Based on a fourteen-year research project, this book explores eight commitments that enhance and affirm lasting partnership. This excerpt is from the first commitment, Centering: "I will create a warm, loving home life and place my marriage at its center."
Whenever I perform a wedding, just before the big kiss, I send couples forth to the "dwelling place of each other's arms." For in marriage, as in life, we come home to one another.
No matter where we are, I believe it is possible to create a sense of home and of sacred space, simply through our intention. The founder of Ethical Culture, Felix Adler, wrote a maxim that appears in many Ethical Society meeting rooms: "The place where we meet to seek the highest is holy ground." What this means is that any place can become a holy place, as long as we bring our most cherished values to bear there. Wherever we go, the sacredness of the ground we walk will be determined by our intent.
Why should our home not qualify as a sacred space? It is, after all, where we rest, gather, and celebrate, where love and comfort are given and received every day. In fact, it is for many of us the single most important physical space in our marriage, a place where layers and layers of meaning are attached to common things. It is a natural place to seek holy ground.
Perhaps it's difficult to see our household in this way because we simply were not taught to think of cleaning up after each other (and other such everyday acts) as a part of holiness. And yet the notion that every place we inhabit is potential holy ground is fundamental to building a spiritually fulfilling marriage. By breathing new understanding into our normal activities, we open the door to enhancing our partnership and our sense of the fullness of life.
In certain early North American nation traditions, with nomads moving from place to place, rituals helped to define the spiritual purpose of the spaces they inhabited. After everyone worked to clear a space in the woods, they formed a circle. A respected elder would then sing special chants while burning incense in four directions-to the east, then south, then west, then north. This signified that the space would be in harmony with the natural environment, so that a nurturing of the spirit of the people could occur within.
A former Hindu neighbor of mine used to light incense to "clean" the air in his apartment in preparation for entering the inner sanctum of family life. Often when the sweet odor drifted up through my window, I stopped and thought about the deeper meanings of his family home and mine. I remember thinking at the time how so many of us have cut ourselves off from the spiritual purpose of space.
There are numerous ways to lay claim to the sacredness of your home. Mezuzahs on door posts are miniature encased scriptural passages that Jewish families can touch upon entering as a reminder of God's presence there. A bound stone at the entry to a Japanese tea garden announces that you are about to encounter another, gentler, and more ordered world. A crucifix on a wall tells you that no matter how deep your suffering, you are never alone. These images are especially powerful because they have all sprung from shared hopes and dreams about how to find fulfillment together.
In the days following the tragedy of September eleventh, American flags were draped on, in, and just outside of homes all over the country. These flags were eloquent statements of sorrow and solidarity, of patriotism, hope, and protest. Some households, with equal fervor, displayed peace symbols on placards. We each have our own particular set of values we broadcast to the world. Most important, we remind ourselves of our highest ideals each time we see those symbols in our home.
We can intentionally bring things into our home to increase the feeling of sanctuary in it. For example, if plants or tea candles soothe you, do you have enough of them scattered about for this purpose? During our wedding ceremony several decades ago, my husband Hal and I had friends ring little bells at various points just for the whimsy of it. Afterward we strung the bells together with a length of wool and hung them on our front door. For many years the sound of tinkling bells was the first thing to welcome us, our friends, and our family. They reminded us in a wonderful way that we were entering a safe space.
The home is both a physical aspect of our union and a natural forum for building, clarifying, and renovating our love relationship. The need for sanctuary is perennial. But the particularities of how we create it will change over time. One decade you may love cozy clutter and the next crave utter simplicity. Never assume that what gave you sanctuary in your marriage yesterday will work just the same tomorrow.
Centering--creating a warm, loving home life and keeping your marriage at its center-is not a static but a dynamic, cycling process. A marriage is strongest when it is able to achieve a dynamic balance, one that involves both give and take. This balance requires creativity. Two artists I married who lived in a studio in New York's Greenwich Village improved their relationship significantly when they adjusted their apartment to allow for what they called "nooks of solitude." They built a sleeping loft, then put his-and-hers armchairs at opposite ends of the room. Next to the armchairs each had a roll-top desk and small folding screen. Then they came up with a creative time-sharing plan. He went out with friends every second Tuesday night, and she went out every other Wednesday evening, each alternately leaving the whole space for the other to roam. It is important to set aside physical space as well as pockets of time to indicate that both individuals in this marriage are separate, sovereign entities, whole unto themselves.
Homemaking, like money, is wrapped up in meaning, and so it naturally raises issues all the time. When searching together for their first house, Nelly and Mike found they wanted different things: Nelly wanted a charming, smaller place in the city; Mike wanted a large house with clean lines and open space, and he looked forward to a calmer life in the suburbs. To succeed, they learned to openly and honestly check in with each other, even when it was difficult. "Once," Mike told me, "I had to say to Nelly,`You don't seem happy with this house idea, but I haven't heard a complaint. How do you really feel?'" Thanks to this emotional vigilance, they were eventually able to find a home that deeply suited them both: a big, old Victorian immediately outside the city, with cozy rooms and a view of the river. In the end what made this solution possible was their commitment to express their desires clearly and to check in with each other whenever one of them was feeling ambivalent.
A steady habit of loving compromise will make us increasingly comfortable with working together. Thus grounded in partnership, we find ourselves better prepared for the stimulating task of balancing our marriage on the high wire of the changing world.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
Does your home provide you with adequate sanctuary and renewal?
Does the arrangement of your home allow you to make choices according to your different preferences?
Are all those within your household encouraged to be truly themselves?
Are the values you hold most dear expressed in concrete ways in your home?
Does you home offer resources for both of you to be inspired, learn, and grow?
Does the atmosphere of your home support repair for both body and spirit?
Does everyone feel heard in your household?
Is this a place where deep meanings of life can be celebrated, where you are made ready to return to the world?
Try dreaming up your own pleasure dome and sharing your ideas with each other. If you want to, make it a hands-on project.or just swap ideas verbally. First play with locations, special rooms, gadgets, or environmental settings. Then consider together if there are any ways to incorporate those daydreamed fireplaces into your current home (more candles, maybe?). If you can't move to the woods, maybe you can buy a ficus tree. See if you can give something to your partner that reflects the deeper needs behind the fantasies. And remember always, your home is an expression of yourselves and of your love for each other.