What Will Make Any Long Term Relationship Work.

Via Cristin Whiting
on Feb 24, 2013
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I was married once, for 12 years, to a very good man.

I was in my early 20s and having little relationship experience, I brought with me to the marriage fixed ideals, a script really, of how I was supposed to be and the way life was supposed to unfold.

I followed the script’s instructions and its predetermined expectations for what is and isn’t allowed for someone once they get married. Within the context of that script, I was a good wife and that was important to me because I saw the script not just as a how-to manual for one of the most important roles of my life, but I also believed that to follow the script would guarantee happily ever after.

Though the script offered my husband and I a pleasant life together, the role that I was playing was not genuine; I couldn’t find myself in it. Not long after I was married, my Mom checked in with me to see how I was adjusting to my new life. “I’m bored” I told her. Her response affirmed exactly what I had been feeling, “Things are different now.” she said. “You’re married.”

As discouraging as those words sounded to me, I understood what my Mom meant.

I was married, and I accepted that with that came certain expectations, and even necessary losses.

I seemed to be playing out that old idea of Ego Psychologist, Erik Erikson that says that it is necessary for a woman to leave room in the formation of her identity to accommodate that of her husband. I didn’t really know who I was and I depended a great deal on my husband to define me. I gave up many of my own interests, pursuits and ambitions simply to be available to his.

In time, I went to my husband and shared with him my need to expand, to expand professionally, sexually and spiritually. I didn’t want to just be someone’s wife anymore; I wanted to be me. The problem was, nearly a decade had already past and our life together was based on how things had been, not the new kind of life I was requesting. He was on a steady track in his life and he wasn’t really interested in getting off it. Who could blame him?

In the years after that marriage ended, I steered clear of relationships that were at all traditional and committed. I instead drifted from one casual agreement to another. While I relished the personal freedoms these agreements allowed me, they also weren’t particularly nourishing emotionally or spiritually. While on one hand I appreciated being able to be with another person without attached expectations, I was growing unfulfilled by the lack of sustenance these interludes offered and by their ironic predictability. There was no mystery or romance of what could be. There was no wonder, joy or magic.

It was about this time that I began an open relationship with a man who had long practiced polyamory.

In this man’s boldness and in his commitment to this lifestyle, I saw something possible for myself that I had never considered before: that I could have a strong emotion connection with someone and not have to compromise my desire to be “free.” What I saw possible with this man was not limited to mere sexual expression. I saw sexual freedom as a metaphor for freedom in general. The freedom to be myself, exactly as myself, and to be accepted and loved just as I am.

sexyyogaWhile this open relationship allowed for a certain level of sexual expression, in the end I found it to be just as confining as my traditional marriage.

The same conflicts took place: double standards in what opportunities were allowed for him and me and a relationship structure that benefited his preferences over mine. I found myself taking on the same role as I did in my marriage, the role of being in the service of, allowing myself to be defined by another and not setting boundaries and expectations where they would serve me.

I share these experiences because over the last 20 years I have learned a thing or two and from where I am standing, I see hope; a hope that stems from integrating our most traditional and most alternative relationship styles in a way that progresses the conversation about and practice of long term committed relationships.

Monogamy has a beauty all its own, a beauty that inherently stems from its unique expression of loyalty and devotion to one person. For me, monogamy is a little like being Catholic. I may not agree with all parts of it and I may even resist labeling myself as such as if a single word can fully capture such a complex expression, but in my heart and at my core, I have a deep reverence for that tradition and ultimately it is where my heart lies.

I believe a monogamous relationship can not only work but has the potential to be a space of intense freedom for both people.

It is a freedom though that needs to be cultivated and unfortunately there isn’t the pull in society for two people to be both committed to each other and to foster each other’s personal freedoms. At the core of what makes any long term relationship work is when two people want the same things, coupled with a respect for and an intentional enhancement of their respective expansion into the spaces in which they differ.

One of the greatest gifts I learned from being in an open relationship is the concept of compersion, which is to take pleasure in someone else’s pleasure.

