At one point in the European leg of my journey, I stayed with a couple living in Portugal whom I had met three summers before. They had been participating in a plant medicine retreat where I was helping out that summer, a place with spiritual hippy folk galavanting about on a sunny, herbaceous land with a cold creek running through the middle.
the cold creek
I felt connected to their energy and the words they had to share about plants, change, and participating thoughtfully in this human experience. They generously let me into their home and showed me around their town and their life, sharing their ideas about humanity and dreams for their future in Portugal.
During this time, they shared with me their practice of renewing their marriage agreement each year through hand-written letters of reflection.
Auto-renewal, deactivated. Re-subscribe: yes or no? .
They would decide each year whether or not they were enthusiastic about another year together in the same structure and with the same agreements as the year before. It wasn’t just about re-subscribing or not, it was also about reflecting upon the patterns and structures within the relationships. Another way to ask this is: was the relationship still meeting their values and vision, or had it deviated from the path?
This ritual had gone on for about ten years by that point.
These letters gave them an opportunity to celebrate what they were grateful for from the previous year and to discuss new terms as well. Maybe some elements of their marriage were no longer working, maybe some new elements had to be collectively re-imagined. The marriage was an evolving, adapting, reflective relationship that didn’t rely on precedent as justification for continuation.
One of the reasons this practice stuck with me is because it aligns so clearly with my perspective on what can make relationships radically meaningful and healthy. This leads to what some like to call conscious partnership.
me, four years ago now (!), in a tree in portugal
Where I think we went wrong
In many ways, I think the cultural narrative has their definition of commitment all wrong.
In the dominant narrative of our society, we see commitment and loyalty as pillars that can stand on their own, supporting the grand structure of a successful, desirable relationship. In this way, relationships are largely defined by what you don’t do: don’t cheat, don’t leave, don’t have close emotional relationships with anyone else, don’t fight.
The pillar of commitment is a commitment to stay together, against all odds. Against all realities. Sometimes, against your better judgment. The pillar of loyalty is loyalty to the relationship, regardless of whether or not the relationship is holding up your other values.
In the modern world, the structure and motivation of romantic/life-partner relationships has changed significantly from where it was in recently history. Today, folks are often not coupled up as a way to create aristocratic familial allegiances of wealth, nor to get the daughters out of the house in exchange for a dowry of two cows, nor to give women pathways to land ownership through her husband’s signature. Often, our primary partnering goals involve values like love, growth, and emotional security.
We’ve added some very new-age concepts to something that was, up until very recently, mostly an economic trade.
Well, I say, if we’re going to go for it, let’s go for it! This new way makes things way more complicated and challenging, but potentially much more enriching.
I think if you’ve committed to a relationship out of loyalty, even if your relationship isn’t meeting your values & vision, then you’ve settled for an old-world view of partnership without the old-world constraints or gains. In a world where envisioning and actualizing conscious partnership is possible, why not really go for it? Go all in.
How we can re-imagine
a field of horses in portugal. when i asked why they had them, the owner replied, “because here they’re more free.”
From observation and experience, I’ve noticed that relationships based on the pillars of commitment and loyalty are most healthy and fulfilling when these pillars are viewed more critically and supported equally by some additional fortifying pillars.
For me, the commitment of “till death do us part” (marriage) or “till we can no longer stand one another’s presence” (long-term dating) can be more enticingly reframed as commitment to our shared values.
I am committed to being in a relationship as long as our shared values, such as growth, respect, equity, and gratitude, are being lived out. I am committed to fostering these values in the partnership and working with partners on coming back to the path when we’ve deviated. I am committed to building the conditions for growth and happiness for both my partner and myself, values we would both need to share.
What’s so hard about this kind of commitment is that it requires both people to be whole, and to have the knowledge deep within that they are full and whole people outside of the relationship, and that the grafting of their lives into a relationship adds onto something already whole to make it fuller, stronger, and more supported in growth.
It is difficult to demand a values-driven relationship when you are deeply codependent on the other person, and without them you feel like you couldn’t go on. It is difficult to feel power in choosing to be on the path with another person each day when in reality, it feels like you wouldn’t be able to leave even if you wanted to.
Obviously, relationships require interdependence. I am not talking about the kind of independent wholeness where you could unentangle all of the financial, familial, logistical, or lifestyle systems you’ve built together in a day and skip off on your merry way. I am talking about the fullness of self. Of knowing who you are both inside and outside of the relationship. Of having relationships with others — family, friends, partners — that are meaningful on their own, just with you, without your partner. Of having an identity, a spirituality, a philosophy of your own.
You have a sense of who you are, why you exist, and why you deserve love inside and outside of your relationship. You have a knowledge, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel true, that you could find another meaningful, fulfilling relationship with someone you loved if the current relationship reaches its natural end — even if this means that you also know no one will ever be anything like the unique person you are currently partnered with.
Unless you have this sense of wholeness in yourself, you can’t really hold a deep knowledge that you can leave the relationship. This is how the extreme of the abusive relationship forms, but also this is how the very common mediocre, stagnant relationship forms. Without an understanding that you can leave the relationship, there is less impetus for change and growth and high standards within the constantly changing dynamic of partnership.
