Is marriage an impossible dream? Is it unrealistic to expect two people to live together happily for the rest of their life and find spiritual healing together?
These days in England for example, couples, more often than not, live together for some time before even considering the possibility of marriage; a very different way of looking at things from say the middle of the twentieth century.
What lies behind this change? Some would point to the availability of contraceptives that allow us to have a full sexual relationship for the time being without the long-term commitment of parenthood. Others would point to a less hypocritical society. We all know that nearly half of marriages these days end in divorce. It is asked, “Why pretend everything is perfect by getting married when it clearly isn’t likely to stay that way in many cases?”
Another suggested reason for living together without getting married is to do with a fear of failure of the relationship in the full glare of public knowledge. At least in Britain this pessimism is perhaps not surprising given the high rate of marriage failure. People see cohabiting as having the advantage of being a private arrangement between two people not involving any socially recognised level of commitment and which can be finished as well as started relatively quietly.
Others would suggest cohabitation reflects short-term mutual convenience rather than looking towards a relationship characterised by commitment through thick and thin over a long period. Why get married they ask unless you are religious and wish the relationship to be eternally blessed and guided by God?
Where there is a lack of deep affection between married partners then they can begin to feel marriage as an onerous bond imposed by law and social convention that takes away any sense of freedom. An extreme example of this state of mind often arises from a forced arranged marriage. However, when there is `conjugial love’ in the marriage, the partners do not feel this way at all but feel happy and content about the ties into which they have entered. Happy marriages can last. Half of couples who marry do last the course so rather a lot of people must be doing something right somewhere along the line.
I see what Swedenborg calls ‘conjugial love’ as a spiritual gift from heaven that inspires each member of a couple to feel an ever deepening affection for each other. The religious view is that we cannot expect to sustain all the trials and tribulations of living together by our own efforts without help from the divine source of love. Whether we can fully receive, this gift of love depends on our inner spiritual state of heart and mind. I would suggest there needs first to be a receptive conjugial state of heart and mind within the person – the marriage of what is good and what is wise in us. For when we act according to what is wise in line with our higher principles, then implanted into us are good feelings that echo such ideas. Our feelings, thoughts and actions are in harmony. If we try to follow our conscience for example by doing our best for our family, being a good neighbour, or engaging in honest and fair dealing in everyday life, then Swedenborg’s insight is that there is a linking between us and heaven that he called a `heavenly marriage.’
This inner condition of our heart and mind enables us to experience feelings of affection when we get to know a compatible partner. Good feelings in one partner are complemented in corresponding right ideas in the other, the couple are thus drawn together and the two minds are more closely linked. It is this close linking of the two individuals in love that enables them to work together on the various problems that any partnership is obliged to face.
If we mainly base our relationship on physical attraction or infatuation, then we build it on sand. The trouble is the stability of our partnership may be unreliable if we draw together mainly for sexual reasons. Erotic can mean erratic. However, if also based on a deep level of affection, we build our whole relationship on solid rock. Nevertheless, even the best marriage will have its ups and downs and if the downs are not addressed coldness can set in. One common idea is that none of us is perfect and we therefore need to continue to change something in ourselves if we are to survive the challenge of living with someone. What could we each do better? What new attitude could we adopt?
There are many reasons for disharmony creeping into a relationship. I can describe a few of these. One is resentment. We can perhaps see where a male chauvinist attitude came from when men were obliged to work most of their waking hours to earn any sort of livelihood for their families. “It’s the man’s job to go out to work and the woman’s job to do everything else.” However, these days life is very different.
An unfair sharing of responsibility between partners can also arise from slowly changing circumstances that are not properly discussed. One reason for marriage breakdown can be inflexibility by one partner regarding who does what in the home, or if one likes to get their own way and the other is `too nice’ for their own good.
There is so much to do and there are few rules these days as to who should do what – looking after the children’s needs, housework, seeing to the car, maintaining the garden, organising the social calendar, earning the income, shopping, cooking, doing the decorating and house repairs, to name only a few. When only one person in the relationship is making decisions about finance, rules of children’s conduct, or family holidays etc. then there is additional scope for resentment. A one-sided relationship in the end may not work if resentment ever surfaces and the submissive partner starts to assert his or her needs and point of view.
