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Listen With Your Heart: Seeking the Sacred in Romantic Love

Listen With Your Heart: Seeking the Sacred in Romantic Love

by Eileen Flanagan
A substantive, reflective, & practical guide to finding & keeping meaningful romantic relationships founded in spiritual communion.


A substantive, reflective, & practical guide to finding & keeping meaningful romantic relationships founded in spiritual communion.

Product Details

Grand Central Publishing
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt


Searching for Courtship

We were browsing through Borders bookstore on a Saturday night as Jayne updated Nancy on the status of her new relationship. Wandering past the self-help section, a title caught my eye that I just couldn't resist: Searching for Courtship: The Smart Woman's Guide to Finding a Good Husband. The three of us, all heterosexual women in our early thirties, formed a giddy huddle in the aisle and began thumbing through the pages.

Friendships with men "divert you from your higher goal," says Winnifred B. Cutler, Ph.D. "If you have time to spare after scheduling your three search events per week, you would probably do better to build friendships with other women—unless your male friend fixes you up with courtship candidates." Cutler advocates a systematic program for finding a husband, using a loose-leaf binder, two inches thick, and a set of twelve dividers to track different sources of male suitors. Nancy was particularly amused by the binder and began speculating on how one might have helped her track down her new husband, Rick, who was a few aisles away thumbing through baseball books.

We began to giggle uncontrollably, like fourth graders looking at nude pictures in the locker room. Jayne's boyfriend, Matt, wandered over but quickly disappeared, perplexed by our hysterical laughter. The longer we stood mocking the book, however, the more I got the sinking feeling its message was not so funny, or distant. I grew quiet as we headed out of the store—Nancy and Rick, Jayne and Matt, and I, the odd number, as usual. The warning rang out loud and clear.Better hurry up; all the good ones are almost gone!

At the time I was thirty-one, never married, and well aware of the pressure single women face. My mother hinted that she hoped she'd live to see her grandchildren. An old friend said she was sad I didn't have "someone special." Although I had enjoyed my single twenties, Searching for Courtship hit a nerve. I bristled at the sexist assumptions and the clinical approach to dating, but I laughed in nervous recognition. The book compelled me to examine the ways I was searching for courtship and the assumptions I held about love.

I returned to the bookstore alone and found numerous guides on how to find a lover or mate: How to Start a Romantic Encounter, 50 Ways to Find a Lover, and Guerrilla Dating Tactics. Exploring other stories, I realized how many books on the market explicitly promise marriage: How to Get Married in a Year or Less, How to Marry the Man of Your Choice, and How to Marry the Rich, to name just a few. I began noticing courtship advice throughout the media: television talk shows on "How to Meet that Future Spouse" and magazine articles on "Shopping for a Man." The shopping approach showed up again and again, from newspaper classifieds where people advertise their height, weight, and hobbies to dating services where people pay exorbitant fees, hoping to buy "love."

Most popular dating advice reflects a consumer approach to love. We are told that finding a mate is like "shopping for a car or an apartment," and we should begin by writing a checklist of what we want. Dating guides tell us to advertise our assets by wearing sheer black pantyhose and short skirts. In the marriage market, we are merchandise as well as consumers, selling ourselves in exchange for what we want. As one book puts it, "The trick is to have such a clear assessment of the package you are buying that you can feel confident you got the better deal on balance."

Describing marriage as a business deal reveals the basic selfishness of the consumer approach to love. The whole point of the shopping list is to determine "What do I want?" The question "What can I give?" is only asked to evaluate my bargaining position, to list the assets I can use as bait to attract a lover. This approach misses the essence of real love: the joy of caring about another's well-being and happiness. It is the unselfishness of love that expands and fulfills us, that challenges us to grow and become more. It is a sad irony that so many books promote narcissism in the name of love, steering their readers away from the real wonder of loving.

The hope for love is human and good. There is nothing wrong with wanting to find a life partner, and by criticizing the courtship manuals, I am not criticizing the millions of women who have read them. I cannot mock a longing that I myself have known. The problem is that most courtship manuals speak to our fears rather than our hopes. They teach us to sell ourselves rather than be true to ourselves. They promote manipulation rather than real loving.

These books are not anomalies we can dismiss by saying, "Well, I don't read that sort of thing." Their assumptions permeate our culture, affecting how we approach intimate relationships even when we think we are working out of a different value system. That is why I take the courtship manuals seriously, even while I laugh at their more ludicrous suggestions. Studying these books forced me to realize how often I have advertised my eyes and legs and calculated the timing of my sales pitch. I have browsed parties like a shopper cruising the mall, treating men like merchandise. I have written a shopping list. Recognizing these attitudes within myself and our culture challenged me to articulate a different vision.

