Turning Toward and Togetherness
Thanks to the work of Doctors John and Julie Gottman, we have decades of consistent evidence that shows togetherness and turning toward patterns are key to mutual appreciation, love, and respect. And even where there are patterns of conflict and turning away, couples can learn to do otherwise by learning skills for making effective emotional bids as well as skills in reciprocating emotional bids, with turning toward behaviors. With mindfulness training, couples can further cultivate shared relationship awareness and intentionally cultivate relationship awareness. Relationship mindfulness can help us to increase the frequency of our intentional turning toward our partners to better make and reciprocate emotional bids. And these daily little habits, seemingly so mundane that some of us risk seeing them as irrelevant, are what actually build lasting intimacy.
These practices in turning toward and making/reciprocating emotional bids help to prevent marital drift into parallel lives or mend ruptures in our together-ness, our proximity, to continue to share inexperienced emotional nurture that can only occur in proximity to one another. Proximity and togetherness open our shared presence to one another so that we continue to learn and know, together, our internal worlds, our shifting dreams, desires, and experiences.
“Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.”Rainer Maria
Proximity and Intervals
And yet, there is a kind of togetherness that is stifling, smothering, which levels us down into indistinct sameness. Such togetherness, called enmeshment by some, impedes fresh and novel experiences for each person, with each becoming a copy of the other, and both become essentially crippled by such sameness, unable to be spontaneous and vivacious. On a larger scale, such toxic togetherness misses authentic common life, even levels a community down to a crowd. As Thomas Merton wrote about community: “The common life can either make one more of a person or less of a person, depending on whether it is truly common life or merely life in a crowd.” And he goes on to distinguish the crowd as togetherness that shares only common distractions and noise, which ultimately separates us from reality. On the other hand, Merton, as might Dan Siegel, might say that community provides a togetherness that honors our distinctiveness that makes real relationships with others possible, and where our distinctiveness is honored, and where we can find our truest humanity, over the course of our lives. If marriage is anything, it is a community of two or more if we live with extended family and children. We have a common life with our spouses.
The poet Rilke also wrote in his letters a warning against sameness and advocates for the appreciation of intimacy that emerges from our respective solitude. : “In marriage, the point is not to achieve a rapid union by tearing down and toppling all boundaries. Rather, in a good marriage, each person appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude and thus shows him the greatest faith he can bestow…once it is recognized that even among the closest people there remain infinite distances, a wonderful coexistence can develop once they succeed in loving the vastness between them that affords them the possibility of seeing each other in their full gestalt before a vast sky” (Baer, p. 36). Without getting into a further comprehensive study of the worldviews of either Merton or Rilke, we identify a confluence of thought between the two which also intersects with the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB): We live best and flourish, albeit with textured fallibility, as we live into a fluctuating balance of interval and proximity, togetherness and awayness, making space for one another even in shared spaces of home, where we can experience our respective solitude, offering our disclosures as best suit us, without expectation of uniformity of persons, and within which we nourish one another.
Appreciation vs. Appropriation
It takes mindfulness to intentionally cultivate respect for the intervals and proximity of marriage. On the one hand, we do not want to lose our distinctiveness, nor strip others of what makes them distinctive. On the other hand, we do not wish to lose ourselves and our spouses to the relational abyss of parallel lives that darkens us with forgetfulness and self-obsession, that strangles true relating and loving encounter.
Our patient and willing attention to the health of our marriages gives us skills to become wisely sensitive to the timing of intervals and proximity, open dialog with our spouses through which we cultivate marital wisdom. We cultivate wise marriages, with friendship, respect, fondness, and admiration. As we cultivate this appreciation, this form of embodied love for our spouses, we will defend ourselves from bringing the corruption of consumerism into our marriages that too often compel us to appropriate our spouses for our happiness and pleasure. And we can mend the inevitable breaches that come from our mutual oafish bungling, from which we can recover with repair practices.
Solitude Nourishes Marriages
Solitude does in fact require intervals of intentional aloneness, making spaces as free of distractions as possible. But it is not isolation. Rather solitude becomes a living dynamic that each of us carries deep within us. It is a kind of center, a place of internal solidity, security, perhaps where we find our wise minds. It is within us, an inner space. “Solitude is the furnace of transformation,” wrote Henri Nouwen. If we are not accustomed to periods of detachment, not only from our spouses, but from all that keeps our brains and bodies dizzy with excitation and distraction, physical solitude can be difficult.
If we can manage brief periods of physical solitude we must be ready to meet silence which gives us acute sensitivity to the absence of our distractions. We will feel discomfort. Even disorientation. We will meet boredom, anxiety, loneliness. It’s best if we take with us into our solitude a heart filled with willingness. Willingness to simply be with whatever happens to us in our solitude and it’s companion silence. Willingness allows us the gentle courage to be with the discomfort and disorentation. And perhaps we use these moments to work our skills in distress tolerance and emotion regulation. With regular intervals into this kind of solitude, we find that we can cultivate wisdom which will otherwise wilt in the fields of distraction where our most human instincts are trained by ads and news feeds to feel obliged to chronic dismay and cravings. Solitude and silence reveal these to us, prompt us to the appropriate cures. We will know, if we listen.
Too much proximity with our beloved spouses may be just another distraction keeping us from ecountering the furnace of solitude. Perhaps even cloud our wise minds, and paradoxically stall the development of our interdependence as the rambling toxins of self-obsession feed chronic dismay and craving. This path better suits co-depdendence and childish immaturity. We may blame or spouses for our lack of progress, whether in our hobbies, or even in spiritual and intellectual pursuits, due to their “neediness” and “selfish demands” not recognizing our needs to develop our interests. All the while, it may be us stunting their growth by hemming them in with our proximity, and our demands that have become so automatic, we don’t even notice what we’re doing. If we fall prey to emotional myopia, we won’t be able to diagnose our condition, never mind cultivate marital wisdom.
Solitude and Intimacy
Solitude is not avoidance. We do not use solitude as escape. Solitude, like prayer and mindfulness, bring us ito a more intimate relationship with reality. And as such, brings us to our senses, to our right mind, our wise mind, the place from which we begin to hone our relational skills and sensitivity to wisdom that guides us in appropriate risk taking and feeling our way into the relative balance we, and our spouse, need to practice the emotional bids and reciprocating of bids that bind us together in a patient and joyful intimacy.
Solitude invites us to nourish our marital sensititivies, to become agile, effective in making bids with our partners, reciprocating their bids to connect, and to detect timing for relationship repair as needed, as well as when to engage in self-soothing to circumvent emotion mind impulsivity that injures intimacy. Solitude helps us to cultivate an honor for intervals.
Our time in the intervals may arise from the normative patters of work-life and school, or when either we or our partner go for a walk, spends time in prayer or meditation, attends or visits with friends. We may even occupy the same room while immersing ourselves in different tasks, with one one reading a book and the other crocheting a blanket. And in this last example we find hints that our solitude will eventually travel with us into our social encounters, and our marriages. We may be in shared physical space but experiencing the dignity of the interval that nourishes our appreciation for the unique thoughts, feelings, interests of our spouse, and they us.