It is the practice of compersion that curbs sexual and emotional jealousy and possessiveness. It is the practice of compersion that pulls us away from the notion that we have someone and that they are ours. It is also that which diminishes the feeling of threat when you know that the one you love is loving and being loved by someone else and it is knowing that that your partner is also practicing compersion that allows one to be fully with another without guilt or hesitation.

This practice is not an easy one, but as the saying goes, it is worth it. When practiced fully compersion can bring about not only intense sexual arousal and personal pleasure but a deep feeling of peace, love, and spiritual oneness.

Buddhists have long practiced a related idea of love without clinging.

In Buddhist tradition this practice is called Metta or loving kindness. To practice loving kindness is to have a strong wish for the happiness of others, a happiness independent of approval or disapproval and independent of expectation for anything in return. This act of Metta is said to be the first of four sublime states, the state of joy, or mudita, which is defined as true happiness in another beings happiness.

This practice of compersion or loving kindness is often missing from romantic relationships, particularly monogamous relationships.

So often we hold on too tightly. We feel threatened when our mate takes on new life challenges, makes new friends or expands into new areas of life. We feel afraid, “What will happen to me?” “Will they still love me?” “Will they forget about me?” “Will I be enough for them?” We can create a quiet pressure for our mate to not expand themselves out of our own fear for how that will affect us. The dirty secret of relationships is that we would sometimes rather be unhappy with someone or we would sometimes compromise another person’s happiness just so that we don’t have to risk the relationship ending. Where is the love in that?

One of the greatest gifts that we can give our partner is to get behind them and propel them forward.

We do this not just by supporting them, being available and sharing in their joy. We also do this by living big lives of our own, by developing ourselves, our careers, our friendships, hobbies and spirituality. We share with them the goodies of our adventures: our victories and our struggles as we broaden our horizon and spread into new growth. Developing ourselves encourages our partner to do the same, which ultimately creates a rich and evolving union.

A key aspect of the practice of loving kindness is to first practice it with oneself. In this way, our sense of freedom inside of a relationship as well as our sense of security comes from our own heart. When we hold ourselves with that divine embrace, the embrace that allows for both comfort and expansion, we can each be born newly and experience romantic love as if for the first time.




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Ed: Kate Bartolotta


About Cristin Whiting

Cristin is a writer, professor, clinical psychologist, and Catholic-Buddhist-Hindu-Ashtangi. When she is not creating evolution on the planet, you can find her making homemade lemonade and camping out in a tent in her back yard with her two children and their dog, Molly. You can follow Cristin on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.


25 Responses to “What Will Make Any Long Term Relationship Work.”

  1. Muks says:

    Hi Cristin, thanks for the article. I understand many of the points, but I am not sure if you especially encourage polygamous relationships or if you say that we can work on our own lives while being in monogamous relationships as well? I am doing the latter and try to establish real intimacy with my partner. Boundaries are a large part of it, as they make it safer for me to get close to him.

  2. Meredith says:

    I can completely relate to your experiences!! We need to be talking about this because I KNOW many women feel the same way. You blow me away and I’m so glad you are using your life to lead the way for this conversation. What you said about compersion is so true. I’ve never been a jealous person but instead I get pleasure in seeing the one I love experiencing new things and relationships. We are in a monogamous relationship and it makes for a much deeper bond when you can take jealousy out of the equation. So touching!! Thanks for opening yourself up and sharing your story!!

  3. Cristin Whiting says:

    Thanks for reading and your reply. Ultimately, I think the structure of a relationship is a personal one and I am not endorsing poly relationships over monogamous ones (or vice versa). What I am suggesting though is that the full potential for intimacy and expansion in monogamous relationships is untapped my many couples, and that is something for which I am very much in favor.

  4. Cristin Whiting says:

    Jealousy can absolutely steal the joy out of any situation. It is something that is worth working on though because as you mentioned, as a dispositionally non-jealous person, you get so much joy out of seeing your partner grown. Compersion/metta, even in the context of monogamous relationships takes practice, practice, practice but the benefits are inumerable! Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts, Meredith!

