In her wedding vows for her second (or maybe third) marriage, my sister said, “…as long as this lasts” instead of “’til death do us part.” Was it wry and dark humor, or a pretty accurate reflection of how modern relationships play out? The American Psychological Associates notes that, in Western cultures, 90% of people marry by age 50, and 40-50% of those couples divorce. Divorce rates are even higher for subsequent marriages. Perhaps my sister’s vow reflected her own personal experience as well as an understanding of the landscape of our times.
In Love between Equals, Dr. Young-Eisendrath brings her professional background as a psychoanalyst and psychologist with decades of experience offering couples therapy, her own life experiences, and her lifelong devotion to Buddhist dharma to bear on how we define love, how to sustain a relationship after the first flush by understanding what relationship means, and developing love as a spiritual practice. She notes that modern marriage has come to mean wanting a partner who “gets” you and who affirms you, which has a perfectly ordinary consequence of feeling like you are being untrue to yourself when or if the marriage becomes unhappy. How often I have heard a friend or loved one specifically say that their partner “gets” them; now when I hear that, I will have a deeper understanding when I walk with them as their relationship develops.
One twinned pleasure of this book is the wide range of sources Dr. Young-Eisendrath brings into the conversation, and how well and accessibly she writes. Whether she is reflecting on Carol Tavris’ classic work on anger, Jung’s analysis of one’s inner dialogue around self and other, the Buddhist understanding of dukkha, or experiences drawn from her personal experience or clinical practice, the material flows seamlessly and the reader has everything she needs to follow along.
The book begins with an exploration of personal love (Ch1), then moves to falling in love and taking it personally (Ch2), trusting in your relationship (Ch3), dialogue (Ch4), the streets of love (Ch5), true love as a spiritual practice (Ch6) and finally family, friends, and marriage in the 21st century (Ch7). You could drop into a chapter for itself, but starting with a first read from beginning to end will give you a clear and integrated understanding of what Dr. Young-Eisendrath means by “love between equals.” In fact, one strength of the book for me was the way she frequently circled back to earlier material in order to present as clear and cohesive a view as possible.
In-depth and narrative in focus, this book is definitely not an exercise-based workbook, but the author writes in such a clear and organized way, she is able to walk you through a great many topics so you can deepen your understanding and practice. For example, in the chapter on dialogue, she discusses four skills to learn and practice: speaking for yourself, paraphrasing, being curious and asking questions, and responding. She then explores each skill in depth and tugs at it from all directions, leaving you with a clear understanding of what the skill does and does not mean.
For example, speaking for yourself means using ‘I’ statements. This does not mean “I just feel like you are a jerk,” but it does mean something more along the lines of “I am very sad that I didn’t hear anything from you about our wedding anniversary.” The first is an attack, even under the guise of “I” expressing a feeling, and the second clearly expresses a feeling, the context for the feeling, and leaves space for a conversation. The first turns the relationship partner into an object, and the second opens the door to a deeper understanding of the other and the connection between.
This is a book to take your time with, to reflect on, and to use as a springboard to developing your own relationships as a spiritual practice. I will read it a second time at a slower pace so I can apply the material to my own life and relationships, and practice the wide range of approaches she describes. As I read, I thought frequently of the way Fred Rogers described love: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. … To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” This book will be ideal for anyone entering a serious relationship, those whose relationships are not what they long for, and for those already in long-term, committed relationships who want to deepen and mature their understanding of their loved one, themselves, and the connection they hold dear.
Love between Equals: Relationships as a Spiritual Path
Shambhala, January 2019
Paperback, 240 pages