At the time I began writing about these issues, I was living and working at a contemplative center founded by Quakers, and the spiritual values of this community provided a striking contrast to the consumer approach to love. As I struggled to accept the end of an important romance, I wondered how I could apply spiritual principles to my own romantic dilemmas. I was not seeking a profitable deal, but a partnership grown organically out of love, where the priority was to support and challenge each other to grow to our fullest potential. I knew this image was not a thing, to be achieved or purchased, but a way of living. How does one grow toward this way of living? I wondered. How can I admit I would like to share my life with someone without becoming a husband hunter? I began writing about these questions during Advent, the Christian season of waiting, and the theme of expectant waiting seemed to capture what I felt was the alternative to frantic man-hunting. Not passively sitting home feeling sorry for myself waiting, but instead actively waiting—living fully in the present, trusting that if I was meant to be married then it would happen without my forcing it.

I spent the next few years exploring ideas about love, reading widely in religion, psychology, and popular culture. Since women are the major audience for most how-to-catch-a-mate strategies, I focused on women's experience, although I hope the ideas in this book will resonate with men as well. I interviewed people I thought had something wise to say on the subject, thirty-nine women and men who shared their stories with extraordinary depth and candor. Often there was remarkable serendipity in the timing of the interviews, raising issues just when a person needed to talk about them or just when I needed to hear what they had to say.

My method of finding people to interview was very intuitive. Names were suggested to me. People appeared. The result was an interview sample that is disproportionately white, female, educated, and middle class. Most are from a Judeo-Christian background, though not all would consider themselves religious. I do not claim they are representative of our society as a whole. They do, however, represent a broad range of relationship experience. Some are married, several for the second time. Among the unmarried, some plan to remain single, while others hope to find a spouse someday. Some are sexually active. Some are celibate. Some are heterosexual. Some are lesbians. What all the people interviewed have in common is the desire to make decisions about their lives consciously and with integrity.

The most important research for this book was very personal, as I sought to live the questions I was asking. During the writing of this book, a friendship that began platonically developed into an intimate partnership, and chapter topics presented themselves through real-life dilemmas. As this relationship grew toward marriage, I became even more convinced that the way we approach courtship determines the quality of partnership we develop. A twelve-section binder could not have helped me find Tom. "Guerrilla dating tactics" could not have led to the mutually supportive partnership we share today. Rather than an achievement or a reward, our marriage is a gift, a grace, and a cause for gratitude.

What follows includes my story, as well as the stories of people I interviewed, contrasted with the consumer approach to love. In chapter 1, I present loving as a spiritual practice that enables us to grow closer to the Divine. In chapter 2, I show how the practice of spiritual discernment can guide us in this process, helping us find the form of loving that reflects our true selves. Chapter 3 explores the pressures that may muddy our discernment, such as fear, loneliness, and the biological clock. Chapter 4 examines the challenge of letting go and trusting in the search for love. Chapters 5 and 6 look at the development of romantic relationships and the issues that arise when two people attempt to discern if they are meant to marry. The conclusion points toward the future, reminding us that marriage is a continuing journey, not a final destination.

Unlike some authors, I do not promise a "marriage made in heaven" for those who follow my advice. There is no simple formula that will make someone fall in love with us, much as we may wish for one. There is no quick fix to loneliness, no foolproof plan to find our soul mate, and books that promise such easy answers merely distract us from the difficult but more gratifying work of searching our own souls. Ironically, inward searching may actually lead to more fulfilling relationships than searching for a mate. Several women I interviewed noted that it was only when they stopped looking for Mr. Right and focused on their own inner growth that meaningful relationships developed in their lives. This makes sense since a woman at peace with herself is more attractive than one who is desperate for affection. More important, a woman who knows who she is has more to offer than one who is looking for a partner to define and fulfill her. Any partnership she develops will be more loving than a marriage built on desperation and deception.

If we want a partnership with spiritual depth, we must begin by realizing that "shopping for a man" will not get us there. A dating strategy that is selfish and manipulative will attract selfish, manipulative people and lead to an unloving relationship. The means determine the ends. A thistle seed will not produce roses. Product and process are inseparable.

We can plant the seeds of anxiety and manipulation or the seeds of love and trust. This book is about learning to love and trust.

Chapter One

Abundant Love

I view my marriage as a spiritual path, a way of life that expands and fulfills me, that teaches me about myself and others, that brings me closer to God. This growth is usually not glamorous. It is the ordinary things that teach the most: deciding who changes the next diaper or who gets the last bagel, knowing when to speak and when to listen, learning to give of myself without giving up my self. Although I am still a beginner on this path, I know that my marriage is teaching me to be more generous and patient, in short, to be more loving.

