Over the past 17 years of my life, most mornings have had one consistent factor: a handsome, tall, sometimes too-hairy man is in my bed. I really want to keep it that way. He tells me he does too. Is that enough? Well, it depends. But if you have ever been in a long-term relationship outside of the one you currently have with a Nutella Jar, you know that already.
Committing to long-term partnership is sacred work. Outside of parenting, I can’t think of any other act that is more courageous than making the conscious choice to share all of who we are with another person, day, after day, after day. When we are in partnership, we show up unabridged, raw, unmasked and vulnerable. One of my favorite movie scenes of all time happens in the film Frida during the wedding ceremony scene, as Frida and Diego Rivera’s friend, Tina Modotti, offers a toast:
‘I don’t believe in marriage. No, I really don’t. Let me be clear about that. I think at worst it’s a hostile political act, a way for small-minded men to keep women in the house and out of the way, wrapped up in the guise of tradition and conservative religious nonsense. At best, it’s a happy delusion – these two people who truly love each other and have no idea how truly miserable they’re about to make each other. But, but, when two people know that, and they decide with eyes wide open to face each other and get married anyway, then I don’t think it’s conservative or delusional. I think it’s radical and courageous and very romantic. To Diego and Frida.’
Countless sources claim to have long term partnerships all figured out, many of them making reasonable arguments that impact the way we approach life with our respective, blanket-hungry bedmates. Gary Chapman says it is all about learning one another’s love languages, Sue Johnson claims that a secure attachment must be formed, Esther Perel asserts that we expect too much out of marriage, David Schnarch teaches us to differentiate from our partners and the Gottmans, oh my goodness, the Gottmans (who will NEVER be able to divorce by the way), describe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as a central framework in predicting couple fulfillment.
If there is such a wealth of good information to help couples thrive, why aren’t all relationships flourishing? In spite of the resources available to us, and our good intentions regarding the longevity and success of our partnerships, many couples juggle outside forces that add varying degrees of stress to their daily interactions. Job demands, parenting challenges, financial struggles, health issues, cultural pressures, societal systems of oppression, political climate, and social unrest are just a few of the factors influencing our couple dynamic presently. In her research on the history of marriage, Stephanie Coontz confirms that the expectation of love is fairly new to marriages and partnerships; I truly believe that, in the years ahead, marriage will become even more of a diversified structure than it is today.
In light of all of these aspects impacting relationship satisfaction, I would like to make a case for silence, contemplation, and intentional time together. Eli Finkel, in his article for the NY Times titled, “The All or Nothing Marriage” (also the title of his book) states:
‘Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage, and can in fact, achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marriage quality – but only if they are willing to spend a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these expectations.’
There is a good body of evidence pointing in the direction of “couple time” as a pivotal contributor to partnership prosperity. The problem is, what does that mean? Does binge watching the Walking Dead count as couple time? What if after four episodes and two bowls of praline pecan ice cream, your partner is nodding with his mouth open and occasionally murmuring “stab the head, just stab the head” in his zombie-induced couch slumber? Nope. We need to do better.
This could (depending on the audience, of course) sound super new-agey with a hint of sage smoke and a touch of patchouli. Nevertheless – couples retreats held in natural settings (guided by a professional or arranged independently) can be a valuable tool when a couple is in need of recharging and prioritizing their relationship. Quiet environments bring us to an almost instantaneous *basic-ness* that is so very refreshing, and its capacity to renew our commitment to a slow, more fulfilling life together is undeniable. As Lao Tzu teaches, we need to rid ourselves from the distractions of daily life so we can obtain clarity and perspective: “Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.”
Now you could be thinking… who has time and money for that? Can’t we just go on date nights? First of all, good point, it might take some serious commitment, including planning and budgeting to make a retreat possible in your life. Remember that this is about making it happen with your beloved- and that a retreat can take many shapes and it doesn’t have to cost a ton of money. For example, here in our little corner of Michigan, the Gilchrist retreat center offers cozy cabins in a beautiful setting for $45 dollars a night. That’s about the cost of two movie tickets and a tiny bag of popcorn – except you get uninterrupted hours to relax, talk, hike, meditate, eat, drink, make love… What a deal, right? I am lucky to live in a part of the world that offers several affordable retreat spaces, and I frequently think about redirecting my life’s work to be able to provide these opportunities of solace and restoration for couples who lack the resources to do it on their own.
Don’t get me wrong; date nights are great. I for one can often be found around town with my beau going to shows, catching a movie, grabbing a couple of Manhattans, and that is all super fun and beneficial. However, I have found that when we are able to dedicate a day or two to experiencing nature and silence together, there is an opening and a deepening of experience that draws us closer and makes our couple roots stronger.
In summary, although relationship experts have given us a lot to work with, and the natural benefits of having a loving companion are evident, life stressors have a powerful impact on our ability to access known strategies and remind ourselves of the gift of partnership. Because stress is such a big part of modern life, we need to be intentional about the quality and yes, the quantity of time we spend with each other.
I hope this piece will spark in you a commitment to enjoying and loving your partner in an uninterrupted, fully present and engaged manner; away from to-do lists, chauffeur duties, and grocery lines, and closer to the body and soul of the human you choose to share this life with.
Alessandra Pye, MA, LPC serves couples, individuals, adolescents and children working with an integrative/experiential approach that is catered to your needs. Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Communication Training and Art based Interventions constitute the basis of her practice.