, but not to the exclusion of what bound the two people together to begin with: having fun together. From the inception of formalizing a relationship, the focus becomes external rather than continuing to honor the energy of the relationship.
As the years progress, the routine sets in and the relationship tends to become most predictable. The structure of the relationship becomes well formed, but often at the sacrifice of the couple’s unique energy together. Too often, the capacity for wonder and play give way to the routine of the work. Quite often, when I ask couples who are struggling in their relationships the last time they had a date, they look at me blankly. They can’t recall. And if they do, it was likely the predictable Saturday night dinner with friends.
With so much routine and predictability, it’s small wonder our relationships and marriages tend to wither. Certainly, fun is a key ingredient for romance and fulfilling relations. These qualities require spontaneity and the ability to be truly present. If we have to calendar or schedule fun, it’s most likely to be lacking in authenticity. Even the events that should be fun, such as sports, tend to become relegated to the domain of the mundane. Too much organizing makes for work, not fun.
When I was a kid, the spontaneous energy of putting together a group of friends for an impromptu ballgame created an energy of excitement. The engagement in spontaneously organizing a game provided a joy not equaled by the calendar’s notation of the next scheduled game.
The same is true in relationships. The spur of the moment is when the spirit emerges, not in the planning of a future event. This becomes a singular problem with the sexual partnering in long standing relationships. Rather than the spontaneous passion that was present earlier, sex occurs more or less at an agreed upon time.
Seriousness plagues our lives. It is so easy in the stress of our day to take it all so seriously. And this is often due to the long list of demands and chores to be checked off our checklist. Perhaps we should put fun on that agenda. When we remember to lighten up, the capacity to truly engage in and enjoy our partnerships with others emerges.
Resiliency in relationship requires putting our focus and devotion toward the emotional and physical intimacy that was present at the start. Committing to the relationship should not end the wonder, discovery and awe that was present earlier. Spontaneity, change, personal growth and uncertainty are the ingredients that nurture this process. Skillful communication is the foundation that supports the resilience.