Marriage is a supreme challenge. To love with integrity and openness to growth requires particular dispositions, knowledge, and embodied skills. Many of the couples that come to me for therapy are as desirous of connection and intimacy as they are frustrated with the shortcomings of their spouses and even their deficits and fallibilities.
I take these couples into the frame of what I’m calling Wise Marriage. This frame is influenced by my twenty-plus years as a DBT therapist, mindfulness practices, the works of Daniel Siegel in Interpersonal Neurobiology, the life works of John and Julie Gottman of The Gottman Institute, and finally, my own experiences with marriage, including one failed marriage of twelve and a half years in my thirties, and my present marriage of three years (I’m fifty-four as of this writing). These latter lived experiences are perhaps the most essential to my enthusiasm and willingness to work with couples in mending breaches in their relationships and to help them connect with wise practices that will serve them in sharing a meaningful life.
Briefly, let me share three key movements that aid me in my married and family life and which I share with the couples who present to therapy. I ask these couples to adopt first of all to consider love as an existential stance toward life, and more so toward their spouses. This is the practice of willingness, which is saying yes to life on its own terms, just as it is. Willingness softens our reactive willfulness, or the stance of no which guards against reality, fighting and rejecting life on its own terms. And such willfulness is often present in the myriad of petty criticisms, blaming, and grudges which, if left unmitigated, can fester into outright hostility, belligerence, and misery.
As couples orient toward cultivating willingness, and connecting with their deeper values and desires for loving and being loved, for truly sharing life I ask them to remember, and practice, these three movements of a wise marriage: With one another, To one another, and For one another. As you read along I invite you to consider your marriage, your relationship with your children or other family, and your friendships.
- Being With One Another: Being with one another entails the basic daily proximity to one another in general shared home life. And being with one another also means being intentionally and mindfully present to/with one another. You let go of distractions to hear one another, you see one another, not only with your eyes but your hearts. With mindfulness practices, you learn to recollect your attention to the present moment with your spouse, and you are within your marriage, you participate, and you allow yourself to be involved with your spouse in the real and not merely through distant imaginings.
- Being To One Another: Being to your spouse is the disposition and continual enactment of being to-ward them, turning toward them in response to their emotional bids, and being to them in turning your heart toward them with love, fondness, and admiration. And while intervals between you are inevitable and necessary, this to-ward-ness, or to-ness means that you seek out connection, that you also show interest and curiosity in the inner life of your spouse, and you seek to be to-ward them with the willingness to disclose and reveal yourself in all of the quotidian moments and tasks that are inherent to life, as well as continue to bring to them your thoughts, feelings, desires and to work against aversion and alienation
- Being For One Another: Finally, being for another. Being for one another means that you are routing for one another’s wellness, success, and satisfaction that come with a life well-lived, expressed in the continued aligning of yourselves to your deepest values of love, respect, and care, and further you assist one another to become the best of yourselves that you can be. Being for one another you embody the Greek agape, advocating for one another in the small and big things. And being for one another means that you adopt the mantle of advocating for one another among others and within the world. Protecting one another’s health, social reputation, and generally sticking up for one another. Put more simply, you and your spouse have each others’ backs.
Starting here opens couples, and opens you, to adopt the discipline of practicing skills through which you can embody love and appreciation, affection and admiration. This is only a beginning, as well as a necessary, lifelong work that will yield the connection and meaning we all want and need.