Very few people are prepared to enter into intimate relationships with others. I could probably argue that no one is actually prepared, because the learning in relationships comes from experience for which theoretical preparation can only take one so far. But I’ve been surprised to witness the degree of ignorance and lack of self-awareness that goes into dating in the digital age. It seems to me that few people have seriously considered why they even want to be in an intimate partnership with someone else, aside from wanting to start a family or avoid loneliness - two good reasons, but ultimately a very small aspect of what relationships can offer in modern times.
An analogy for useful goals and preparedness in relationships that I like to use is working out in the gym to get in shape. One wouldn’t expect someone who has no experience lifting weights to be able to walk into a gym and magically know how to train their muscles without injury. Sure, trial and error is definitely a part of the process, but being armed with a plan, research on proper technique, and/or help from a trained professional has the best chance of leading to the results one seeks. Flailing around and improperly using weights will likely only lead to frustration and injury. And if an injury does occur, it would make little sense to blame the gym and go down the street to another one and expect different results.
When it comes to exercise science, an individual can capitalize on all the information that’s available to develop a flexible plan to achieve the desired result. They still need to do the exercise, adapt as necessary and learn what works for their specific body, but they needn’t reinvent the wheel each time they enter the gym. This isn’t a hard scenario to understand. And yet when it comes to modern relationships, the notion that one could possibly be prepared or *gasp* even learn how to be a better partner is mostly unheard of. Relationships are more often approached with a sense of ignorant idealism rooted in the concept of the “right” person. It’s no more about finding the “right” person than getting in shape is about finding the right gym. It helps to find someone (or a gym) that checks off all the boxes, but you still have to show up and do the work, even when you don't feel like it.
(Disclaimer: Success in relationships and modern dating is not synonymous with marriage or even a lasting partnership. It’s allowing the relationship to nurture the growth of both individuals mindfully rather than unconsciously repeating dysfunctional patterns. Consciously ending partnerships can be profound and transformative, especially when done with forgiveness and gratitude.)
When the relationship is new and exciting, the positive aspects of the Ego-Self are validated and confirmed, in turn confirming the “rightness” of the other person. This early experience seems to satisfy a pre-existing sense of lack or incompleteness, and the neurochemicals mirror the pattern seen in actual drug addiction. But then conflict arises, as it is wont to do in romantic intimacy, and suddenly the shadow aspect of the Self projects dissatisfaction onto the other person. To be clear, this is very different than finding out a partner has traits or qualities that would not sustain long-term partnership; for instance, a tendency to lie, to gaslight or be abusive. Those people are not a mirror for the Self - they are walking trauma waiting to infect someone else with their misery. What I’m speaking to are individuals with sincere intentions of finding loving partners (similar to people who genuinely want to get in shape) who enter into relationships without preparation, a plan or resources to support their journey.
What I would recommend to everyone wanting to build a lasting relationship is to understand the principles of non-violent communication pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg, particularly as it pertains to recognizing unmet needs and making requests; the art of mindful listening; commitment to a daily mindfulness practice (distinguished from meditative trance states of bliss, as I’ll explain below), and access to a good counselor, coach or trusted friend who can help navigate blind spots. These are the tools that a truly committed person can utilize to help foster connection and compassion with their partner, without judgement, so that both individuals have an opportunity for healing within the relationship.
The single most important practice to help a relationship thrive is a personal mindfulness practice. I have found in conversations with others that there is quite an interest in mindfulness, but when I probe deeper, I realize that for a lot of people, mindfulness is conflated with trance meditative states, sought after as an escape from stress and anxiety. There is less interest in disciplined mental training and examination of the Self. While peak mystical experiences can certainly lead to insights, they should not be relied upon or expected to occur as a routine benefit of a mindfulness practice. Attachment to them usually means the practice is not about exploring the character of one’s own thinking. People who escape the critical examination of Self continue the conditioning process of the mind by validating certain belief states or positive experiences at the expense of the so called “negative” ones. But to arrive at an examination of Self and consciousness in which positive and negative don’t exist, in which non-Self emerges, requires a level of commitment that will only help in relationships with others. For if one can make insights into the nature of one's own thinking, it is possible to discover the link between thinking and unnecessary suffering, which is truly the bulk of the current human experience. There is then the hope that unnecessary suffering won’t be perpetuated in the intimate partnership, because it will be minimized as a general experience.
Relationships like this don't just fulfill needs for connection, belonging and love; they become a committed spiritual practice. Modern dating seems a long way from realizing the potential of spiritual partnership, and perhaps that’s intentional: awakened individuals are not easily controlled by society, and if there is one aspect of the human experience that is easy to exploit, it’s the desire for love. But I do have faith that the practice of mindfulness in relationship will rapidly awaken individuals to the truth that loving and lasting partnerships are always available to us, if we choose to come prepared.