During this evening walk with my friend, Tony, we talked about what sustains a relationship between a man and a woman.
Relationship advisers have a standard list of key elements of a successful relationship: Compatibility, communication, trust, understanding, respect, honesty, acceptance, etc. Of course, sex is very important too.
In the West, many couples flock to Tantra workshops in search of some kind of deep connection and an erotic love that is both sexual and spiritual. Tantric orgasm seems to be the Holy Grail right now. If you visit a Tantra group on Facebook, chances are that you will see many advertising and promotions of Tantric workshops and gatherings. I have mixed feelings about this Tantric focus. On one hand, it is encouraging to see that people are now realizing that sexuality and spirituality are not in conflict. Tantra is believed to be a way to integrate the polarities. On the other hand, my gut feeling is that the current enthusiasm in Tantra is also driven by hedonism. People are seeking pleasure, although pleasure is not wrong in itself.
There is also relationship expert, such as Esther Perel, who wrote the book, Mating in Captivity. She is bold in revealing the problem with marital sex. It is true that Eros relies on a sense of danger and novelty. Too much familiarity and stability has the potential of killing off Eros.
Tony is newly wed. In our discussion tonight, it is interesting that we come to an agreement on what drives a fulfilling and sustainable relationship. I opened the conversation by mentioning the importance of friendship between the lovers. Western culture seems to see friendship and erotic relationship as almost mutually exclusive. There are many people who are afraid that once a relationship evolves into a sexual and erotic one, then they would lose the friendship. Based on my decades of experience, however, I see the friendship as the most basic and foundation. The strength of the friendship determines whether a relationship will last. After all, romance is often driven off a chemical reaction that typically does not last.
Tony agrees. He came from mainland China. In mainland China, a common way to address one’s lover is “my comrade-lover.” Even before any consideration of romance and sexual fulfillment, what determines the viability of a relationship is a sense of comradeship. I like this use of the word “comradeship” — comrades are people who have fought wars together and have gone through life-and-death situations together. Comrades look out for each other and care for each other in dangerous situations. Life’s journey is often a turbulent one. Is the friendship deep enough to keep two people together through the major storms in life? If there is anything that can anchor a relationship, it is likely to be such deep sense of comradeship rather than romance or sexual pleasure.
Another key ingredient in a sustainable long-term relationship is compassion. Again, compassion is seldom brought up in the context of erotic love. But the truth is that each one of us is likely to be a little broken by past events. Such brokenness can be due to a previous divorce, betrayal, or some kind of traumatic event. The older I get, the more I feel that in a deep, intimate relationship, the lovers are there to help each other heal. A commitment and the strength of their relationship make it safe to reveal past wounds and vulnerabilities. This is what intimacy means — to trust one’s partner enough to reveal one’s dark past and deep wounds, and have the faith that one’s partner can help one heal. This is how compassion comes in. With compassion, one can feel one’s partner’s suffering and cultivate deep understanding.
I am now even more convinced that a sustainable relationship is one where the lovers are each other’s comrades and helpers. Yes, romance, orgasm and sexual fulfillment are important. But, in the end, it is about love. The authenticity of one’s love is based on one’s willingness to serve the other, look out for the other’s best interest and make the other person’s well-being as top priority. It is about mutual nurturing and joyful service.