I’m currently reading Tiziana Stupia’s breathtaking spiritual autobiography, Meeting Shiva. It is a book very much about the interplay between spirituality and love, and it raised a really important issue for me: We don’t talk about relationships much. As a culture, we talk a bit about sex and attraction, usually through the medium of glossy magazines aimed at women. We have romance and erotica genres that are for the greater part, total fantasy, selling us ideas of love and relationship that cannot be lived up to in practice. We also get dramas and soap operas, which give us images of shouty, dysfunctional relationships in a way that tends to normalise unhealthy behaviour.
Much of what we learn about love, we learn in the contexts of our own families. This means that we can absorb all manner of odd and unhelpful things as normal. Hangovers from Victorian ideals about the stiff upper lip, religious impacts on gender relations… habits of control, battles of the sexes, and on it goes. We learn how to be in relationships with other people only by doing it, and often we mess up, which causes a lot of pain.
If I had talked about my experiences during my first marriage, there is every chance someone could have helped me challenge what was happening. One of my big problems was the belief that I deserved how I was being treated. The experience of being treated as a useless, difficult, unreasonable, demanding person eroded my self-esteem. Only when I dared to take that shamed and humiliated sense of self to someone else, did I get the opportunity to hear a different story. I haven’t felt like an unreasonable nuisance for years now.
In the heat of a relationship, working out what is fair and reasonable isn’t always easy. Emotions colour interpretation, the desire to please and to be loved can warp our thinking. Been there, done that. Talking to other people helps improve perspective. Often its easier to think clearly about the less immediate issues of someone else’s love life.
We’re taught to expect happily ever after, to believe that true love is easy and requires no work, and to assume, when things are tricky, that maybe they just weren’t ‘the one’. Some of us are taught that love is owed to us, while others learn that we have to jump through hoops just to be tolerated. We learn a lot of crap, then we take it to each new relationship and wonder why there seems to be a lot of crap in the mix. We learn passive aggressive tricks and ways to manipulate, we keep score, we make contracts, and all of these pretty normal things are destructive.
There are things love needs in order to thrive. These are not the things suggested by rom coms or commercials. Trust. Honesty. Care. Respect. If you don’t have those, you don’t have anything. They won’t fall into place over night, all of them. They have to be earned, built and developed. We have to be willing to be vulnerable with each other, to share the bits of us we are less fond of, and acknowledge they exist. We have to accept that our significant other won’t be perfect, and also that our loving them will not magically change them, or put right everything wrong in their lives. We have to know that they cannot save us, heal us, or wave any other kind of magic wand. The love and support of another person can be tremendously helpful, nurturing and healing, but it won’t do the job for you. No one should expect their partner to change for them or because of them. No one should expect their partner to stay the same forever, either. And yet both expectations are held by many people.
I’m convinced a lot of the problem is that we just don’t air this stuff enough. We need to get away from fantasy stories about love affairs where, once the ridiculous setback is overcome, it all falls neatly into place. We need to stop believing in magical princes destined to kiss all traces of frog out of us, and find some new kinds of stories, or possibly old kinds of stories, that have a bit more reality in them. Happily Ever After is not just a lie, it stops us exploring all the other stories about what happens along the way, how you cope with it, and how to build the good stuff and nurture a relationship.
How we love can be a profound facet of our spiritual lives. Equally, messed up love affairs can be spiritually crushing. So many religions focus on who you are allowed to love and on what terms. Druidry should be much more about doing it well, with soul and integrity.