For me, the process of waiting for the right partner and discerning whether or not we were meant to marry was itself full of growth. It involved letting go of some of my old ideas about relationships. It involved learning to listen more consciously to my inner voice for guidance. It involved admitting my own longing and learning to trust that my real needs would be met, though maybe not in the way I expected. A crucial step in this process was rejecting the consumer view of love. As long as I thought of love as a thing I had to find, I feared I would be love-poor. But when I shifted my focus to real loving—the process of creating love—I began to trust that the love in my life would always be plentiful, whether or not I ultimately married.


"You will always have plenty of love," says Sharon, an energetic, joyful woman in her mid-forties. "That was the message most people needed to hear." Sharon had led a weeklong workshop on women's spirituality, and during the closing ritual participants had been invited to give each other the message they wished they had received as children. Without planning, most participants shared a similar message, the promise that love would be plentiful rather than scarce. For Sharon, whose mentally ill mother was physically and emotionally absent for much of her childhood, it had taken many years to learn to trust in love's abundance, and she was struck that so many workshop participants from different backgrounds needed the same assurance. Sharon recalls, "Hearing that message, ?You will always have plenty of love,' whispered in your ear repeatedly was an incredible gift!"

Most of us do not grow up assured of love's abundance. We believe we have to do something to deserve love, like an allowance we receive only after we've done our chores. Particularly in romantic love, we fear we have to dress a certain way, maintain a certain weight, or play a certain game in order to win another's heart. This message is reinforced by many of the self-proclaimed relationship experts who tell us we must follow a "love plan" or a set of rules if we have any chance of competing in the love market.

Magazines and dating manuals frequently use market language, telling us how to "advertise" our assets and "make the right sales pitch at the right time." Haven't You Been Single Long Enough? asks, "What is an advertiser's objective? To persuade and motivate someone to choose his product or service." "It's nothing more than supply and demand," states The Great American Man Shortage and Other Roadblocks to Romance. Many authors hook their largely female audience with questionable statistics about the scarcity of marriageable men. Highly successful women, we are told, have a disadvantage because men prefer to "marry down" the economic ladder; black women have it harder than white women partly because black men marry interracially at four times the rate of black women; and all women face diminishing odds as they get older and have to compete with younger women and widows. "Wake up!" warns How to Marry the Man of Your Choice. Unless you act now, "all you can look forward to is menopause, and a pet cat for companionship."

The belief that love is a commodity, like rubies or radium, with a limited supply, is one of the most toxic ideas in our culture. As long as we think of love as a noun—something that can be found, possessed, or lost—people will have to compete for it. There will be rich and poor. But when we think of love as a verb, an activity rather than a thing, love is as plentiful as we make it. This subtle shift in perception allows us to see the abundant potential for loving in our lives.

The author who clarified this distinction for me was Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst and profound social thinker. In To Have or to Be, Fromm described having and being as two alternative ways of living. In the having mode, we try to make ourselves feel secure through possession. We are worth what we have: manicured lawn, beautiful children, advanced degree, executive office. In the being mode, what we have is unimportant. What we are is all that counts.

If we live in the having mode, as much of our culture does, we will try to grab love, to make it ours. We will think of it as something we must pursue when we don't have it and hold on to when we do. But Fromm asserted that love is not a thing that can be possessed: "In reality, there exists only the act of loving. To love is a productive activity. It implies caring for, knowing, responding, affirming, enjoying." True love does not mean possessing another's affections, and it cannot exist when our primary concern is receiving love. Rather, as Fromm defined it, "Love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love."

This definition clarifies the difference between loving and trying to acquire love. Wearing a short skirt won't make us loving. Neither will cosmetic surgery. Such tactics are aimed at making someone love or desire us. They do not show an active concern for the life and growth of the other. Loving another means giving, not as a means to receiving, but for the other's sake. It may mean encouraging his decision to quit work and go back to school even though it will strain our finances. It may mean supporting her hunger for more solitude rather than forcing the closeness we desire. It may even mean letting our beloved say good-bye if that is what will foster her life and growth. Loving means giving when it is hard to give, not just when it is easy or convenient.

Loving does not require saying yes to everything our beloved asks. As the slogan "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" suggests, sometimes the most loving action is saying no even though it risks another's anger. Setting limits is more loving than lazy indulgence. Likewise, acknowledging discord is more loving than false sameness. Loving doesn't mean always agreeing; it means being honest and respectful about disagreements. Becoming a doormat for another person does not foster his or her growth, and it does little to foster our own. Loving ourselves, nurturing our own development, is part of being a loving person.

