I’m a loyal kind of guy: I stay in relationships for a long time and remain faithful.
But in my expansive, restless mind, I conjure other possibilities.
In Boulder, Colorado, where I live—where fit, intelligent, conscious and beautiful people abound in a virtual Garden of Eden, temptation is omnipresent.
It takes a level of “yogic” discipline to remain true to myself and my partner—and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. Perhaps that is why the divorce rate in Boulder is said to be higher than the national average. A friend of mine on her third marriage once quipped that switching partners is a way of life in Boulder—although this time, looks like she’s really settled down.
The forces that wreak havoc on long-term love are symptomatic of a larger cultural shift. In our parents’ generation, divorce was a social taboo. After the great loss of life in World War II, mom and dad met, got married after a couple of years and settled down for life. Their roles were clearly defined, their expectations were clear: Father worked from 9 to 5 and Mother made babies, kept the house and had dinner on the table by 6. Their house was twice as small as the average home today and they most likely never moved or remodeled. They had one car, one little television and a modest wardrobe. And they probably didn’t think of the concept of “soul mates,” nor were they in couples’ therapy together. It wasn’t even an option.
In Boulder, in 2009, we are often more attached to our own “path” than our relationships. If we perceive our path to be diverging from that of our partners, we often go our own way. Personal transformation, self-reflection, spiritual practice and a desire to evolve add enormous uncertainty and expectation to a relationship. We are also goal-driven, sometimes to the point of obsession: we have to be the best entrepreneurs, the best climbers, cyclists or tri-athletes. In pursuing our own personal “Everests” we can leave behind the people who love us the most.
In some ways, I envy the lives of my single friends. I think that it must be exciting to meet new people, hook-up and experience the joy of infatuation or falling in love again. But I remember being single: the loneliness, the absence of a sense of family in my life and the cyclical heartbreak of failed, short-term relationships. A marriage or long-term relationship takes patience, tolerance, compromise, acceptance and a lot of conscious effort. It’s so easy to see the deficiencies in your partner: to compare them to others and wish that they had those other qualities.
It is the nature of our minds to want what we don’t have, and nothing in life exposes this axiom more than relationships. But we don’t want to settle; a therapist once told me that one should compromise in a relationship, but not sacrifice. In other words, we need to relinquish the need to have our own way, but not give up that which is crucial for our happiness. But how do we know what is a selfish desire, and what is essential to our well being?
The romantic ideal of a transcendent, all-consuming love in which both partners feel like a God and Goddess, entwined in eternal union, is a compelling dream: it is the first few months of falling in love, the wide open heart-space inspired by gazing into a new lover’s eyes—the tantric embrace of Shiva and Parvati.
Perhaps a few, rare couples maintain that cosmic dance on a long-term basis. But the quotidian realities of paying the mortgage, changing poopy diapers, going to work, cleaning, cooking and yardwork don’t elicit transcendent feelings. It is easier to experience the cosmic union outside of time and space unfettered by mundane tasks. The slow, subtle love developed through years of shared experiences that binds us to our husbands, wives and long-term partners lacks the immediacy and intensity of the soul-soaring kind.
Daily life with another person is often un-stimulating, but the satisfaction and subtle beauty inherent in a true, abiding love is exciting in a different way. Not only is there the comfort and security of a stable day-to-day relationship, but there is also the knowledge that one is holding hands through life with that person—through thick and thin, hardship and sickness, death and rebirth—sounds a lot like a marriage vow- maybe our parents had the right idea.
In a Valentine’s episode of the radio program This American Life, Canadian writer Ian Brown compares open marriage to traveling to Istanbul, “a fabulous exotic city that I’ve always wanted to visit, but never seem to get to.” Although Brown writes that “monogamy is the habit of not acting on what you want,” he concludes that although the idea of open marriage is thrilling, remaining monogamous is more challenging and thus his ultimate choice.
I too have always wanted to travel to Istanbul, but I love the woman I have at home.
A year after this article was first published, the author has since crossed the Rubicon, into the Garden to play