The title of this post is the title of another “how to” book on marriage I just read, this one by therapist Linda Carroll. She discusses the five stages of loving relationships around which she has built a 35 year practice in couples counseling. (I’m beginning to think that everything on earth has five stages, but that’s just me.) Before getting into the content of the book itself, I wanted to share the most powerful statement contained therein, a quote from poet Rainier Maria Rilke: “For one human being to love another human being; that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is mere preparation.” Wish I’d written that, or had the emotional depth to even have come close to writing it. Beautiful thought.
So, the five stages of loving relationships, pretty straightforward stuff: The Merge. Doubt and Denial. Disillusionment. Decision. And, finally, Wholehearted Loving. Carroll takes multiple examples from couples with whom she has worked, and the anecdotal evidence allows the reader to recognize stages in which he/she currently resides or has passed through. The liner notes claim the book offers “a clear strategy for how to stay happy and committed, even in difficult times,” with which I might argue. Nancy and I have weathered some serious storms over the course of 40 years, and I’m not sure I would have been open to many of the suggestions the author makes for dealing with those stages beginning with the letter D, all of which were painful, difficult and exhausting. I admit to not being overly open-minded about most things, and also admit that Nancy’s abilities to understand and coach me are what saved our relationship more than once.
The book is a pretty quick read, and perhaps you might want to check it out of your library. I think the following list–Carroll’s Six C’s–does a nice job of hitting the high points of the book if you’re pressed for time or grooving in the “happily ever after” stage of your relationship:
- Choice. Pretty much everything we do as individuals or half of a committed couple involves making choices. Even we feel helpless, we are making, and living with the consequences, of our own choices. We are writing our own stories.
- Commitment. Part and parcel of sacramental marriage. We must burn our own boats. We must make this relationship the most important single fact of our lives and move beyond our fears and our periodic urge to flee, turning toward our partner in difficult times and, if necessary, seeking help to make our relationship work. Remembering how we felt in those first few weeks and months is a useful exercise, along with finding the way to a mature form of those electric sensations. No, they don’t last forever. Yes, they can remind us of what we felt early in the relationship, and motivate us to move away from thinking, as Carroll describes, “Why aren’t you ME?”
- Celebration. As Nancy has observed more than once, for every Jack there’s a Jill. Having found one another, you need to take time to celebrate the grace, the confluence of circumstances, that brought you together. As humans, we are called to discover who we are as individuals and to fulfill our purpose on earth, making use of our gifts. To share this journey, the experience of becoming ourselves, with another person on the same trip, calls for celebrations, even small ones, as often as possible. We need to count our blessings and give thanks for each one, no matter how small or cleverly disguised.
- Compassion. In relationships, it is synonymous with forgiveness. Scripture tells us we are to forgive even those who mean to harm us. Doesn’t it follow, then, that we need to be fountains of forgiveness with our spouse or partner? We’ve discussed in this space conditions and behaviors outside the realm of forgiveness–violence, abuse, etc.–but in the absence of pure malice, it is incumbent upon us to not only forgive our partners for their shortcomings, but to forgive ourselves for our own.
- Cocreation. A clever term for finding effective ways to manage conflict, share decisions, support one another, and avoid ending up in ruts. This is about finding and exploring common interests, about not settling for night after night of television, about engaging one another and challenging each other to find new and different things to keep the relationship blooming. Nancy convinced me several years ago that we should commit to a monthly activity we’ve never (or only rarely) done before, which explains the terrible investment I made several years ago in a pair of tickets to Shen Yun. But there have been a bunch of fun, memorable outings in the meantime, with more to come. A maple syrup tour. The glass-blowing trail in northern Indiana. A country music concert (?) at Klipsch. So get up, get out, and get with it!
- Courage. The courage to confront our own faults, the issues in our relationships and the conditions of our lives in an honest, loving spirit of awareness. Lots of this stuff is hard, but we are capable of doing hard stuff. So many people, caught up in the daily grind, go through the motions of living, whether as individuals or half of a couple. If we are going to find true happiness, as people and as couples, we cannot settle for taking the easy way out of this life. We should, instead, pin a copy of Rainier Maria Rilke’s quote above our desks and on our refrigerators, to help us remain mindful of the gift of our chosen vocation.