For example, learning to say "My feelings are hurt" was a huge step for me in relationships. I used to hide my tears, believing a fake smile was kinder than honesty. I was actually protecting myself, denying men the opportunity to know the real me. By holding back the vulnerabilities I feared were unattractive, I avoided the growth that can come through conflict. Gradually, I am learning to change this pattern. When I shared an early draft of this chapter with my partner, Tom, he gave me feedback I found discouraging. Rather than hiding my hurt, I let out all the tears, fears, and impatience of a frustrated writer. Tom listened. My outburst enabled him to appreciate my writing process and learn how to be more supportive; it helped me understand my own needs. By the end of the conversation, we both felt much closer. Feeling loved and appreciated, I was then able to hear the substance of his criticisms, which were very helpful in writing the second draft. In this situation, we were both loving. If Tom had merely said, "The chapter is great, honey," he would not have helped me grow as a writer. Likewise, if I had not shared my vulnerabilities, I would not have helped him grow as a lover. By sharing our true thoughts and feelings without blaming each other, we fostered growth in our relationship as well.

Sometimes we deny our painful emotions, believing this to be loving. We pretend not to mind when he spends every date describing the villainy of his ex-wife. We smile as we suffer through her son's first violin recital. We act cheerful as we clean up after a party for his friends. The ideal of cheerful servitude is another false image of love, one particularly ingrained in women. This behavior is often just another manipulation strategy, however. If we clean up the beer bottles in order to win his approval and affection, we are not being truly loving. We are merely trying to get him to love us—advertising generosity as we attempt to make a deal. This is very different from cleaning the party mess out of a simple desire to give, without any sense of martyrdom or proving our worth. The same action can be manipulative or loving depending on our inner motivation.

Sex, for example, can have very different meanings depending on our motivations. We may feel giving a partner pleasure gives us a certain power over him, enabling us to secure other things we want, such as affection, commitment, or fidelity. We may pursue a sexual relationship purely for our own pleasure, where sexual favors are simply assets to be traded on the love market. Or we may wish to give our partner physical pleasure, not for what we'll get in return, but for our beloved's sake. The exchange of lovemaking may be a wonderful expression of mutuality, helping lovers see beyond their own individual needs and desires and expanding their capacity to love.

Learning to recognize our real and often mixed motivations is an important part of learning to love. Our behavior may be influenced by unconscious fears and desires, and the difficult process of drawing these to the surface can help us see when we are being loving and when we are being manipulative. However, we should not postpone loving others until we are fully conscious and perfectly self-actualized. We never will be. Self-awareness, like loving, is a lifelong process. Indeed loving others is a powerful way to discover our own depth. Even our failed attempts to love can help us become more aware of our shadow side. In turn, the more honestly we know ourselves, including our own weaknesses, the more honestly we will be able to love ourselves and others. Learning to love and learning to know ourselves are ongoing processes that enhance each other, bringing us more in touch with our divine core.


I recall times in my twenties when I showered men with affection and kindness, believing myself to be loving. I listened to their problems and pretended to understand. I did little errands for them. I sent sentimental notes. I was not desperate to get married. I just wanted adoration, and I hoped they would give it to me if I was sweet, generous, and entertaining enough. Of course, I tried to hide my need. I once drove around a city block three times in rush-hour traffic to avoid arriving early for a date, not wanting to appear too eager. The next week, I spent hours wondering whether to call the guy to say I had a good time or wait to see if he called me. He never called.

Looking back, I realize I wanted a boyfriend to fill the hole at the center of my life. I was growing disillusioned with the debt-ridden nonprofit where I worked. Unable to share these feelings with my coworkers, I felt increasingly isolated. I dreamed romance would refocus my energies and give my life new meaning. I thought a man would end my loneliness. I became intently aware of the men I passed in the supermarket, the bookstore, the gym. I scanned them like dresses in a department store display, trying them on in my imagination. The most stressful part was trying to sell myself. The few dates I had during this time felt like job interviews. I tried to impress them with my superior girlfriend qualifications and went home lonelier than before.

After one such disappointing experience, I took my dog and headed to the mountains for a week of solitude. This began a process of turning within for solace, refocusing my life from the inside out. I realized I had lost touch with my inner core, that quiet center that bonds me to the rest of creation. That was why I felt so alienated. I struggled to put words to this experience and gradually realized that rather than my job or my dating strategy, it was my relationship with God that was lacking. At first, I resisted using the word God because it conjured up an image of the Lincoln Memorial (an old white man looking down from a throne), an image I long ago rejected. I tried other words—Higher Power, Universe, Great Spirit, Goddess. For a while I wrote in my journal about the "Great Something," but that was too clumsy for the poet in me. Tentatively I began using the word God, careful not to ascribe it the pronoun He.

I now envision God as the unseen source that connects all beings, as groundwater links forest and field. When we love, we affirm our deep connectedness. We open a channel to the source and are refilled like a fresh spring well. In contrast, when we act out of fear and selfishness—operating from the having mode—we reinforce our illusion of separateness. We cut off the source, alienating ourselves from God and others.

