What About Relationships?

It is a source of some sadness to me, that as I get older I know more and more people who have felt compelled to end their relationships. Don’t get me wrong. There are people who have been trapped in awful incongruence and separation and divorce are gratifying escapes from intolerable situations. But it makes me question how they entered into them in the first place.

It is a shame that in our modern western societies that relationships between men and women are getting more fraught. (This is not to suggest we should idealise what happens in some Eastern traditions. Fundamentalist Islam, among others, seems to reduce such relationships to female servitude!)When a man and a woman seek to fashion a life together, today they face a unique set of challenges and difficulties. The traditional support mechanisms that once stood behind such relationships are now disappearing and weakening. Intimate relationships are entered into at the whim of the individuals without any of the traditional help and guidance society once provided. Maybe in the past such assistance was an impost on the individual rights of the people concerned. Yet most of the old social and economic rationales for marriage or long term relationships have broken down. The liberals among us would probably believe that this is a good thing and that relationships between consenting adults should be nobody else’s business. My liberal tendencies would lead me to support such a view, except that the evidence that such relationships are failing at an alarming rate gives me cause to pause.

Unfortunately relationships seem now to be formed more for the immediate gratification of those involved than for any other reason. For the first time in history, the relations between men and women lack clear guidelines, supportive family networks, a religious context and a compelling social reason. For some of us this does not present as a great loss. When our relationships are well-founded on love and mutual respect there is little support needed. However, the growing failure of relationships would suggest that many need such support.

The days when marriage was merely the vehicle for having children are long gone. In times past there was an imperative to have children to carry on the family name, to have someone to continue the family business, contribute to the family work and thus providing an economic asset. These imperatives have largely disappeared. Indeed with modern family planning options, relationships are entered into often with no thought of having children at all.

In the past, marriage had a central place in the community. It was a stabilising influence that supported the social order. If things weren’t going too well in the relationship community pressure held it together and family and friends supported its continuation.

But in our modern western societies there are few extrinsic reasons for a couple to continue together. Now it seems it is only the intrinsic value of their relationship that will enable it to be sustained. Which should sound some warning bells to those contemplating long term relationships! Because it is easier to move in and out of relationships there seems to many little point in investing energy into trying to repair a relationship that is failing. But in the end, being able to weather the storms together makes the relationship far more meaningful.

I have in mind a couple of dear friends of mine whose marriage is now into its sixty-third year. I look at the rough patches they have had with death of a son in an accident, death of a daughter due to cancer, and one daughter having had a stroke which has impaired her physical capabilities. They have both had heart surgery. They struggled in a small business. There have been on occasions tensions and disagreements. But underneath it all there was a mutual respect, often masked by overt good humour often at their own expense (which is a sure sign of robustness, and research has shown contributes to the longevity of the relationship!) and never, ever any consideration that resolving problems was too hard or not worth the effort.

Marriage entered into in good faith is a long term investment. It is more important than that financial investment you might want to make in the stock market. Yet before you make your purchase of shares you will do some considerable research into the prospects of the particular business you are contemplating investing in. It might pay some dividends if we were to look at our prospective partnership with the same objectivity. “How unromantic,” you might say. When someone is “in love” there is no inclination to enter into such a mundane consideration. But beware here! As my friend, the good Dr Phil, often reminds people in his presentations, being “in love” is merely a trick our hormones play on us to ensure the propagation of the species! Under such intoxication it is quite likely that our judgment might be impaired and our long term welfare (and that of our partner) might be discarded for the consummation of our short term passion.

Gordon Livingstone M. D. (author of the great little book “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart”) describes “falling in love” as “the chemistry that causes us to choose one person over all other possibilities but can be seen in retrospect as a combination of readiness, lust and hope rather than an indefinable but powerful union between two souls.”

Among the most ominous and revealing developments in modern marriage has been the increasing popularity of prenuptial agreements. Once the province of the very wealthy, these contracts have become common among people who are entering into marriage. I often wonder how such a partnership can succeed when it is preceded by such an action of mistrust. It seems to me quite unfathomable that someone could enter into marriage without at least the basis of shared trust.

To quote from Livingstone again, he writes, “When I read wedding announcements and look at the smiling pictures of couples newly betrothed, I understand that no one is saying to them, ‘You know the chances of this marriage enduring are no better than fifty-fifty. What makes you think you will win the coin flip?’ Such a question would be unthinkable for people with stars in their eyes, so it will not be asked.”

But of course it should be. Statistics show that children from long term stable relationships are more likely to enter into similar arrangements themselves. Understandably they have benefited in the process and can see that expending some work on the relationship is worth the effort.