  5. Stephen says:

    A courageous and well thought out message of love and intimacy…thank you so much for sharing your experience…your article compels a much needed reflection and dialogue with those we are in relationship with.

  6. Cristin Whiting says:

    Thank you, Stephen. That is one of the most generous complements you can offer–I do hope that this article spawns conversations with couples so that couples and the individuals who make them up can be fully expressed in all areas of their life.

  7. Paul says:

    Beautifully expressed , thank you!

  8. Cristin Whiting says:

    Thank you, Paul for reading and for letting me know you enjoyed the article.

  9. benbelenus says:

    Cristin, thank you so much for this article. It succinctly captures such a magical possibility for deepest loving relationship. I am a huge fan and practicer of compersion. I can vouch that it is THE SECRET INGREDIENT, the absence of which surely leads to in-authenticity, shut down and a fight or-two. What if we packaged compersion and sold it on the web. We would surely be wealthy evolutionaries!


    Ben http://www.benbelenus.com

  10. Cristin Whiting says:

    How wonderful that you have found the magic of compersion. I think that we could all be evolutionaries if the practice of compersion was not just within the sexual realm but in the practice of over every day lives as well. It is that kind of generosity and oneness that would not only create great change in the world but who we know ourselvse to be as human beings.

    Thank you for reading and for leaving your comments here.

  11. Thank you for writing this article, Cristin. But I think that compersion and monogamy are completely opposite concepts. It did not even come from monogamy but from polyamory. And the definition of monogamy is the opposite of freedom – you're not allowed to love anybody else nor even explore that desire if it arises, and indeed, you're not even allowed to have that desire arise in the first place as if human beings are robots, or as if your lover is your slave. I'd be interested to read a follow-up article about how you actually apply compersion in monogamy in your life, rather than a theoretical article. A day-in-the-life snapshot would be good. Thank you.

  12. continuousdiscoveries says:

    Cristen, I too don't understand how you can practice compersion in a monogamous relationship. I've been in a monogamous relationship for 6 years now and we completely support one anothers individual life path/seperate ambitions as well as sharing our day to day life in all its beauty and mucky waters. We both have deep bonds with other men and women but only sleep with each other. If he were to meet someone that he wanted to explore an intimate relationship with, I could be happy for him but honestly, I wouldn't be willing to share him. There's a practical side to it; at least for me. I really have no desire to share my body if he's been laying with someone else. I did this for many years in my young adult life and ended up with std's and a life long virus.

    I honestly believe that one can be in a committed/monogamous relationship and experience amazing benefits that include the individuals freedom and ultimate growth. For me, at least this time around, having one relationship that, the longer I'm in, I feel more safety and confidence and support to grow to my fullest potential. Thank you.

  13. Cristin Whiting says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful insight about a follow up article. Great idea. In this article I was riffing on the idea of compersion; for it to be integrated into monogamous relationships in the form of loving kindness– a concept that has to do with taking joy in another's joy in a selfless way. Inside of that I see the possibility for expansion for those who prefer to practice monogamy.

  14. Cristin Whiting says:

    Yes, you understood the spirit of what I was saying exactly. What I was suggesting is that those who prefer monogamy to borrow from the spirit of compersion (which can also be thought of as practing loving kindness). In that practice there is the possibility for all of the security that monogamous couples prefer with the benefit of enouraging each other's life exploration without jealousy or possessiveness. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and sharing your experience

  15. Michelle NIcolle says:

    What strikes me most about the Buddhist teachings and relationships, whether poly or monogamous, is the Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering is craving. Craving is wanting something to be different that what it is: wanting "ownership: in the sense of "you are mine". Release from craving brings freedom. To quote liberally from Joanna Macy "World as Lover, World as Self", "Liberation can be won from the insatiable greed to posses and consume, and from the objects, thoughts, and habits that stimulate wanting. Possessions, furthermore, are dangerous to the extent that they foster the notion of "mineness" (mamatta) and thus encourage the belief in a permanent, separate self who possesses". Although this quote is referring to economics and material possessions, it seems to be that as soon as we start to consider a person "mine",that is where the suppression of the other's individuality can occur. The cultural basis of women being possessed and owned and without a voice runs so deeply through so many cultures. For some women, this provides security, but for some, it is simply repression of their full potential of a human being. In poly, I see release from craving to be the root of compersion; letting go of "me" or "mine" in order to experience the full expression of the humanity of another human being.

