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.