As my regular readers will know (both of you!), when seeking to come to an understanding about an issue I believe there is much to be learnt from Myths and parables. The Greek myth of Eros (erotic love) and Psyche (consciousness) suggests what the underlying problem in relationships is. In this myth Eros becomes Psyche’s lover by night on the condition that she must never seek to see his face. Psyche, a child of Aphrodite consults with her sisters on how to handle her lover. They insist that she must see his face. As a result one night she surprises Eros by producing a lamp so that his face might be illumined. But startled by the light, Eros flees. She is devastated by this turn of events and turns to her mother the goddess Aphrodite. Her mother undertakes that Psyche might again be reunited with her lover but only on the condition that she undertakes various tests that Aphrodite believes Psyche is unlikely to be able to achieve. But of course, driven by her devotion Psyche is able to fulfil these requirements and Aphrodite reluctantly reunites the lovers. They are able to resume their relationship, but now in the light of day.

This myth highlights the tension between consciousness and erotic love. Initially the partners were able to indulge themselves erotically but without consciousness. After Psyche’s trials when the two were reconciled they were able to progress their relationship consciously (in the light of day). Traditional Western marriages and relationships have been like love in the dark. One would hope that once consciousness was allowed in, such attributes as kindness, tolerance, perseverance, commitment as well as love might make a difference.

16 Replies to “What About Relationships?”

  1. How on Earth can a ‘relationship’ be built on shifting sands?

    We have to create our own foundations.

    That can take decades.

    In your previous blogs you have acknowledged that you aren’t the same person that you were some time ago. (ahem)

    Stable relationships are best left in Bethlehem.

  2. Even though I seldom comment, I look forward to and read your blogs every week. I derive many insights and I admire your rounded and well formed views Ted. Please dont stop posting.

    I essentially take from this posting the dynamic balance between the head and the heart when it comes to relationship decisions. To rationally trust a person is to form a judgement and make a prediction about future behaviour. Yet ‘rational’ trust is a misnomer. I often attempt to reconcile in my own mind the irrational idea of love, trust, faith etc with the notion of making rational “unromantic” decisions.

    The science of mind chemistry driving propagation is aligned with Darwinism and Dawkins. This further implies the selfish view of humans which is corrosive to faith and the idea of love (yet the fuel of our capitalist society). A sad point is selfishness is king in our society and Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ still operates.

    In regards to prenups, beginning relationships later in life where there are substantial financial differences can be a positive contribution moving from the other party. Money is a part of relationships and part of the “unromantic” reality of society. Money is part of the rational decision making process that is advocated in this blog. It is a act of self respect for the well off partner and displays respect from the less well off partner to the other. This is liberalism i.e. freedom to contract, rather than leaving a matter in the hands of state which, in my view, is often dealt with in a less than equitable and fair manner.

    1. Good to hear from you Matt. Imight just briefly take issue with two of your points.

      Firstly it is often asserted that evolution is driven by selfishness.However there is a large body of opinion based on substantial research that altruism confers evolutionary benefits. (Read, for example “The Moral Animal” by the evolutionary psychologist, Robert Wright.)

      Secondly, whilst I agree that because of people marrying later and people remarrying after divorce, people often enter into long term relationship with unequal physical assets. My main point was that if you were about to enter such a relationship and you inherently distrusted the other person, you probably didn’t have the basis for a long-term relationship! Time to let Psyche do a bit more work than Eros. Think about the equation. You are entering voluntarily into this relationship and if you are bringing more material resources than the other person it is because you believe that the relationship holds intrinsic rewards that are worth this investment. The good Dr Phil again, often warns people about the dangers of establishing a “balance sheet” – I give you “this” and I expect to get “that” from you. Then we keep score to make sure we get our due entitlements. This is not “love”. This is commerce. When you truly love another, what you give, you give unconditionally. And what say, even with the best intentions and having given proper consideration to all of this, the relationship sours. How are we to respond? Do we seek to take back that which we gave? Do we then demonise the other party because they never upheld their side of the bargain? Well, we can if we want to immerse ourselves in bitterness, regret and injustice. Then we harm ourselves. I can assure you that your life will be much better if you merely forgive them, admit to yourself you have made an error of judgment as we all do. This is nothing to be ashamed of or to feel guilty about. So your partner has shown a flaw or two that you weren’t aware of. Most times it is because we have been blinded by our passion or even our good intentions. But we probably had put them on a pedestal with unrealistic expectations about who they really were. Forgive them. They are merely doing their best. Their behaviour, just as yours, is largely constructed by their genetics and socialisation – things over which neither they nor we have had volition. If instead we seek retribution or revenge then we will undoubtedly harm ourselves. I think it was Nelson Mandela who said the, “Revenge is like taking poison and hoping it will kill your enemy!”

