If you are not at peace in your intimate relationship, then your life will not be at peace. To gain some insight here, let’s step back and consider the typical stages of intimate relationships.
The first stage can be called falling in love, the honeymoon phase, romance or infatuation. In the midst of it, it can seem like true love. It has elements of fantasy, and especially it is fantasy if you take it for real love pure and simple. But to demean it as mere fantasy, or to reduce it to a chemical cocktail that amounts to being on drugs, is itself to be in fantasy.
What is learned on “drugs” can be quite valid and only becomes fantasy if we translate that into “How easy this is! How wonderful I am! How enlightened I am!” And yet even this is a glimpse into truth, for love in itself is essentially easy, we are indeed wonderful, and we are essentially enlightened already. This stage of the process is provided by nature to get us to mate, and to help us to weather the storms of sustained relationship. But beyond that, it can be a glimpse into your own and your partner’s true nature, and into the nature of true love.
You might naively think you have arrived, but then comes the stage called falling out of love, the power struggle. You might think you have gone from heaven to hell, or that you were addicted and now have hit rock bottom. You might think you’ve been deluded and now have seen the (awful) truth. You might think that this is now the real thing, simply the way life is. You might make your partner wrong and struggle with them in order to get them back to what they were in the previous stage. Or you might bail out and seek another partner (with the sense that obviously this one can’t be the real deal).
If you weather this storm, and somehow wake up from the pain so that you can step back from it to a larger perspective, then you might enter into the stage of conscious love, or real love. Here is where there can be an integration of the previous two stages, recognizing that life is a process that includes both love and challenge. You might come to understand that you were a bit naive and culturally conditioned to suppose love is so easy, and that you had found the right partner for this easy love. You might become sober enough to recognize that real love in a long-term relationship requires real work, relational skills, and commitment. And you can recognize that it all serves as a mutual growth opportunity, wherein each partner takes responsibility for their own process.
This can now seem to complete the stages, but there is another stage, which really can come at any point in the process. This is the opening to what we can call essential love (including essential compassion), the loving presence that is an aspect of your essential or true nature. You can learn to access this (supported by other essential aspects of presence, such as peace) at any stage. If you do make this your foundation, anchored in your body and heart, then you can apply this at any of the above stages, and transform the journey through every one of the stages. If possible, begin before the first stage, so that you can enter into it consciously, from a place of presence. In any case, the journey is still not going to be ideal, and human loving is never going to be without challenges. Both partners will still have egoic delusions and shadows.
And that’s OK, for now you will be able to relate to those challenges from a place of presence. You can cultivate the loving presence by yourself, and you can cultivate it with your partner. And then you can bring that to any stage of your process and to the process of relationship. Sometimes outside help is needed to support this when you lack perspective. To cultivate this, become still and open to the presence that is always here now.
Ed Hirsch teaches an OLLI course on presence and conducts a small committed group centered in the practice and process of presence. He is available for sessions for those who want to explore this for themselves. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.