Friday, October 20th 2017

What to feed a marriage

To make a relationship work, forget about needs. Love is fueled by desire – the kind that comes from the heart, not the hormones.

BY DAVID RICKEY — John Mellencamp is hurting so good, splitting from wife number three after 20 years together. Tiger Woods and Sandra Bullock made headlines in 2010 as the antagonist and victim (respectively) in two other, particularly nasty celebrity breakups. For the general population in the U.S. the rate of divorce is 2.5 times what it was 20 years ago. As for the 100 million or so Americans over 18 who are unmarried, how many just can’t be bothered?

Marriage is falling out of favor, and from my perspective there are two prime reasons for this. First, there are the legal issues — both of getting married and getting unmarried — that make people skittish about entering into the contracts marriage entails, and seeing the huge difficulties of breaking those contracts. But the second reason is what concerns me here.

You don’t live happily ever after. Marriage takes work, and many of us are not willing to do that work. I once wrote an article titled “Of Lust and Love and Lovers” that is now lost in antiquity, but I’d like to resurrect its message: to make a marriage work we must get past the needs that brought us together and focus on the desires that turn us toward each other in deepening love.

Love is not an itch to scratch

Need is the primary, and historic, driving force that eventuated in the Sacrament of Marriage. The biological need for sex and survival of the species. The need for safety and stability, both socially and economically. The need to overcome loneliness. And the need to feel loved and to belong. All of these, and probably more, draw us to each other – and even propel the need to make a commitment that leads to marriage. But if we stay driven by these needs, we’re in for trouble. Getting our needs met will be the focus, and not getting our needs met will lead to strife.

Desire has a very different feeling. Just try saying “I need ____.” (fill in the blank)

Then say “I desire ____.” (fill in blank).

Desire, if it is really that and not just an intense need, comes from the heart, not the hormones. Desire has a deep layer of meaning connected to it. Even the desire for happiness, when pursued deeply enough to get to lasting happiness, is quite different from the need/want to be happy.

Married people must focus on not one but two types of desire. One’s personal desires motivate important choices in life, and bring meaning and purpose when followed. In a relationship like marriage, the second focus has to be on the other’s desires. Creating an environment where those desires can be pursued, and valuing the desires of the other as much as my own, is how to make matrimonial union work. Marriage must allow for both people to pursue their desires, even when it means times of separation.

Two grapes in a vat

In my relationships, I know I love another when I can watch them doing something they truly love at a distance from me. Like watching them out the kitchen window gardening, or having a vibrant conversation with others in another corner of the party. When I just look at them with delight as they do what is important to them that has no reflection on me, then I know I really love them.

But separation isn’t always necessary. Being an oenophile, I am reminded of the word “meritage.” I know it comes from a different root than the word “marriage” but the similarity hints at a truth. In meritage, the noble qualities or “merits” of each different grape are “married,” blended, to create a fine wine. The key is that the merits of each are still present and distinct even as they enhance each other.

Another layer of desire is passion, which comes from the Latin meaning “suffering.” A marriage of passion and desire is something you’re willing to work hard at, even to the point of suffering. It’s much like the passion to create art, which clearly requires a degree of suffering, first to develop the skills required to create, then the “birth pangs” of bringing a creation into reality.

Honoring your own but even more importantly the other person’s passions is what makes a marriage work. Giving place, space and grace to each other’s passions gives the relationship quality and depth.

It starts with doing the inner work to find your own passions, beyond your own needs. What makes you really want to get up each morning? Then comes that essential second piece: being able to step back a bit from your own desires and find the place that truly desires your lover’s passions. This second cycle is more difficult but, in fact, more important. Without it, I believe a marriage will fail – I’ll even say it should fail because it lacks the purpose that too many couples overlook: enhancing each other’s journey to personal fulfillment.

It is not “The two shall become one” but rather “The two shall become truly, wholly and Holy TWO.”

David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and counselor in San Francisco who does a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Follow David on Twitter.

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