I can't count the number of people I've seen for couples counseling over the years. Struggles in relationships are among of the most frequent of reasons people seek out therapy. How one measures "success" in a course of therapy with a couple is a matter for debate in my profession, I suppose, but if the yardstick is whether or not the couple holds their relationship together instead of splitting up, then I am an abject failure. I would have to guess that somewhere around 75 to 80 percent of the couples I see for therapy end up separating. One of my colleagues calls me "The Separator."
Indeed, when I first see a new couple in treatment, one of my first ground rules is that it must be understood that we are not engaging in a process to "save the relationship." I explain that we are going to use the arena of the relationship to increase the self awareness and understanding of each individual, and then, see where that leads. Interestingly enough, very few people are really thrown by that at first, because by the time a couple arrives to therapy, the relationship has gotten so congested with anger, pain and resentment that "saving it" is not really what they're desiring (even though they will need help admitting that).
But, what causes relationships to end? Well, first let's eliminate the word "fail" here as meaning ending, and redefine it this way: a relationship is "failing" when either the Eros has died and the couple is refusing to admit it, or the flame of Eros is still alive and the partners in question are not doing what it takes to fan the flame so it can grow higher. These are two very different situations and a necessary part of self-work within a relationship is to clarify the problem.
In my favorite Pathwork Guide lecture - "The Forces of Love, Eros and Sex" - the Guide, channeled through Eva Broch, says this:
"Eros lifts the soul out of sluggishness, out of mere contentment and vegetation. It causes the soul to surge, to go out of itself. When this force comes upon even the most undeveloped people they become able to surpass themselves. Eros gives the soul a foretaste of unity and teaches the fearful psyche the longing for it. The more strongly one has experienced Eros, the less contentment will the soul find in the pseudo-security of separateness. How then is Eros different from love? Love is a permanent state in the soul. Love does not come and go at random; Eros does. Eros hits with sudden force, often taking a person unaware and even making them unwilling to go through the experience."
Yes. Many of us have had a taste of that, some of us more than a few times. The Guide calls it "Eros," most of us refer to it as being "in love." I often refer to it as the "Free Pass" from the Universe that gives us a taste of how great existence can be in physical form. But if as the Guide says, Eros can "come and go," then how can we get to "keep it" in the context of one relationship?
Well, the first part of the answer to that is kind of Zen, like Sting's lyric: "If you love somebody, set them free."
Mark Epstein, my favorite Buddhist psychotherapist, in his fantastic book, "GOING TO PIECES WITHOUT FALLING APART," says it this way:
"Clinging is as much of a problem in lovemaking as in the rest of life. In order for sexual relations to be deeply satisfying, there must be a yielding of this clinging in a manner that actually affirms the unknowability and separateness of the loved partner. It is the peculiar convergence of awe and appreciation with pleasure and release that characterizes the best sexual experiences. Separate and together cease to be mutually exclusive and instead become reciprocally enhancing and mutually informative. There is wisdom in this state, not just raw instinct."
So, Part One of how to keep Eros, like anything else you want to "keep," is to let it go. (I know. I know. Keep trying to wrap your head around it. It will come to you.)
Part Two is to try and penetrate that "unknowability" that Epstein refers to, and simultaneously allow your own hidden self to be penetrated, even though you will never be completely successful.
Here's the Guide again:
"Eros strengthens the curiosity to know the other being. As long as there is something new to find in the other soul and as long as you reveal yourself, Eros will live. The moment you believe you have found all there is to find, and have revealed all there is to reveal, Eros will leave. It is as simple as that with Eros. But where your great error comes in is that you believe there is a limit to the revealing of any soul, yours or another's. When a certain point of usually quite superficial revelation is reached, you are under the impression that this is all there is, and you settle down to a placid life without further searching."
Okay, to summarize - the way to keep Eros alive is to first, not cling or grip onto it, or onto the person who is the object of your desire, and second, to simultaneously seek to know that person at greater and greater depths while revealing yourself in the same way. Now, let's be honest - this is rarely done but most relationsihps, mainly because it requires very intensive and persistent self-examination and staying connected to the full range of feelings, including pain and sadness. Many more couples would rather either settle into a "comfortable" relationship without any passion, or have serial experiences with a lot of partners to get that initial rush when Eros provides its universal "Free Pass."
However, on those rare occasions when the "whatever-it-takes" effort is made, the result is a soaring, sublime experience of the depths of love and pleasure and soulfulness that is nothing less than the first and main reason we all became human. And know this, if you achieve such a state at any point in your lifetime, you won't care when it is or how old you are. You won't look back and regret that you didn't find such joy when you were younger. You'll be way too busy being happy and satisfied for regrets.
Now, can it all still end, even if you make all of the above efforts? Well, again the answer is a Zen "yes" and "no." Sometimes people come together for a particular soul purpose, to accomplish something together - like bringing a child into the world, or to work on a developmental task - like overcoming one's repetition compulsions from childhood up to a point. In such a case, the Eros that may have brought said couple together will come to the natural end of its lifespan between those two people. They will fall out of love. Not coincidentally, in such a situation, the couple will lose their motivation to continue the intensive, in-depth revelation process with their mate. So, couples counseling also comes to an end.
Which brings us to another subject for another day - how to end things. So much is damaged and lost during endings because we're so "bad" at them, and fear them so much, when in fact, a healthy ending can be the very crowning glory of a relationship when all of the love that was there and all that was accomplished can be integrated and made permanent in the psyche.
But again, that's a talk for another day.