  3. In my experience, which admittedly is limited, romantic love is always entangled in ego, taking definition from a longing to identify with and be identified by someone we perceive to have unique value that enhances our individual sense of ‘self worth’. This is an illusion which undermines our capacity to experience unconditional love. The illusion is a construct that has been nurtured by poets and screenwriters and the people who sell push-up bras. I guess the key is to see it for what it is, and isn’t.
    I too look forward to reading your blog each week Ted. Thanks again.
    And ‘hello’ Father Robin – the Bethlehem stable line made me laugh!

  4. …also, our cultural preoccupation with money is bizarre. I like to pretend money and material things don’t matter. I occasionally entertain myself by trying to imagine a world without money. This is also pre-emptive cognitive therapy to help me cope with impending intentional poorness.

  5. Wow, can’t beat a good love story to bring out some interesting comments. Well, from my part I like to think of myself as seeing the inner beauty in everyone but to be honest I am still a sucker for a push up bra. One of the issues I think we face today is that there is a whole industry researching and marketing the equivalent of the push up bra. Whether it be cologne, clothing, make-up, jewellery, sun glasses, etc they are all designed to attract a potential mates attention whether they be the right mate for us or not. When we are in that period in our life when hormones flood our brains, (perhaps I am still there based on my interest in push up bras) this bombardment of distractions has got to make it difficult to find the right soul mate.

    Marriage or commitment to a partner for life (marriage has become so 70’s these days) I believe is a spiritual thing and failing to realise this is a huge cause of relationship failures. If only a couple when making their vows accepted that they are now one and not two, things would be so much better for them. Marriage if entered into in this way becomes a tiny step on the path to enlightenment and the realisation that all is one. How many people though have no idea how much their partner earns, have separate bank accounts, loan each other money, bargain for favours, etc. This is not a spiritual union it is a business venture. If you can get to the stage that you can honestly say to your partner there is nothing that you can do that will make me love you less, while at the same time realising that you are not dependent on them for your own happiness, the longevity of the relationship is all but assured. To truly be committed to someone in this way though means we have to let go of our ego and give everything we have to someone while expecting nothing in return.

    I read somewhere that statistically people who have a failed relationship have a much higher probability that a future relationship will fail. Where as, people who have had a strong and enduring relationship that has ended with the early death of their partner are very likely to find another similar relationship even if at the time of the loss they believe this to be impossible. What this tells me is, it is much easier to find the perfect partner than it is to become a perfect partner and that by becoming a giving, trusting and forgiving person we create in our partner these same traits. I am not saying that a person who demonstrates these attributes is guaranteed a lasting relationship with anyone they choose but it certainly helps. Your don’t find your perfect partner; they are created by you and you by them.

  6. In regards to altruism: there are several arguments that selfishness is the underlying driver of altruism. Serveral of these perspectives include: social contract theory, evolution i.e. helping another species for ones own survival benefit, and simply feeling good within oneself.

    In regards to relationships: when it come to potential partners, it does appear that a bargain is struck (or not). In this process it does seem that a balanced offer from the parties is the starting point. While i agree, experience, and believe in unconditional love I also observe that potential partners starting out do strike a bargain. This bargain is on the consideration of looks, material wealth, social status, jobs status, security etc. Sad but true in my observaton of our society. First attraction (i.e. bargain), then lust, then maybe love, then possibly unconditional love. The breakdown is in the bargain perhaps, when one partner doesn’t stay true to their bargain before the relationship reaches the unconditional love stage. Therefore, with the today’s divorce rates, marriage often occurs before unconditional love, or, most couples just never reach that stage.

    Material wealth may also be considered as legitimate from an evolutionary perspective, as it increases the chance of survival of an offspring.

  7. Evolution might yet teach us that the grotesque inequality of our material wealth is unsustainable, and therefore undesirable. The question is just whether we have the wisdom to cease the self-gratifying bargains. If not, we seem certain to achieve our own extinction (or obliteration, should it eventuate that geopolitical power squabbles inspire our nuclear destruction).
    One point I think Ted’s blog highlights, and we have each reinforced, is that our paradigm is predominantly an individualist one. It is uncommon to hear people talk about the bargains we might strive to realise on behalf of our community or family. And in our over-identification as independent free-willing post-pop individuals, community is crumbling, held together in space but not mindfully. Material wealth, to date, may have advantaged our survival, but has our experience of life and love has been bargained off?

  8. And, I might add, mangers stink.

    Thank God for hospitals.

    They stink too, but apparently it’s a healthy stink.

  9. Every decent blog site, like a Shakespearean play, needs a Fool, a Jester.

    Why do I feel perfect for the role?

    Check out my CV.

    ‘All the world’s a stage’

    I claim the role of Fool.

  10. “It is a source of some sadness to me, that as I get older I know more and more people who have felt compelled to end their relationships.”

    But all relationships are ended at death.

    Death is as inevitable as birth.

    Why sweat the small stuff?

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