Two people deciding to create a life together today face some new challenges that their parents did not encounter. Nowadays, with the fall in religious practice, a vacuum in social values and economies no longer dependent on ‘family’ trade, couples have little help or guidance in addressing what comes up between them or how to work with the inevitable conflicts that arise. Indeed, the traditional reasons for marriage – religious dogma, social pressure (don’t be left on the shelf!), having children and maintaining a family business are largely gone. A high percentage of women are now choosing not to marry and have children and there are many couples who, though they decide to marry, do not see it lasting beyond seven to ten years. This latter phenomenon is having a major effect on the wellbeing of children as many children now only experience life with two parents for a maximum of seven years. I have worked with many couples where marital separation occurred either when the female partner was pregnant or had only recently given birth to a child. It will be interesting to see what the 2011 Census figures show with regard to the stability of marriage within Ireland. No longer present is the belief that marriage has a central place in the community, providing a stabilising influence and supporting social wellbeing. The emergence of the need for the political safeguarding of children’s rights and the appointment of a Minister for Children highlights the loss of a positive vision for marriage and the family within our society. My hope is that the Minister for Children will see that the wellbeing of parents is central to the wellbeing of children and, indeed, the wellbeing of teachers.
Given that marriage has lost most of its traditional supports and couples are largely isolated from family of origin, community, church and a common sense of purpose, there appears to be few convincing external reasons for two people to live out their lives together. What are left to them are the internal, often unconscious reasons that draw them together in the first place. Couples are now faced with the challenge of how to build mature relationships and to develop their own vision of how and why to be together. The most basic questions need to be asked: What is a couple? What is the purpose and meaning of marriage? How can two people live out their lives together? I believe that couple relationships will be enormously strengthened and no longer dependent on external forces, when each party to the relationship takes conscious responsibility for self and brings a wholeness, a completeness to the other and vice versa. However, there is a wilderness to be explored before such a harmony develops, but what has not been seen up to now, that the relationship between a couple is what brings each face to face with their own ‘gods’ and ‘demons’ within. The ‘gods’ we can consciously discover in our relationship with another are our lovability, individuality, genius, creativity, authenticity, responsibility, aliveness, joy, truth, genuineness, curiosity, expansiveness, magic, power, energy and ambition that we had to repress – put out of conscious sight – when as children we encountered the threats to authentic expression of our true nature. When each individual in the couple relationship recognises and appreciates that these qualities are facets of their true nature, it becomes clear that intimacy can provide a powerful glimpse for each of them of who they really are. The ‘demons’ that the relationship with another can bring to consciousness are the rage, sadness, doubts, fears, depression, insecurities, hopelessness, despair, unexpressed longings that dare not be brought to light.
What a couple needs is to recognise and welcome the immense opportunity that an intimate relationship offers – to awaken each to their individual and unique nature. Relationships flourish when each reflects and promotes the uniqueness of who the other is, beyond any limited image of self internalised from family, school, community, church and one’s own defensive responses. An intimate relationship needs to be based on the whole of who we are, rather than on any single behaviour, feeling, word or achievement. This vision presents an enormous challenge, for it entails undertaking a journey in search of our deepest nature. Our connection with someone we love can in reality be the best means of transport for that journey. When couples approach their relationship in this way, intimacy becomes a transformational path – an uncovering process of personal, interpersonal and spiritual development. However, this can only happen when marriage becomes a conscious relationship and I will examine what that means in next week’s column.
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist, is an author and national and international speaker. His books Myself, My Partner and Relationship, Relationship, Relationships: The Heart of a Mature Society are relevant to this article.