What would you call a couple that lives in separate houses, doesn’t eat meals together, dates other people, and splits custody of their children? I would call this couple separated and if they aren’t already I’d say they will be divorced soon. We have this similar separation from our neighbors and our community and yet we don’t say we are divorced, we say this is normal and the way we are supposed to live.
I am twice married and both times our relationship changed significantly after we got married and lived together. In my dating experience there was often much time apart, and before we saw each other there was a discussion about where, how, and when we will be reunited. Then there was the parting of ways and saying goodbye for the night or maybe forever. For me that’s the real difference between dating and being married, we are uncertain where we stand and if this person is going to be in our life and for how long. Probably the real question we need answered is does this person have my back, and do I have their’s?
Who has our back?
This is the big problem with “dating” our neighbors and community, we don’t know who has our back or who we can count on, we are perpetually in limbo. Conscious or not this usually leaves us all feeling anxious and unsafe. We all came from tribes who were dedicated to each other and did pretty much everything together and shared almost everything. I believe we are hard wired to live in this communal way, and even if we are unaware of it we all are suffering the pain of not having a dependable intimate community.
It seems all humans for as long as anyone can remember, regardless of tribe or nation had some form of marriage as the primary family unit, and tribe or village as the primary support system. The two appear to be inseparable and one cannot thrive without the other. Village elder and traveling spiritual teacher Sobonfu Somé said her marriage could not survive without the support of her community. I had a huge aha moment when I heard her say this. It’s not that marriage and relationship are hard, it’s that the way we practice them we are missing a crucial and essential part.
We build our proverbial family houses on sand, and wonder why the walls are cracked and the pipes are breaking and the floor is sloped, it’s a miracle only half of our modern marriages end in divorce. Also I suspect this is why the stereotypical “free love” hippy communes often fail, open uncommitted relationships feel unsafe and clash with our nature. Studies on marriage say that both women and men are happier and feel more content when married, and interestingly enough they say marriage is measurably slightly more beneficial for men.
It’s been my experience that when people have close daily contact we rub up against each other mentally and emotionally and this causes friction, the marriage vows of better or worse and richer or poorer reflect this idea that relationship includes challenging times. If we aren’t committed to each other then as soon as we hit this friction point and we don’t like the heat, we are going to and often do run away from each other. To paraphrase the Imago theory of relationship there is a part of us that is unconsciously seeking to recreate past relationships that are scary, hurtful, or traumatic. We need to revisit this wound in order to have a different outcome, a positive outcome where we learn how to handle this situation and feel cared for, as this heals the wound.
Listening to a couple’s counselor explain this and then guide us through an exercise the light went on for me. I connected deeply with the feeling of being seen and heard for the first time by family, and I know without a doubt that this is what it feels like to belong to an intimate community. I have learned I can trust my feelings and the more time that passes the more I sense how similar my wife and my father are, for me this further validates this idea that we keep repeating life’s lessons until we really learn and can demonstrate our understanding. It’s been said the universe will keep sending us, or we will continue to be attracted to, the same “actor” in different forms, so rather than leaving we might as well commit to unconditionally loving who we are already with and heal and grow together.
What about abuse?
I define abuse as a dysfunctional attempt to get our needs met using violent words or actions. The times as a kid that I felt abused it happened behind closed doors and out of view of neighbors and friends. From what I have seen people behave abusively in private and then behave exactly the opposite to friends and in group gatherings, and these people are almost always shocked if they later hear of the abuse.
Could abusive behavior survive in close intimate community? Or maybe a better question is would abuse happen at all? If we are born into and raised in our natural tribal environment, where all are needs are known and met, there would be no reason to behave abusively. When I’m feeling seen, heard, valued, needed, and welcome, my cup overflows with love and naturally pours onto others.
Hearing Martín Prechtel talk about village life it seems relations, property, and business are so intertwined, commingled, interwoven, and tied up that nobody knows where one begins and the other ends, as being able to pay back a debt, divide, compartmentalize, or otherwise separate ourselves orphans us from each other.
