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Apr 25 2009

The Capacity for Commitment: The Fourth Stage Of The Midlife Transformation In Midlife Singles

Published by at 4:00 am under Advice

I’m going to claim that the mark of maturity in couples is their ability to communicate. I’m going to borrow a phrase from Bill W., founder of AA, and talk about how mature couples engage in something I’ll call “A Searching and Fearless Intimate Conversation.”
Is it really so desirable that men and women share deeply about their lives?

Let me tell you a story. I was invited to a “salon.” That’s what it was called. It was an evening of culture, conversation and pot-luck at a the house of a wealthy widow. Before dinner and conversation a man who played classical piano gave a small recital. He played one of Satie’s pieces and before he played he gave us a little lecture on the piece. He said, “The composer said that this piece should be still, steady, and reliable, like the ticking of a clock in an empty room.” And then our hostess, the widow, who was certainly a mature woman, said, “Yes. That’s exactly how I like my men to be.”

So there are couples who would rather not have a lot of sensitive communication.

I realize that my own view of maturity comes from psychology. And I do wonder about that. Is it possible that psychologists are just describing themselves and setting themselves up as a model of maturity? I find their case persuasive and grounded in research. You’ll have to make up your own mind. That is the condition of being an elder. You have to think for yourself.

The midlife transformation is a powerful developmental shift that changes the way people think about relationships. After the transformation they approach relationship in a more thoughtful and mature manner. What does that look like?

In any field, it takes a bit of study just to know how good, good is. Beginners in any field have no idea how good they are and they tend to over-estimate themselves. It’s the same with maturity. People tends to over-estimate their own maturity until they understand what it is. That is why one mark of maturity is genuine humility.

You can’t just decide to do humility. Humility comes from being tested and taking some hard hits.

Hand in hand with Humility is Charity. I could call it Forgiveness, or Generosity, or Good Will. This is the stuff you need to create resiliency in relationships.

When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, and think like a child and argue like a child, but now I am mature and I’ve put my childish ways behind me. I used to see life as through a glass darkly, but now, I can see it face to face. I used to know things imperfectly. But now, I understand, I know others only as fully as I know myself. In short, there are three things that last: faith, hope and charity; and the greatest of these is charity. (From Corinthians 2:13. My paraphrase.)

“I know others only as fully as I know myself.” There is some dynamic connection between forgiveness, charity, humility and openness to self-knowledge.

In mature couples, accusations are replaced by self-disclosure. Instead of saying things like, “You always do this and you never do that,” partners end up talking about their own fears and doubts. “I’m always afraid you’ll do this and that.” They end up taking responsibility for their own psychology. This is very difficult to do.

The Mark of Maturity in couples is the Searching and Fearless Conversation.

By “searching,” I mean that they are consistently willing to look further into each other and their relationship and thereby, into themselves. By “fearless” I mean that they find enough humility and charity between them that there is no topic, fact, secret, hope, thought, wish or feeling they are not prepared, on principle, to share with each other.

This is no small accomplishment. Listening, like love-making, is one of those skills in which beginners grossly over-estimate their skill. People who do listen well understand how there is always more and more and more to it. It is a skill with virtuosic possibilities.

Ask a beginner how he (or she) knows he is a good listener and you get a range of answers. But when you ask virtuoso listeners they know they are good listeners, you get the same answer from all of them: when you are a good listener, people talk more..

A searching and fearless conversation goes deep and continues for years. This conversation creates the mind and memory of the intimate relationship. The conversation becomes the source of wisdom for the relationship.

Holding the conversation becomes a wrestling match with the Angel, the challenge that creates wisdom, charity, and humility; and, as a consequence, enduring affection in the relationship.

Robert Frost said, “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” The searching and fearless conversation becomes the home that has to handle it all. I think about the utter thrill of being safely and utterly furious in conversation with someone I love, who loves me, who is equally furious back at me. To be willing to face and contain fury like that takes devotion, both to each other and to the relationship. I wouldn’t want to live in that fury, but knowing that, if I have to go there, the conversation can handle it, makes all the difference in the world.

So the mark of a mature relationship is commitment, but commitment to what? I suggest it is to the searching and fearless intimate conversation.

There is great joy in being able to come to someone with all your heart and soul and might. To speak honestly about everything that really matters and have that heard is a great gift. For some people, this is worth more than money, fame, wealth, power or any of the common temptations. This is held to be as good as it gets.

There is joy in being able to share your heart in total candor and generosity. The challenge is being able to provide that gift to your partner as well. It takes a while to develop this capacity. Developing it is central to the work of the midlife transformation.
– PB

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