Recently, I was in Europe to conduct a series of workshops, including a program on intimate relationships. The group was composed mostly of couples, but there was also a fair number of single people who were looking for ways to improve communication in their next relationship.
One of the couples in the workshop had been married for 38 years. He had owned a big company and sold it for an enormous sum of money. Now they were traveling the world and living what many people refer to as “the good life.” By society’s standards, they had achieved the dream. But the minute I was introduced to them, I could see that they were at the workshop for some very good reasons. He put a good face on things, but she was clearly struggling.
There was no doubt in my mind that they loved each other. But they were at an impasse. And despite all the money they had made in life, and all the opportunities that were now available to them, neither was satisfied. They were still looking for a greater love, a richer intimacy, and a way to relate to each other that would evoke something deeper from their individual lives.
Meanwhile, time was running out. Both were in their 60s. They appeared to be in good health, but the horizon was in sight and their souls were urging them to search for more.
What were they really asking of each other? I asked the two of them. Both took a stab at answering, but neither could articulate exactly what they wanted from the other.
Finally, I said to her: “You want his heart, which he has never fully given to you in nearly four decades of marriage.” She nodded and some tears began to fall. “You also want to stop having to mother him, right? You want him to be your partner, not your dependent.” This time, a small smile came over her face and she nodded again.
“Can you give her what she is asking?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said. “I can.”
I then said to him, “You want her to stop criticizing you and to see all the good that you have provided for both of you.”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s right.”
“You want her to see you as heroic again.” His expression became serious and introverted. He nodded from a place deep inside of himself.
At this point, we had arrived at the threshold of a much deeper and more important goal in their relationship, a goal that I believe is present in every intimate partnership. That goal is this: In a committed relationship, each partner is asking the other to help him or her become the person he or she longs to be. In essence, each is asking the other the following: Help me fulfill my dream and become my best self.
In Stephen Spielberg’s wonderful World War 2 film, “Saving Private Ryan,” Matt Damon’s character, Private Ryan, is saved by a platoon of G.I.s led by Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks. Late in the film, Captain Miller gives his life in the rescue of Private Ryan, and as he dies, he tells Ryan to do something with his life that makes Miller’s sacrifice, and the sacrifice of the other men, worth it. At the end of the film, Ryan, now old and spent, approaches his wife in a desperate frenzy, and asks her, “Am I a good man?” His wife is confused by the question, but answers, “yes.”
Ryan is asking the question every man and woman asks at some point in life. Did I live a good life? Did I become the person that I have always wanted to be?
The purpose of intimate relationships is to help us become that man or woman that lies in potential within our souls and is written in our DNA. No one escapes the question, nor do any of us escape our answer.
What the wonderful couple in my workshop is still asking of each other is this: Help me become the person I still long to be. Help me while there is still time.
She is asking him, in essence, to make the next step in his journey as a man and to let go of any need for mothering from her, so that she can be free to explore a deeper level of her own individuality, and indeed, to experience a deeper relationship with her soul.
He, on the other hand, needs her to see that her criticism of him is diminishing him in his own eyes, as well as in hers, and thus making it difficult, if not impossible, for him to make the evolutionary step that both of them want him to make.
Each is making the same request of the other: Give me a love that helps me make the step you and I want me to make.
That love is rich in praise and gratitude. It is revealed in the act of identifying the beautiful and the good in the other. It uses criticism in small amounts, which makes it more effective and powerful.
The great boxer and revolutionary figure, Mohammed Ali, was managed by one of the great unsung heroes of athletic coaching, Angelo Dundee. Dundee realized that Ali took badly to criticism so he rarely indulged in the practice. Instead, when he wanted the champ to change his tactics, or learn a new series of punches, he would begin by praising Ali for doing the very thing that Dundee wanted him to do.
“I love the way you throw that combination like this,” Dundee would say to Ali, and then mime the way he wanted the punches thrown. “That’s exactly how you should be doing it, champ.” Ali was a smart guy, as everyone knows, and he got the message.
Intimate partners must learn from the Dundee approach.
Every human being longs to be fulfilled. The lesson we’re trying to learn is that only love can get us there.