Relationships as a Spiritual Path
Friday, November 13, 2009

By: Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

The concept of spirituality is derived from "spiritus," meaning vitality or the breath of life. That force awakens us like an electric charge. Staying connected to that energy strengthens and enlivens our soul. Our relationships present a constant opportunity to tap into this power.

We can practice spiritual ideals, such as faith, truth, surrender, patience and compassion in our relationships.  They have a synergistic effect, reinforcing one another and strengthening us.

Faith allows us to surrender our well-being and self-esteem to something other than another person.  It gives us the courage that we will not disintegrate from loneliness, fear, or shame, enabling us to risk rejection and separateness from our partner, or loss the relationship.  We can then be more honesty about our feelings. This integrity builds a more resilient sense of self, allowing for the expression of our vulnerability and the presence of unconditional love - all generating intimacy, healing and strengthening the soul. Moreover, when unconditional love is present, it disarms our partner, making it safe to tell the truth. Each time we risk being vulnerable, more freedom and trust grow in the relationship. Our ability to risk grows, and we achieve deeper levels of self-acceptance and compassion. Our anxiety, and the need for defensive behaviors that cause problems in relationships lessen. In this way, we become more present, and our lives become more rich and vital.

Acceptance and the ability to surrender require patience, which comes from faith. If we want to relinquish manipulating and controlling our relationships, we must have the confidence to listen and to wait, despite our impulses and anxieties that may have destructive consequences. This requires courage. If fears and defenses get activated, we may hurt the relationship in our attempt to maintain it. But if realize that we are both on a path of mutual discovery, open and honest communication can replace attempts to manipulate and control.

Compassion develops from surrendering the demands of the ego, from self-knowledge, and ultimately self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is essential for satisfying relationships, in that we can only accept and have compassion for our partner to the degree to which we accept and have compassion for ourselves. We begin to understand our partner's struggles and become less reactive, making it safer for both to be vulnerable. An attitude is of acceptance, rather than clinging and expectation, supports unconditional love and healing.

Loving, non-interfering attention and honest communication create a safe, healing environment of unconditional love where we can let down our defenses.  Its presence feels exhilarating if we are not trying to hide. Such intimacy supports our wholeness. By risking trusting our vulnerability and defenselessness, we begin to see ourselves and others more clearly, releasing our past conditioning and emotional blocks.  We hesitatingly walk through our fears, they evaporate, and we become stronger.

If two people are committed to a spiritual process and willing to work through old programming, relationship can be a haven for two souls to experience themselves and each other in a space of love, respect, and freedom. It is an exciting path to the unknown, a path of self-discovery and the divine. We uncover who we truly are, our divinity, in the intimate presence of another, and realize that we are enough, that our wholeness and self-acceptance does not depend on what others think, but on self-awareness. We discover that the defenses we thought kept us safe and made us strong, only fortify feelings of inadequacy, and become obstacles to intimacy, growth, and real inner strength. With such honesty, a healthy relationship will flourish, and an inappropriate one will end.

Suggestions for improving the quality of your relationships:

1. Identify and communicate your fears and guilt.
2. Clarify and express your wants and needs.
3. Lovingly express your hurts and grievances, using "I" statements without blaming your partner.
4. Always take responsibility for your own feelings and behavior.
5. Learn to listen without judgment, but from a desire to fully understand your partner. Try to see the world through his or her eyes. When you don't understand, ask for clarification.
6. Learn to observe each other’s defenses from a non-judgmental point-of-view. Track your own defenses. This in itself begins to change them.
7. Be willing to receive feedback non-defensively.
8. Always realize that there are no victims and no villains - that there are two parties to every transaction, and be willing to take responsibility for your own part regardless of whether or not your partner does. Remember growth is for you.
9. Try to always be vulnerable, direct and honest.
10. Work through things as they come up. Don't stockpile resentment; otherwise, each postponement becomes a block in the next communication.
11. Be willing to negotiate - knowing that your highest good involves your partner's highest good.
12. Realize intimate relationships require a commitment of time, from a half hour of intimate contact a day in your primary relationship to a half hour a week in other relationships.

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, with a broad experience, working with individuals and couples for more than twenty years. Her focus is relationships and career goals, helping clients lead fuller lives. Formerly an attorney in the corporate and private sectors for 18 years, she's familiar with career challenges and transitions. Both in private practice and as a Senior Mediator in Los Angeles Superior Court, she mediated Divorce and Child Custody and Visitation Disputes.She's also worked extensively in the field of addiction and co-dependency at numerous hospitals and treatment facilities. Helping substance abusers and their families find recovery has been a rewarding part of her practice. She's familiar with 12-Step Programs, but has a client-centered philosophy, encouraging each person to determine his or her own abstinence and treatment goals.