Sue Johnson in her insightful book Hold Me Tight gives us a history of orphans, and the trauma that being abandoned causes both emotionally and physically. Orphaned children that were clothed fed and sheltered, and yet starved of being held and loved, suffered severe sickness and even died. Further she tells us that children who have an abundance of loving nurturing care, affection, and feel securely attached to their caregivers grow up to feel more emotionally stable and more willing to take risks. Knowing without a doubt that we are safe, we are more willing to adventure and explore away from the nest. In other words so called tough love and punishment are not loving at all and leave us feeling anxious and are devastating to our well being.
A model for success
Divorce, depression, addiction, suicide, these are all symptoms of a much larger problem, a problem that didn’t exist in the tribes and villages of our ancestors. Even though there are many wonderful people working to solve these afflictions, how can we truly find a cure if we don’t heal the root cause?
I just finished listening to Sebastian Junger’s wonderful audio book: Tribe. One fact that leaped out at me is that in colonial America there were frequent occurrences of European colonists running off to join the Indian tribes never to return, and it was unheard of for any Indians to abandon their tribe to join colonial society. For me this screams loudly and clearly that there is something alarming inhuman about our modern way of life. Crevecoeur said of Indians in his frontier experience, “there must be something in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted among us.” When we separated ourselves from each other and abandoned our tribal ways we lost something that is essential to humans thriving, and it cannot be replaced or found in modern life.
Does this mean in order to be happy we need to give up technology and modern conveniences and live barefoot in mud huts?
No, and at the same time we might voluntarily do so. My wife and I did a short surf trip in southern Baja at an off the beaten path beachfront hotel. They had WiFi and a poolside bar and an opulent Villa with a cliff side pool that was absolutely stunning to see, and it was all beautiful and fun. The highlight of the trip for me was when two nights a week wood is gathered and a bonfire lit on the beach with a circle of chairs around it. We and the other guests walked down and sat around the fire sharing our stories. No phones or cameras or sounds systems, one of the oldest technologies – fire, was all we needed.
I had a similar experience on a martial arts retreat at a large beautiful home in the Sierra Nevada mountains. A small group of us who arrived early sat in inexpensive old patio chairs on the deck, the air was crisp so we huddled together in a small patch of sunlight for warmth. We sat in a half circle, in full view of the forest while birds sang, intimately talking about life purpose, our gifts, and what that looks like for each of us. This is one of the best and most memorable experiences of my life, and other folks in the group said the same thing.
Often I have very pleasurable high tech gear and gadget filled fun days, and yet the highlight is digging my bare feet in the sand and giving a few moments to connecting with nature.
I used to wear expensive feature loaded thick soled high arch sneakers and hiking boots, and the pain in my back, knees, and hips got progressively worse. The pain disappeared when I ditched the shoes and made the transition to barefoot. When I spend most of a day on the internet and on social media I often feel disconnected and alone. When I then light a candle and burn some sage or go for a walk in nature I feel much better and connected.
I used to go to the gym and workout on the latest muscle building and cardio machines while listening to newly downloaded music on my headphones, I could not stick with it for more than a few months and I did not meet any friends there.
Since joining a martial arts studio that teaches ancient practices I feel like I am a welcome member of a part time tribe where I am valued and needed. I have been going there for years, and several of us students commute an hour or more to attend. The next logical step is going beyond the part time “dating” of a tribe and getting married to them.
Matthew McConaughey has a line in the movie Contact where his character says, “What I’m asking is… are we happier, as a human race? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology?” At the time I couldn’t hear what he was saying and I thought it was a stupid question by some preacher who even worse was also a bureaucrat.
Now I get it, and I’m asking similar questions: After having separated and divorced ourselves from our tribes and each other, are we any happier, and is the world a better place? When I have adopted ancient practices that have stood the test of time my life has improved significantly, I feel so much better. So why not go all the way? We have everything to gain by reclaiming the way of living that we humans are proven to thrive in.