When I read the news that Paul McCartney is going to remarry, it brought to mind the challenge and trepidation so many people feel today about their prospects for keeping a love relationship alive. Whether entering a new relationship, like the former Beatle who's about to turn 69, or hoping to resurrect one from the dead zone, the old adage that remarriage is a "triumph of hope over experience" can give anyone pause.
Even worse, some become outright despairing and cynical about love relationships in general. That became evident to me from some of the comments and emails I received about my previous post, in which I explained why most relationship advice doesn't really help. There, I argued that most "expert advice" mistakenly focuses on techniques rather than on the relationship's spiritual core -- your sense of purpose and life goals as a couple, and how your values and ideals change and evolve over the years. The challenge is whether these and other spiritual dimensions are in synch.
Here, I want to point out one particular practice -- a perspective, really -- that helps build or resuscitate a relationship's spiritual connection: learning to "forget yourself" when relating to your partner. I've described this more generally in a previous post, but it's especially helpful for bringing a supply of fresh energy into a relationship, to keep it alive and growing. By "forgetting yourself" I'm referring to a conscious choice to behave in ways that serve and support your partner rather than just yourself. By doing that, you're strengthening the relationship between the two of you -- which is really a third entity, with a life of its own. Mary, a 45-year-old in a 15-year marriage, illustrated that when she said to her husband, "I still love you, but I hate our relationship."
In fact, learning to "forget yourself" in your relationship is linked with long-term positive emotions. Research shows that the latter are a powerful antidote to stress, pain and illness throughout life and are associated with proactive attitudes and behavior in general -- all elements of psychological health. Moreover, learning to "forget yourself" is crucial for reasons that relate to our evolutionary heritage and our social and psychological conditioning within current culture.
Here's what I mean: Research into the evolutionary basis of intimate relationships indicates that humans (and some other primates, such as the bonobos) are highly sexual and social creatures. Evolution may have created intertwined needs for sexual and social connections with more than one partner at the same time. In other words, such research indicates that monogamy may not be "hard-wired." Nevertheless, it can become a conscious desire and choice. Such a capacity is also part of our potential for continued evolution.
Our psychological and social conditioning also creates challenges for enduring, positive relationships. We learn to relate to intimate partners as commodities and engage in transactional, mercantile terms: I give in order to get; invest in the relationship to receive a return. Relationships have become another part of a commercialized, consumer-orientation approach to life in which someone wins and someone loses.
That orientation is part of what I called our "adolescent model of love." It includes learning to hide yourself; self-serving goals of gaining power and control over the other; and in many cases repeating the dysfunctional relationships that many people had growing up in their families, like feeling loved only when performing or behaving in ways desired by parents, and subsequently by the larger society.
Of course, that damages people's capacity for healthy relationships and healthy living in general. In fact, based on research and clinical work on the role of childhood experiences in the development of the brain and behavior, Gabor Mate, M.D. has argued that that current society is so addicted to work and consumerism that it has undermined conditions necessary for healthy childhood development.
In general, our overall way of life has pointed us in the wrong direction, away from growth and health. Consequently, relationship advice ignores the spiritual core of the relationship because it's grounded in embracing the same self-interest and cultural narcissism that's rampant. That deadens relationships over time. For example, much of the relationship advice about sex falters because the relationship has become fragmented, one in which sex has become a disembodied activity apart from the rest of the relationship. Then, people feel disheartened to see surveys that show that sex ebbs away in a long-term relationship. But in fact, the data indicate that that happens when partners are emotionally and spiritually disengaged from each other to begin with, when the "parts" of their relationship are not integrated.
But there's also evidence that we can evolve in healthier directions, that consciousness enables us to evolve psychologically toward attitudes, emotions and behaviors that we desire. That includes an enriched spiritual connection and continued growth with an intimate partner. In fact, the 21st century -- with its unpredictable, unstable, economic and political conditions and an increasingly diverse, highly interconnected and networked world -- actually makes conscious evolution both more necessary and possible.
That is, the 21st-century events of 9/11 and the economic decline of 2008 turned our old way of life on its head -- in love, in work and in our sense of life purpose. That's opened the door to new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that serve larger, common goals, beyond our old self-centered ones. Overall, I think we're in the midst of a large-scale shift toward behavior and values that reflect more awareness of our interconnection and interdependency throughout the planet, and of the fact that people's actions everywhere and anywhere affect everyone in every place.
People are awakening to the reality that "success" and well-being throughout life are now based on values and actions that sustain and build something of value for the larger good -- whether in your work or in your intimate partnership. That's different from seeking to control and extract from the other what you want for oneself.
'Forgetting Yourself' In Your Relationship
A simple step: Ask yourself how you feel when you do something or give something to someone who really enjoys and appreciates, what you give -- whether it's emotional or material. You probably recognize that it just feels good, period. That's the model for fueling positive energy in a relationship, because such action comes from the heart, for the sake of giving, without regard for getting something back. You might ask, "Doesn't 'forgetting yourself' run the risk of being taken advantage of?" Sure it does. But that would tell you something about the kind of partner you've connected with to begin with. It's something to learn from (see my post about doing a "relationship inventory").
Studies of couples who are able to maintain a highly positive, energized connection for the long term indicate that they "forget" themselves and engage in serving the relationship itself. Interestingly, brain scans of couples in long-term love find similarities between them and couples who had just fallen madly in love. The energy stays healthy and alive.
Here are two practices that couples who maintain long-term connections have in common:
Two-way communication and openness. This is the opposite of the CFO who, when informed that his subordinates complained about a lack of two-way communication, said cluelessly, "But I do provide two-way communication: I send e-mails and I tell them in person." No, this refers to being open in the sense of receptivity to what your partner is experiencing and communicating to you, and being open in the active sense of revealing your own thoughts, concerns, fears and so on. Two-way openness is the antidote to conventional, relationship-killing vying for power over the other. It supports building positive emotions within yourself and toward your partner, and new research shows that positive emotions are a powerful antidote to stress, pain and illness. An ongoing positive attitude can protect against poor health later in life.
Collaboration toward joint, common goals. This is certainly visible in the most successful, contemporary workplaces. For relationships, the common goal isn't a new killer app or a new service but rather a high-energy, engaged connection between equals -- emotionally, spiritually and physically. In fact, research shows that shared decision making between equal partners actually leads to better decisions. Similarly, brain scans of couples who've maintained long-term, positive marriages show activation in areas of the brain that indicate strong connections and engagement. Overall, positive connection around the common goal of the relationship itself is associated with long-term vitality and energy.
In short, a living, growing relationship is an ongoing, flowing energy exchange, emotionally, behaviorally and sexually. Deepak Chopra provides a good description of this in Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul, writing that "[the] difference between healthy and unhealthy energy can be summarized as follows: Healthy energy is flowing, flexible, dynamic, balanced, soft, associated with positive feelings. Unhealthy energy is stuck, frozen, rigid, brittle, hard, out of balance, associated with negative emotions."
Chopra adds that people have the capacity to shift an unhealthy energy state into a healthy one. And that's a good description of retrieving a relationship from the dead zone and bringing it back into the realm of the living.