Sometimes we try to manipulate God with the same market strategies we use on people. We suggest a deal—"I'll never skip services again if you send me a husband"—and confuse this with devotion. But God can't be manipulated. Opening to the sacred source means letting go of our wish lists and trusting we will be given all we need. It means forsaking the having mode and adopting the being mode. It means trusting in life's abundance. This message can be found in many spiritual traditions, as in the Gospel passage where Jesus tells his disciples not to be anxious about their lives, pointing to the birds of the air which are fed and the lilies of the field which are beautifully clothed. Zen Buddhism offers a similar message: live in the moment; stop sweating the small stuff.

This type of radical trust is difficult to practice. Our capitalist culture teaches scarcity, competition, and faith in hard work. We grow up believing everything we receive is the result of our own earnest efforts, including love. Although I've adopted a lilies-of-the-field approach to material concerns—choosing meaningful jobs over profitable ones—I've been less trusting of love, particularly romantic love. That's been the one area of my life where I always felt anxious, believing that if I didn't run after love, it would never find me. On a deep level, I feared I would always be love-poor.

Reading the courtship manuals, I realized how they play on such fears—fear of loneliness, fear of being an old maid, fear of never having children. Relying on fate is described as "haphazard, inefficient, and unnecessary," and we are cautioned not to believe in magic or (it is implied) God. Instead, we must have faith in the author's advice. The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right promises "a marriage truly made in heaven" for the faithful. The authors proclaim, "The Rules way is not a hobby, but a religion. We keep doing The Rules until the ring is on our finger!"

The claim that The Rules way is "a religion" is revealing. This religion is merely a list of rules followed in order to receive a reward—instead of heaven itself, a marriage "made in heaven." For me, religion is not a way to make deals with God; it is a way to let ourselves be guided and shaped by the source of all love. Religion is like the well that helps us reach the groundwater. It is not the source itself; it is a path to the source. Comparing The Rules to religion reveals another truth about today's secular culture: we worship romantic love in place of God. The wedding ring is a modern golden calf, an idol we dance around, hoping it will save us.

In We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson argues that in Western culture romantic love has "supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness, and ecstasy." This explains why we pursue romance so fervently, cling to it so tightly, and feel so disappointed when it fails to save us. If having a lover or spouse is perceived to be the only way we can experience union, it's no wonder we are so desperate. We long to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. When we seek a partner merely to fill our own emptiness, however, we are not really loving, not really reaching beyond ourselves. A relationship in which two people use each other to mask their loneliness will not ultimately provide the transcendence they seek.

A romantic relationship can help us experience transcendence, as long as we don't make the relationship itself the object of our worship. A deep connection to another person can help us feel connected to all of creation. We see the Divine reflected in our beloved and feel our own divine core uplifted by our partner's love for us. When we think of love as a commodity, there is always a price to be paid. The more I give my partner, the less I have for myself or others. But when love flows through us from the sacred source, then new possibilities become imaginable. Because there is enough love to go around, we never need to ration it. Romantic love becomes an expression of the sacred rather than a substitute for it.

For Sharon, learning to trust that she will always have plenty of love profoundly changed her approach to relationships. Having grown up in an affectionless family, Sharon says that for the first half of her life she lived with a feeling of scarcity, but a powerful experience in nature helped to recircuit her thinking. One day, she stood just below the edge of a lake with water spilling over the top. "I caught water in my hands, and I didn't need to cup it and hold it all. I could see all the water in the world in that lake. I could see the whole system coming, and I knew what abundance was like. Once my body got the message of abundance—and it came from the water spilling through my open hands—I felt that I would never clutch again. I would never have to live in a scarcity model." Sharon states, "I now trust in the abundance of the universe."

Sharon relates this trust to romantic love. "Now, choosing to be in a relationship, I'm more able to keep my focus on the All-of-it, which is the sacred for me. I'm not coming from a place of deficit. I'm coming from a place of abundance. Having a primary partner the way my life is structured now is just a complete gift." She looks upward and says, "I wasn't looking for this. And thank you!" Sharon says her romantic relationship with Mary Amanda feeds her work promoting women's art and culture. "I have more to give my work, more to give my community, more to give wherever I am." Sharon explains that intimacy fosters a powerful energy between partners that can get locked inside a relationship. "Whenever that flow is happening with us, our first response is to start to share it with other people. It's a different way of relating than I've had in the past. We're not looking into each other's eyes, saying, ?Aren't we having a good time here?' We're saying, ?What can we do now to share this?'"