  16. Cristin Whiting says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes! This is often a concept that I think about in regard to my children. We use the term "mine" to refer to the genetic bundles to which we give birth and yet are they really "Mine?" Moving away from that idea has been instrumental to me in the practice of being in a blended family and sharing them with a step mom….Article to follow…

    Thank you, Michelle, for your thoughtful words.

  17. Megazilla says:

    I completely disagree with "monogamy is the opposite of freedom" and that "your lover is your slave." I am in a wonderful monogamous relationship and I have never been happier in my entire life. Why? Because we both practice compersion for one another. We have different friends, different interests, different careers, and different spiritual paths but we always share these experiences with one another. We love each other deeply, support one another, and grow together but still remain separate people. In fact, I am absolutely certain that my development in other parts of my life (my goals, ambitions, and desires) would not nearly be as strong if I didn't have my partner with me. Because of him, I am much more brave and taking more risks because he supports me in everything. If I fall flat on my face in failure, he is there for me. While I don't necessarily NEED him, his love and support for me has been made me that much stronger.

    And I'm not a robot, thank you very much. Nor is he. If you're feeling suffocated and enslaved because you're just intimately loving just one person, then maybe being in a monogamous relationship is not for you (or you haven't come across the right person(s)); just like a polygamous relationship is not for me. My partner and I are intimate and vulnerable with just one another. It's not even an issue for us because neither of us have any thought or desire to be that way with anyone else.

    I have found freedom in being monogamous with my partner. So please, don't stereotype all of to be robots and slaves. It's not very open minded and sounds ignorant.

  18. Cristin Whiting says:

    How great you see how the concept of compersion can deepen and expand your relationship. Well said. Thanks for reading and sharing how this works for you.

  19. […] If you know that love is not clinging, or bondage, but space in between your togetherness, […]

  20. Steve says:

    I have enjoyed reading this article, as well as all of the responses. I personally find it quite convenient to be polygamous. That way you can have what you want, when you want it. Sounds selfish to me. I couldn't do it. It's not that I'm a strong jealous type… I just want to have someone there for me when I need them, and I want to be there for them. If you are spending your time with two people, one is being left out. If you are intensely in love someone, you don't want to take a number. No matter how much you might think it's ok, someone is getting left out at some point. They can say it's ok. They can act like this is what they want. But you are now settling… you are now making excuses… you are now lonely. But eventually it will be your turn and life is good again. One of the two is happy. No… that is not me.

    I have known many women who were stifled and missed out on many things because they gave up their lives for a man. That too is a ridiculous concept to me. I don't want a woman to be "mine" like it is ownership & control. I want her to be "mine" because I love who she is and what she is, and she loves me for who I am. Independence, confidence, drive, and growth is sexy. I can't wait to find a woman who is her own happy, successful person. I'm not looking for someone to melt me a sandwich, I'm looking for someone who will make me melt with just one look. Not only will she be able to do whatever she wants, I will be there to whole-heartedly support her in it.

    Buddhists concepts and compersion aren't far from the Holy Bible if you think about the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you." I love you… you love me. I respect you… you respect me. They also say that it is better to give than to receive, but I have always received by giving. If you can find two people who are both giving, loving, caring, thoughtful, and willing to sacrifice for each other, you will have found the perfect couple. But it MUST be a two way street.

  21. Steve says:

    I had browser issues and forgot to subscribe to this which is all this comment is. Sorry

  22. Nowadays most couples end in divorce but your relationship with your husband has lasted long. Time passes and everyone gets old, and health is not the same as early on.

  23. escapeart1 says:

    I really appreciate this article. Just shared to my circle with this comment "this truly is the best advice for all relationships: friendships, family, and lovers –to "love without clinging*

  24. Amy E says:

    Love "without being suffocated or suffocating". True dat!