In-sensitive communication can cause problems. Some of us are born with `thin skins’ and others of us acquire them through life experiences that left us feeling hurt. The result is the same – we read a little too much into what our partners say or do not say to us. Most of us are a mix of good and bad and our partner is quite capable of being insensitive by expressing irritation, a patronising attitude, intolerance, or whatever whilst actually saying something honest or constructive. If we happen to be a little touchy, we are at risk of noticing only the negative element of what our spouse is trying to communicate and ignoring the positive. Once stung we may quickly feel hurt and humiliated. We then sometimes over-react and there is a danger of a mounting level of tension as a tetchy conversation merges into a disagreement and then even a fully blown row.
The opposite problem to being thin-skinned is to be thick-skinned. An example of this is when we ignore or do not take seriously our partner’s critical comments. The result is our partner feels we lack care for them and it is tiresome for them to feel they have to keep repeating the message for it to stand any chance of getting through. And it is also tiresome for the thick-skinned person to be nagged!
Psychologists have studied long-lasting and happy marriages. They have discovered that in such cases couples spend time together, and confide in each other and treasure their joint memories. Values and goals are discussed and decisions are made fairly, agreement sought and disagreements negotiated.
Getting a job done at work without too many hitches means not letting up on one’s concentration, not giving in too easily when difficulties crop up and making a continual effort. The same is true of a sexual relationship. To prevent it falling apart it needs working on. What is growing needs nourishing. What is becoming routine and boring needs a stimulating tonic. What is damaged needs care and attention.
One member of the couple may take the initiative in trying to put right what has gone wrong. To introduce spiritual healing into the relationship. However, unless the other joins in then nothing is likely to happen. After all, it takes two to tango! One partner may stop excessive drinking or gambling but the other needs to let bygones be bygones and stop harping on about the past. She may give up an excessive time allocation for individual interests but he needs to help find alternative interesting activities that they can both share. He may learn to be more tactful when disagreeing about something but she needs to show appreciation and respond in kind.
When there is real love present in the relationship then the couple will each want to make the effort to work on their difficulties. They will each be prepared to make sacrifices, at times putting the loved one first, being honest and open together about their inner ideas and feelings, spending time together – in a word prioritising their relationship so that together they can face the challenges of life in a state of mutual love and support.
Sometimes a relationship gets so bad that at least one of the partners is sure that the marriage has reached a point of no return. A case of irretrievable breakdown might be the case, for example, where a partner continues to indulge an addiction, be abusive or unfaithful despite previous repeated promises to the contrary. However, before things get to this stage, if any behaviour out of keeping with `conjugial love’ is challenged, understood and acknowledged, there can be a chance of nipping any mistakes in the bud or even if necessary embarking on a full scale job of saving the marriage. This means a full-hearted commitment to the relationship – a difficult thing to achieve where there is pessimism in society regarding the outcome of any marriage. Yet, unless we commit ourselves to our partnership, how could we get through the rough patches that any living together relationship must face?
We can regard marriage as a deep almost sacred commitment. One person said:
“To love, you must feel emotionally safe – totally accepted, respected, and supported. Therefore, we don’t criticize or strike out in anger, instead we gently request a change.”
Loving partners can help each other develop as people. For example, she can soften his male egoistic conceit and he can moderate the female tendency to view things emotionally.
Any marriage is likely to become less satisfying as the novelty wears off and the need for security in young adult life reduces. Yet those of us who believe in conjugial love will have a confidence that this spiritual healing force will bring closer harmony and mutual trust and care to any relationship where the partners are really prepared to work together on their problems and difficulties.
“It is masculine to perceive from the understanding, and feminine to perceive from love”
(Swedenborg. Conjugial Love section 168)
When the understanding of truth which is with the man makes one with the affection of good which is with the woman, there is a conjunction of the two minds into one. This conjunction is the spiritual marriage from which conjugial love descends.
(Swedenborg Apocalypse Explained section 983:3)
Extracted from the book Heart, Head and Hands by Stephen Russell-Lacy