When marriage is seen as a spiritual path, it expands our ability to love, benefiting more than just two partners. It may serve as a nurturing environment for children. Or it may offer one or both partners the support needed to perform socially beneficial work. Marriage may enable two people to consciously nurture each other's life and growth, so all they do is enhanced by their relationship. In this way, marriage enables them individually and as a couple to give more to the world around them.

While in her twenties, quiet and down-to-earth Judy considered living a single life of service to God, feeling that family life and a life of service were incompatible. Now married four years, she sees how her marriage to Michael enables her to serve God in ways she might not have attempted if she were single, such as becoming a long-term foster parent. Referring to their seven-year-old foster son, Judy reflects, "Taking Romanze down to the park to play, or up and down the street roller-skating, having fun with him, is helping the world, but it doesn't look that way. It's not what I had pictured before as helping the world. But if you're really going to be a parent and really be serious about it, that's what you're doing."

Patricia, who leads couples enrichment workshops with her husband, Brad, is enthusiastic about the ways her own marriage has helped her flourish. Now in her mid-forties, Patricia's dark eyes sparkle as she states: "At every turn I can think of when there was something I wanted to do or try or work through, Brad's position was, ?Go for it! You can do it.' So I have felt throughout my marriage, which is now almost twenty-three years, that I've been empowered by it." Patricia notes that she and Brad have not confined themselves to rigid gender roles. "We've easily passed back and forth who's the primary breadwinner," she explains. "In 1978, for him to stay home and take care of our infant daughter while I went back to work was something we had to continually give one another permission for because the permission wasn't there in the culture."

Their marriage also includes the freedom to follow their individual spiritual journeys at separate paces. Although spirituality was important to Patricia from the beginning of their marriage, it was not central to Brad. Patricia states, "We were married thirteen or fourteen years when some things happened for him that fostered his spiritual development, and now that's something that is much more shared by the two of us." She is delighted by this change in him but recognizes that he had to make this journey at his own pace.

Patricia and Brad do not seek "meaning, transcendence, wholeness, and ecstasy" in each other. Instead they seek support for a lifetime of searching. This distinction allows a healthy space in their marriage, enabling each of them to deepen the individual process of self-discovery which in turn nurtures their togetherness. Space allows partners to see themselves and each other more clearly. Space enables them to confront their own incompleteness. Space leaves room for each one's individual connection to God. Ironically, it is only in our individuality that we can really experience union with others or the Divine. If we attempt to suppress our uniqueness in the name of partnership, we will stunt the relationship as well as ourselves.

When we see marriage as a spiritual path, our partner's uniqueness can teach us important life lessons. Accepting our lover's vulnerabilities can teach us compassion. Respecting another's rhythms can teach us patience. Understanding another way of thinking can broaden our perspective. The inevitable differences between two people will cause friction, but if we are open, honest, and committed to the struggle, the friction can polish us, as two gems in a tumbler polish each other.

Marcia, a Reconstructionist rabbi in her mid-forties, has studied both scripture and psychology. Speaking in the measured tone of a teacher, she offers a description of marriage that integrates the ancient understanding of her tradition with the insights of modern psychology. "For me, being partnered is a context for the evolution of my own spiritual growth," she states. "But even more than that, it is itself a spiritual practice." She explains that in Judaism, marriage is considered an important mitzvah, a spiritual imperative that brings people closer to God, like keeping the Sabbath and learning Torah.

Rabbi Marcia explains that marriage is one of the metaphors through which the Jewish people conceptualize their relationship with God: "We bind ourselves to a certain caliber of dynamic and intimate relationship with God that is one of love, and, as in a marriage, also sometimes one of wrestling. Like in a marriage, there is give and take and even sometimes struggle." Rabbi Marcia relates this to the name Israel, pronounced Yisra'el in Hebrew, which means "God-wrestler." This was the name earned by the patriarch Jacob, who wrestled with an angel of God and prevailed. "When we called our people Yisra'el, the "God-wrestlers," we recognized the implications. We wrestle with God with the intimacy of lovers. So too, we observe that in our most personal loving relationships we can experience a most profound God-wrestling. In the intimacy of partnered life, we experience a reflection of our relationship with God."

Marcia says of her own marriage, "I'm thrilled to be in a partnership, and I am thrilled with my partner. We love and wrestle a lot. We complement each other. We support each other. We challenge each other's edges, even in the times of friction. We are each stretched in our encounter with each other's unique perspective. In that encounter, which is framed by love and commitment, there is safety and risk in a tango. For myself, my marriage is an opportunity to grow spiritually and emotionally. I become more."

