Never mind global warming. There is a far more immediate crisis. Bald eagles, striped hyenas, snow geese and the rest of their monogamous counterparts are growing increasingly disillusioned by human attempts at paired breeding. What they don’t realise is that us humans have a tendency to gravely overcomplicate our lives with grand utopian ideals. The very concept of monogamy and whether us humans are remotely designed well enough for it is under on-going academic scrutiny. Given that up to 90% of birds engage in social monogamy whereas only 3% of mammals are known to do the same, I don’t think we are doing too badly.
What I do know is that working with couples in therapy can be one of the most challenging aspects of being a psychotherapist. Sometimes you feel like all you need to do is blow a referee’s whistle to resolve the rift and, other times, it feels like you need at least a biologist, an anthropologist and a lawyer in the room to help unravel the complexities of paired breeding between two humans. There are many arguments for and against humans forming lifelong breeding pairs, ranging from philosophy and religion to neuroscience. For instance, scientists may argue that we have an innate need to form a relationship pair due to activation of dopamine receptors in the brain; a priest, on the other hand, might tell you it is the will of God to form a lifelong bond with another person (preferably of the opposite sex for most religions); or an anthropologist may suggest that it is the most workable solution we have yet to have found for raising children in our present social context. But, regardless of whether you choose to agree that human beings may be innately designed for monogamy or not, it is difficult to deny that life seems more doable when we put our faith in the capacity of two people to successfully love each other. As Sheldon Kopp, an eloquent psychotherapist, wrote: “Sometimes it seems to me that in this absurdly random life there is some inherent justice in the outcome of personal relationships.”
As a psychologist I have learnt over the years that our greatest teaching in life may just come from our relationships, especially from marriage. Over time, relationships can become the places in which we are most likely to grow and even find much needed emotional healing. The key to this seems to lie in the willingness of both parties to respond to the difficulties of a shared life through personal growth. It has also become increasingly clear to me that for a relationship to really work, it requires genuine commitment from both people. In other words: it requires that we fully surrender ourselves to being in that relationship through dropping our guards and revealing the things that make us feel most vulnerable. As Bette Midler urged: “It’s the heart afraid of breaking; that never learns to dance. It’s the dream afraid of waking; that never takes the chance. It’s the one who won’t be taken; who cannot seem to give. And the soul afraid of dying; that never learns to live.”
You may be sitting there reading this with a secret voice in the back of your mind suggesting that “Yes, but I didn’t exactly marry the right person for this journey of personal growth”. But, what if any two people could probably make a relationship work? What if being in a relationship is an action and not just a decision? Irvin Yalom, one of this centuries greatest authors in psychology wrote that “One, after all, does not find a relationship; one forms a relationship.” There is no doubt that some people make better pairs than others, but what if it is somewhat of a myth that romantic films have seduced us into believing; that there is a single soul mate waiting somewhere out there for us and that the only thing we need to do to make a relationship work is to make the “right choice”? I am suggesting here that a relationship is not something that you just stumble upon. Although you may have “fallen in love”, as the saying goes, there comes a point when you get up, dust off a bit of the lust and have to start really working at it.
The starting point to making, rather than choosing, the right relationship begins with a conversation. Most of the couples that come to see me come simply to have a conversation they have been struggling to have on their own. They often come full of anger, disappointment and frustration. And, although when you listen to their individual stories, you can fully understand their discontent; the true problem is often that, at some point, they stopped really talking to each other in ways that truly listen to each other. All they can now see and hear in the other person is their own discontent. If not left unaddressed, these moments of discontent can become our greatest opportunities for personal growth. Relationship guru, Harville Hendrix, suggested that couples should “stay curious”. Stay curious, perhaps, about each other: about your future together; about who your partner really is; what he/she really wants; what he/she is feeling; what he/she is saying; and even what he/she is not saying.
Relationships call on us to grow as people. To become more than what we were before. Only, both people have to be willing to grow and both parties have to be willing to take responsibility for their contribution to the unaddressed problems. You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable enough to confess what it is that you really need from each other. And you have to be strong enough not to lose who you are in your attempts to meet the needs of your partner. You have to be willing to be the best version of yourself, for yourself and for your partner.
The pairing of humans may not be as straight forward as the paring of geese, but to find someone to love may just be one of the best privileges of our migration through this lifetime. Although I strongly campaign for leaving relationships that are ultimately bad for you, finding someone to love and to hold is invaluable. As Tom Waits suggests:
So if you find someone
Someone to have,
someone to hold.
Don’t trade it for silver,
don’t trade it for gold.
I have all of life’s treasures
And they are fine and they are good.
They remind me that houses
Are just made of wood.
What makes a house grand,
Ain’t the roof or the doors.
If there’s love in a house
It’s a palace for sure.
It ain’t nothin but a house
A house where nobody lives.