Larry and Cheryl sitting in a tree, K…I…S…S…I…N…G, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage(I took those jingles a little too seriously)…and then what?
Bertrand Russell says, “those who have never known the deep intimacy and the intense companionship of happy mutual love have missed the best thing that life has to give.” Keep in mind Bertrand had four wives (consecutively, not concurrently) with which to explore the concept of intimacy, a capricious notion if there ever was one.
Today I’m investigating the latest research on relationships, and how it informs our understanding of companionship, which I believe is in fellowship with intimacy. I can hear you all clicking off as I write these words. Stay with me I found some controversial studies you won’t want to miss.
Companionship, is the enjoyment of being with someone, the comforting presence of another human being in the midst of a complicated and confusing life. It’s good in theory but in practice it can be rather thorny.
Did you know that roses have a natural defense against pests, which are the spiny stem growths called thorns, and by the way so do women? Let’s see if we can de-thorn the the ever changing landscape of marriage, one barb at a time.
Most people want companionship especially as we age up, when the hustle and bustle of life slows down, and we have a chance to catch our breath, to reengage with the person who has been hunkered down in the trenches with us while we existed in a quasi war zone. I’m talking kids, cars, mortgages, jobs, tuitions, life, and of course the forbidden fruit (a reference to technology, not sex, just keeping it real).
We’re designed to be in relationship, like dogs, we’re pack animals (slightly less hairy), and we love nothing more than eating, working, playing, and napping with our tribe.
In a study that came out of Australia it was shown that companionship affects personal happiness, but not as strongly as it affects marriage well-being. In other words, if you enjoy spending time with your spouse the benefit is a healthier marriage. What a concept? I believe the most ordinary things can become extraordinary, simply by doing them with the right person. Don’t you?
I was chatting with my friend Jan last weekend, and I asked her what she valued most in life.
Without missing a beat she said, “companionship.”
God even said, “It is not good to be alone; I will make you a companion.” (Gen. 2:18-24 adapted)
I’d like to point out that Eve was not made to help Adam with the dishes and laundry. Adam is not Eve’s ultimate ground and final goal. God no. According to Tyler Blanski, Eve is the absolute pinnacle of creation (read that again), the ultimate companion, made to know and treasure a life in equal partnership with Adam. Metaphorically speaking, that’s what I’m talking about!
This is why we leave our mom and dad, hold fast to our spouse, and in all this togetherness we actually appear to be one. This cleaving and completing and complementing is paradigmatic to human flourishing. It is essential, not elective.
Sylvia Plath puts it this way, “How we need that security. How we need another soul to cling to, another body to keep us warm. To rest and trust; to give your soul in confidence: I need this, I need someone to pour myself into.”
I love how John Joseph Powell says, “It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.”
I think this might be one of our most important tasks, helping each other to see beyond the superficial shell of our physical existence, and into the miracle of life, the dignity of a people called by God to love.
I agree, love can be a challenging vocation, and as Spike Jonze claims, “falling in love is kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.”
So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, shall we? All this theorizing can be annoying. I went right to the experts and this is what I found. The changing landscape of love and marriage, let me summarize for you (which means I’ll pull out what I think is important), you’re welcome.
According to researchers Kathleen E. Hull, Ann Meier, and Timothy Ortyl, “the romantic love model, which emphasizes relationship permanence (epitomized in the marriage vow of “till death do us part”) and complementary gender roles, is being displaced by a new model of intimacy, which is called confluent love.”
The confluent love model features the ideal of the pure relationship, meaning a relationship that is entered into for its own sake and maintained only as long as both partners get enough satisfaction from it to stick around. Clearly Bertand was a difficult man to satisfy. Partners in a pure relationship establish trust through intense communication, yet the possibility of breakup always looms.