Being in a heterosexual relationship, Marcia explains, offers the particular opportunity to experience life from a different gender vantage point. She says, "For me as a woman, there is something about maleness that is radically ?other.' I find myself continually challenged to expand my awareness, to embrace the other. This can be at once completing, fulfilling, and mind-boggling." Marcia points out that "maleness" and "femaleness" are also part of each individual, just as both aspects are part of God. "It is exciting to support the feminine dimension within my spouse through my being, as he supports the masculine dimension in me through his being. In this relationship, I feel partnered in a complete and fulfilling way. Perhaps this is why in the Torah, we hear God calling us as individuals not to be alone, but to be in partnership."

Rabbi Marcia points out, however, that holy partnering is not exclusive to heterosexual relationships: "Jewish tradition teaches that Kedusha, holiness, is found within marriage, but in a growing sector of the Jewish community there is increasing acknowledgment that the sacred can be expressed in all committed, loving relationships, including same-sex unions."

Rabbi Marcia's description blends religious and psychological understandings of marriage. The sacredness of human partnership is emphasized by comparing the marriage of two people with the marriage between God and God's people. By wrestling with each other, the couple experiences God-wrestling as well. By locating and honoring each one's feminine and masculine aspects, they more fully reflect the feminine and masculine aspects of the Divine, individually and as a couple.

The wrestling image also illustrates Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's description of marriage as a psychological relationship. Jung asserted that by struggling with each other, two people could discover unconscious aspects of themselves. By integrating their shadow sides and the feminine and masculine energies within each of them, each person could become more conscious, more in touch with their true self. While Jung believed this type of growth was the goal of a mature relationship, he acknowledged that most marriages never reached it, focusing instead on the preservation of the species.

With the consumer view of love, we marry for what we'll get out of it. We may even see psychological growth as something that is for our own benefit, or the mutual benefit of both partners. But when marriage is seen as a spiritual path, it transcends the two people involved. We are not just wrestling each other; we are also wrestling the Divine. Roman Catholics describe marriage as a sacrament to convey that the sacred is present in the joining of two partners. Marriage is a channel of grace, a way of experiencing God's love. In Called: New Thinking on Christian Vocation, Roman Catholic monk M. Basil Pennington writes, "The human heart wants an infinite love. If the marriage partners seek this in each other they are bound to be disappointed and frustrated." Only if they help each other seek God's love, "then their aspiration for infinite love can be fulfilled and in that love their mutual love can be limitless." In this understanding, growth through marriage is a way for two people to experience God.

Many cultures have seen the sexual aspect of marriage as a special experience of transcendence. In Tantric Yoga, sexual pleasure is said to release kundalini, the sacred energy which enables lovers to feel one with the Divine. In Taoism, sex is seen as a way to balance yin and yang, the feminine and masculine energies of the universe, and Taoist men are taught that giving their female partners pleasure is itself a spiritual practice. Although the Judeo-Christian tradition has emphasized the procreative potential of sex—with Christian churches often portraying sex as an obstacle to spiritual growth—both Judaism and Christianity have also taught that sex can be an expression of holiness, uniting physical and spiritual experience.

What all these perspectives have in common is the belief that sexual relationship is a path, not a destination; it is an expression of love and holiness, not a god in and of itself. This view need not devalue the strength of desire, the joy of pleasure, the human need for sexual bonding. Seeing the sacred dimension of sex actually gives it more value than the books and magazine articles that focus exclusively on technique, as if mastering a new sexual skill will make sex meaningful. Unlike the technical approaches that separate sex from soul, most spiritual traditions teach that sex reaches its sacred potential in the context of an ongoing relationship where partners give their whole selves to each other, not just their bodies.

Although the major religions have generally defined such relationships as heterosexual, there is now a small but growing segment of the religious world that also recognizes gay partnership as a potential path to transcendence. This comes from the recognition that God calls people to different forms of loving. For some, heterosexual marriage is the spiritual path that will help them grow toward God. For others, gay partnership is such a path. Still others feel called to a life of singleness or even solitude. To love most fully, it is important that we discover the form of loving meant for us.

The process of discovering our path is itself full of opportunities for spiritual growth. We may come to know ourselves more deeply. We may strengthen our relationship to the Divine. We may learn trust and patience though periods of uncertainty. These experiences will become the bricks upon which any future marriage is built. Those who hope to find a partner may feel frustrated as they wait for the right person to appear or for that person to commit. They may feel they can't begin the journey until someone else joins them. But the path of committed relationship begins with our approach toward singleness and dating. Rejecting the consumer approach to love and learning to trust in love's abundance will lead to a different type of relationship than desperate, manipulative dating tactics.


Late one night when I was in graduate school, my friend Tracy and I sat in my room, our minds exhausted from lofty intellectual pursuits, tittering about the men in our departments. Sprawled across my floor, we each took a piece of paper and wrote out the ten most important qualities we were looking for in a man. I was amazed by how specific Tracy was, down to the preferred lip thickness of her ideal partner. My qualities were much more esoteric. Sympathy with oppressed people was high on my list. So was sense of humor.

