For those wise consumers who like the idea of getting two for the price of one, I offer this enticing prospect: the path towards marital stability and happiness is the same as the path toward spiritual growth and enlightenment.
Whatever you do to contribute to one will enhance the other.
This is not to say that a committed and successful relationship is strictly mandatory in an effort to attain full personal and spiritual potential.
Contrary to fundamentalist doctrines, I believe there are multiple paths available to us, and that one should seek and travel on that path which suits his or her temperament.
Some folks are just not geared toward theological devotion and study. Others are primarily emotionally driven and devotion is right for them. They actually enjoy surrendering to a higher power, while still others insist on retaining control over almost everything around them.
Some are action-oriented and fulfill themselves by performing deeds.
Intellectuals love to learn and find that process to be the best way to make the most of themselves.
Whatever their orientation, the majority still choose marriage and family life, and I wish to point out some of the reasons why this is one of the most direct paths to wisdom and enlightenment.
Marriage is a great challenge, especially in the modern time when options are many. People don't need marriage now in the same way they used to. It's no longer necessary for survival, nor, apparently, even for childrearing.
Almost half of all children in America are born out of wedlock these days. I'm not saying this is a good thing. It certainly renders the concept of fatherhood a bit more ephemeral and I'm reasonably sure this is not a good thing at all.
Nevertheless, people are having lots of babies "illegitimately," a concept that, along with the word "bastard," has outlived its usefulness.
The point is people are not getting married as a matter of course like they used to, at least not for the same reasons. Marriage has changed, even if the personal qualities needed in order to make a success of it haven't.
The modern marital ideal is egalitarian, for one thing. This means, in order to succeed, an individual must learn to advocate for the self while simultaneously honoring the other. Now, this is a bit tricky. To do this effectively, it is necessary to develop humility and courtesy, and use them together in communication, all while not failing to remain true to (and express) oneself.
Don't you agree this is tricky? It's not so easy to do this in the heat of action, especially when emotions are triggered as they usually are in a love relationship where, seemingly, everything is on the line on a daily basis. It's a delicate negotiation that takes place and to do it right requires not only skill but dedication and maturity as well.
And this is my real point. Developing this necessary maturity is the same as spiritual growth because it necessitates transcending the limited self of the "I" and becoming something "greater." Spiritual growth is all about getting over oneself. Maybe, if you're a monk or a nun and completely dedicated to the spiritual path, you can let go of yourself and merge with the Godhead like St. John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila.
But for married people, letting go of oneself is really not a good option and leads to pathology, dysfunction and depression, not to mention divorce. The deal is, you have to "get over yourself" without letting go of yourself. Here's why.
Marriage takes two. You have to be there, really be there with all your faculties, providing a counterpoint for your partner to struggle with/love. Remaining present, under fire sometimes, under stress most of the time, isn't so easy. It requires virtue. And virtue is, or should be, the end product of maturity. And what is virtue? Well, virtue hasn't changed much even if marriage has.
To listen attentively, with concern, requires self-control and compassion. That's two virtues. To understand and respect another's point of view when you disagree requires generosity and tolerance. Two more. To get past an argument and continue to love well requires forgiveness and patience. Two more.
Are you following me? Think this is easy? To act lovingly when one doesn't feel loving requires humility, discipline, intention and a voluntary release of pride and self-righteousness.
There is always something to let go of. Usually it's an emotion that stems from our mammalian self. We've been wounded or we desire/fear something. Letting go of these feelings is essential to both marital and spiritual growth.
Our base impulses, our animal instincts, sometimes interfere with the expression of virtuous behavior. No one is born perfect. But we have an opportunity, while we're alive, to improve. This growth, this maturation, requires us to overcome some of the basic animal urges we were born with.
And this will help your marriage, too.
Hugh R. Leavell has been a marriage and family therapist in Palm Beach County for 18 years. He offers free seminars on couples communication and conflict management. Call him at (561) 471-0067 or visit his Web site www.oneminutetherapist.com.