I think social media has significantly influenced our expectations of marriage, shifting our traditional gender roles (a good thing), promoting individualism, but also normalizing bounce rates in relationships. Have you ever watched an episode of Friends? Clearly something is changing, especially in the United States, where I read fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. Something I didn’t expect is the divorce rate for subsequent marriages is even higher then first marriages. We’ll call it the Bertand Russell effect.
It’s as if the idea of marriage is appealing when you’re caught up in the throws of “insanity” but falls short when reality slaps you in the face.
In his recent book The Marriage-Go-Round, researcher Cherlin says Americans have established a pattern of high marriage and remarriage rates, frequent divorce and separation, and more short-lived cohabitations, relative to other comparable countries. The end result is what Cherlin calls a “carousel of intimate partnerships,” leading American adults, and any children they have, to face more transition and upheaval in their personal lives. Cherlin concludes that this unique American pattern results from the embrace of two contradictory cultural ideals: marriage and individualism.
As a reminder a permanent partnership requires cooperation, compromise, and collaboration, all oppositional to modern culture where individual needs are prioritized over the needs of the union. For example, in my own marriage I recently decided to retire and spend more time doing what I love (individual needs), but this means less time earning money (union needs). Larry on the other hand is still working (union needs) and spending less time pursuing his own interests (individual needs). And let me just say this has been the subject of many discussions, conflicts, and debates over vying priorities. It keeps things lively at the very least.
“You know it’s never fifty-fifty in a marriage. It’s always seventy-thirty, or sixty-forty. Someone falls in love first. Someone puts someone else up on a pedestal. Someone works very hard to keep things rolling smoothly; someone else sails along for the ride.” Jodi Picoult
In a study of middle-class Americans, Ann Swidler found that when people talk about love and relationships they oscillate between two seemingly contradictory visions of intimacy. They speak about love and relationships as being hard work, and they acknowledge that relationship permanence is never a given, even in strong marriages. This way of talking about intimacy reflects the ideals of confluent love but the same people who articulated this pragmatic and realistic vision of intimacy would also sometimes invoke elements of romantic love ideology, such as the idea that true love lasts forever and can overcome any obstacles, even retirement.
I don’t know about you but I find relationships challenging, all relationships, especially the ones that are important to me. Think about it. How can you blend in perfect union two people with their own unresolved issues, quarks, expectations, histories, limitations, beliefs, and values? When things heat up it gets messy, as if a crayon left in the dryer, we melt, and imbrue each other with our unique colors if you will.
According to the “experts” here are a few practical issues to consider; itimancy is hard to maintain, we suck at conflict, expectations can be brutal, we come with unhealed issues, distractions are part of the deal, familiarity is not always your friend, and even though opposites attract that can also be a cause of untold strife.
So if happily ever after is only found in fairytales we might need to redefine happiness.
“If you want to maintain romance, you have to work at it,” New York–based relationship expert and author April Masini says. “You can do this by creating new experiences, rekindling old ones, and looking for deeper, more mature love that is less about a spark than it is about love, respect, sex, and caring for each other over the course of the long run.”
No shit Sherlock.
I also found some solid research from John Gottman that suggests we should seek help early. When we live with unhappiness for too long we start to think it’s irreversible. The idea is to be kind to each other, avoid criticism or blaming, and to do this you have to edit yourself. It’s suggested that we soften our approach to a rift. Arguments often “start up” because one partner escalates the conflict by making a critical or contemptuous remark. Imagine? Bringing up problems gently and without blame works much better and allows couples to calmly engage in conflict.
Well, it’s something to aspire to in any event.
This next one is so controversial I was compelled to use it just to be ornery and I can’t wait for your response. I read a study on marriage, which claims that a relationship succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. In same-sex relationships, this applies to the dominant partner. For instance, a woman might say to her husband, ‘Do you have to work Thursday night? My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready.’ He replies, ‘My plans are set, and I’m not changing them.’ As you might guess, this guy is in a shaky marriage. A husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice-versa) is crucial because research shows that women are already well-practiced at accepting influence from men. A true partnership only occurs when a husband can do the same thing. Booyah.