I now believe that having a shopping list keeps us from seeing others, no matter what qualities are on our inventory. Several years ago, I began dating Alix, and during our first lunch together, we each indicated we were potentially in the market for marriage and children. We spent the rest of our eight-month relationship running down our shopping lists, checking off required qualities as we found them. Physically attractive, check. Good sense of humor, check. Sympathy with oppressed people, oops! Only after several months did I realize how different our values were. In retrospect, I don't believe I ever knew this man. I was so busy weighing his assets and debits I never stopped to listen to who he really was.

After my relationship with Alix, I realized I wanted to do things differently in the future. First, I revised my checklist; then gave up the list altogether. I began to trust that I would be given all I needed, even if it wasn't in the form I had wanted or expected. I even began to let go of the idea of looking for a partner, trusting that if I was meant to marry, it would happen when the time was right.

Thirty-seven-year-old Betsy has had a similar experience. A professional teacher whose colorful apartment is full of books and dried flowers, Betsy explains how studying A Course in Miracles has changed her perspective on looking for someone to marry. "I sincerely believe that if God intends me to have a husband—whatever God is, that numinous unknown which to me is sometimes as real as the cup I'm holding—then that person will come into my life." Betsy says often a person she really needed to learn from has appeared in her life at just the right moment. "I've had many situations where this has happened, so why not in love too?" she asks. Learning to trust that she'll meet a partner if she is meant to has brought more peace into Betsy's life. "It may or may not happen," she says, "so I really don't worry about it. I've just let that go, and I'm quite calm about it."

Reaching this attitude of calm—what Buddhists call nonattachment—is not always easy. Loneliness, social pressure, and the desire for children can all add to our anxiety about singleness. Yet these factors also offer opportunities to face our fears and come to know ourselves more deeply. For me, a period of being single and hoping for partnership helped me to learn patience. I learned to let go of my agenda and trust in love's abundance. While waiting, I focused on deepening my relationship with God, spending more time in quiet than I would have had I been with a man. Not only did this period of spiritual growth lay the foundation for my marriage, it helped me to learn important lessons that enrich other aspects of my life as well.

Seeking the sacred dimension of romantic love changes our whole approach to relationships. Fiona, a dynamic Englishwoman in her twenties, is animated as she explains how her recent spiritual awakening has changed what she is looking for in a partner. "Their spiritual self would now be a lot more important to me," states Fiona. "I can't say, ?Tom Hanks is my ideal man. I wish I could meet somebody like him.' Neither can I say, ?Well, I'd like A, B, C qualities in my perfect person.' I'm much more willing to wait and see what comes my way and then work out if that's right."

Just as waiting offers many lessons, working out if a relationship is right for us also presents opportunities for spiritual growth. Choosing a partner may help us learn spiritual discernment—the practice of listening within for divine guidance (discussed in the next chapter). Instead of consulting our shopping list, we consult our hearts to see if a relationship brings a sense of peace and rightness. Choosing a partner may also force us to see ourselves more clearly, giving us unique insight into our beliefs and values. "My major relationships have been very influential in my spiritual formation," reflects Helen. Before she married, Helen seriously dated several men whose religious backgrounds were different from her own Lutheran upbringing. These relationships challenged Helen to explore her faith more deeply, spurring her search for a church that fit her beliefs more closely than Lutheranism.

Now a teacher and writer on contemporary mysticism, Renee first questioned the teachings of her Roman Catholic church while dating a Jewish man in college. Although her boyfriend thought the church's prohibition on premarital sex was foolish, Renee adhered to it for over a year. When their relationship ended almost two years later, Renee was devastated. "When Evan broke up with me," she recalls, "I realized I had substituted Evan, or my relationship with him, for God. When that relationship wasn't there, then the question ?Is there a God?' suddenly became very, very important again." Renee notes that questioning church teachings and learning to trust her own direct experiences of God were crucial steps in her spiritual development.

Romantic relationships, their giddy beginnings and painful endings, can force us to confront difficult but profound questions: Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? Is there a God who cares about me? Experiencing ourselves in relation to others may give us new insights into the answers to such questions. Dating need not be just a method for finding and selecting a spouse; it can also be a way to learn about ourselves and the art of loving.

Although making a commitment to one other person offers unique opportunities for growth, we may discover that our growth is fostered by some other way of life. Any form of love that extends us, that demands that we grow, that pushes us out of our selfishness can tap us into the source. We do not need a partner to begin the work of loving. Although discerning a call to marriage is the focus of this book, marriage is not the only way people are called to love. Ultimately my concern is not with finding a partner but finding the path that will unleash the great love within us.

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