Our motivations for change
In the previous blog post, I talked about how the human lifeform, in many situations, requires the leverage of impending external change to create their own internal change. Unfortunately, it seems to me that we are not yet ready to be motivated exclusively by positive, loving internal emotions when it comes to difficult, energy-intensive change. This can happen, of course. It is beautiful and loving and exciting when it does. But more often, we are motivated by the threat or promise of external change in order to change within ourselves.
External motivations can be positive or negative. We are motivated by the promise of promotion, more money, or more freedom at work in order to change ourselves. If our jobs are dead-end, we become stagnant. We are motivated by climate change to change our lives and right our relationship with earth. We are motivated by the threat of friends ghosting us or slowly edging out of our lives to keep up good behavior and not treat them as we treat our parents or partners or children, by not losing our cool and yelling or fighting.
Similarly, we are motivated to continue growing with our partners and fostering a thriving relationship by the promise and threat of change. This is also the primary thesis of Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel. She affirms, again and again, through case studies in her book, that relationships stagnate when partners stop recognizing one another as whole, autonomous people who are complete, unknown humans outside of the relationship. They have the autonomy to stay, to leave, to change. They have the autonomy and wholeness to be an entire, unknown person outside of our relational awareness of them. When we stop knowing this in our conscious minds, we start to treat our partners similarly to how we treat furniture. Furniture is comfortable, reliable, useful, and always there. We do not need to foster growth and intrigue with our furniture.
We need to know we can and will leave. We need to know our partners are whole people on their own, who can and will leave. We need to know that living in relationship is a choice every day, because the promise and threat of change is so much truer than the illusion of permanence. We honor nature when we embrace the power and reality of a constantly changing world, a constantly changing self. We try to outsmart nature when we assert that anything can last forever without work (change). Do we think we are smarter than nature?
Re-imagined Version vs. Today
In the predominant relational structure of modern serial monogamy, we use faithfulness as a gauge for relationship health. In absence of a regular check-in or reflection process, such as with my friends in Portugal, we decide that as long as our partners are not building strong emotional or physical bonds with another person, then we are in the clear. Then they are happy and love us and the relationship is working, at least enough.
Somehow, this brilliant metric system leaves us with fewer strong relationships than when we started. With this metric system, we can easily end up with fewer relational bonds that help us grow and expand because change is happening neither inside nor outside the relationship. Of course, nonthreatening same-sex or opposite-sex (depending on the sexuality of the couple) relationships are still permitted. Those can still be growth inducing. But watch out… they might become too emotionally bonded. In which case, this may be considered cheating, and the bond should be broken.
This metric system may be one of the reasons Perel has become so interested in fidelity as a central focus area of her practice. She explains that, in her experience, infidelity can be one of the most powerful catalysts for change in long term relationships. She loves working within the opening that infidelity creates to build an honest, vulnerable dialogue between partners that has the potential to nourish, feed, and rebuild stronger, more holistic relationships.
She works within the model of change that I’ve noticed our relationship structure leans on: disaster. Like many aspects of modern life, we wait until disasters to create change.
It is uncommon to prepare for disastrous change ahead of time and build foundational blocks that last far into the future. It is much more common to build cities in floodplains, suburbs on fertile soils, and to rebuild burnt houses in wildfire-prone grasslands. We will restructure the immigration system only once a market-collapsing labor shortage arises. We will stop sending our nitrogen-rich humanure into a fetid ocean-destined sewage system only once all of the fish die and our soil systems stop producing enough food.
What I’m asking is: what would it look like to build the foundation for sustainable relationships rather than rely on disaster response to create change?
Ideas for avoiding the disaster-response
I think the first step is to recognize verbally, as you’re entering a relationship, that you’re all whole people consciously choosing to enter partnership because you’re creating something stronger and more beautiful, more prepared for growth and resilience, by being together. By acknowledging that if this is one day not the case, that you will be whole as separated people.
Acknowledge that decoupling is not inherently a failure, and coupling is not inherently a success. The failure and success come in how we communicate, make decisions, and live up to our values and visions. Share your values and vision clearly and strongly, and use them as the foundation upon which to build your shared experience.
Another step is getting support before a disaster arises. See a couples therapist while times are still good. Go on a conscious partnership workshop/retreat even if you’re not fighting. Create your own “subscription renewal” rituals, even if you’re not even remotely considering uncoupling. Write reflection and feedback letters to one another. Research mindfulness retreats that you can participate in together. Create space to have time away from one another.
These kinds of support measures don’t just avert disaster, they make whatever is working even stronger, more beautiful, and flavorful.
As they say, by the time couple make it to the therapist’s sitting room, it’s usually too late.
I think the last key, which I will talk about more in the future, is that relationships must not be built on the false security of limiting a partner’s experience. If the security of a relationship is built on what partners cannot do rather than what they can, then relationships are built on limiting the human experience rather than providing the support and love the human experience needs to grow and thrive.
∆ What ideas are you loyal to? Who are you committed to?
∆ Have you committed to the idea of a relationship without committing to yourself?
∆ In what ways does fear of change motivate your relationship, and in what ways does the enticing promise of change compel beauty and growth?
∆ Does wholeness in yourself threaten or nourish your relationship?
∆ How have you acknowledged nature’s fundamental principle of leaving (change)?
∆ What rituals or support structures do you want to add to your relationship?
Everything here can apply to romantic or platonic or amorphous relationships! I did really emphasize romantic partnership type relationships, and that is a blindspot that I am working on. Our social systems are structured to prioritize romantic life partners, but these are not necessarily more important than any other type of relationship.