The study also pointed out that the most successful couples are those who make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other then negative ones. Partners don’t ride each other in good marriages (blame, judge, criticize convict), it should be characterized by a rich climate of positivity, as if a bank account, you’ll go broke if you only withdrawal your assets, one has to make deposits on occasion, and apparently all those little deposits add up.
I also found a tendentious article from Shaunti Feldhahn in which she claims that men and women can have a big impact on each other’s happiness when they make a point to engage in behaviors that each other finds pleasing. I admit the word pleasing captured my attention. She assumes men respond well when recognized for their accomplishments and women for their attractiveness. Seems a little shallow to me, and I think it goes both ways, you decide.
Feldhahn claims a woman can have a big impact on a man’s happiness when she does the following:
- Notices his effort and sincerely thanks him for it.
- Says “You did a great job at __.”
- Mentions in front of others something he did well.
- Show that she desires him sexually and that he pleases her sexually.
- Makes it clear to him that he makes her happy.
On his side, Feldhahn says a man will have a big impact on a woman happiness when he does the following:
- Takes her hand.
- Leaves her a message by voice mail, e-mail, or text during the day to say he loves and is thinking about her.
- Puts his arm around her or lays his hand on her knee when they are sitting next to each other in public.
- Tells her sincerely, “You are beautiful.”
- Pulls himself out of a funk when he’s morose, grumpy, or upset about something, instead of withdrawing.
The thing I found hard with Feldhahn’s advice is it seems antiquated, sexist, as if a woman just waits around for someone to hold her hand and tell her how cute she looks in faded blue jeans. I also appreciate it when my partner acknowledges my accomplishments, especially in front of others, and I don’t know about you but I want to know I’m sexually pleasing? I also think Larry appreciates it when I take his hand, offer a kiss, and tell him he’s a good-looking dude.
What do you think?
I stumbled on Alyson Weasley’s work and I appreciate her focus on communication. She stresses the importance of not only reporting events to each other but communicating how we feel about our experiences. She also suggests developing and maintaining a friendship with our partners takes time, translation, you have to spend time together rather than apart, even if this means saying no occasionally to other commitments (bike rides, golf, poker night), or better yet invite your partner to join you in your activities.
I believe the ability to tactfully navigate conflict is also important, for example, I prefer the filthy dog leash not be stored in the entryway or in the dining room of our home. There’s plenty of handy places to hang a leash that will not interfere with the carefully designed ascetics of a room. It’s really my only thing (my blog, my lies) and I’ve not taken kindly to contraband left on forbidden ground. I have a tendency to hide said goods and then I’m inappropriately humored as the dog walker searches in vain for the lost item. I realize this behavior is inexcusable, slightly childish, and most likely a sin, but oh so fun.
Maybe we should renew our vows?
The truth is I’m not responsible to make my partner a better person (although I try) or tamper with his intensity, I’m here to be with him while he wrestles with life, when he freaks out, celebrates, grieves, laughs, relaxes, sulks, or searches for leashes. It’s about being present to each other, showing up, staying the course with a healthy sense of humor and lots of wine.
Hello, Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding, it was considered his first miracle, and maybe he was trying to tell us something? Let’s see…it takes a community, a savior, and a miracle to make a marriage.
So there you have it, modern love according to the experts, Jesus, and my own notions of marital bliss.
Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day and our relationships can’t be fixed overnight. So if you’re planning on de-thorning the rose, tackle it one stem at a time, before you know it you’ll have a flourishing bouquet without a prick. Bahaha.
“So it’s not gonna be easy. It’s going to be really hard; we’re gonna have to work at this everyday, but I want to do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever, everyday. You and me… everyday.” Nicholas Sparks,
I’m Living in the Gap, tackling one thorn at a time, commemorate with me in the comments.
- “A career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night” Marilyn Monroe
- “How we need another soul to cling to.” Sylvia Plath
- “Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” Khalil Gibran