Imagine you are born into a small community in which everyone knows each other. Your parents are valued in the community and are well supported. As a baby and young child, you are often held, carried, or wrapped against your mother or father, and they are very responsive to your cries for connection or comfort. What’s more, your extended family is directly involved in raising you. In fact, all of the adults in your community keep an eye on you and help care for you.
As you grow, you learn the rituals, customs, and mythology of your people, and you develop a deep connection to the land. Most of your time is spent outdoors playing with children of all ages. When the elders decide that you are ready, they take you through a rite of passage that allows you to leave childhood behind and step fully into adulthood. Through their guidance in your life and through the integration of your right of passage, the elders help you discover and understand your purpose – your unique gift to contribute to the community. Being acknowledged for the gift you have to contribute gives you a strong self-esteem. A mentor takes you on and guides you in mastering your purpose and in developing a healthy humility.
Of course, there is conflict in your community, but everyone knows and trusts the conflict process that the community uses. And the hardships of life, such as disease and drought, are well known by your clan. Nonetheless, there is a strength and resilience in each of you that is fed directly by the interdependent connection you share.
And now, as an initiated adult with a deep sense of belonging and a profound sense of purpose, you are ready for a relationship. Yet again, the elders and the community are there to guide, support, and celebrate you and your lover. A successful, healthy relationship awaits you because your love for your mate is balanced by your passion for your purpose and your bond with your community.
What is the cost for those of us not born into such a community?
The costs are great. Not only does the lack of such a community impede fulfillment of some of our biggest needs – belonging, purpose, support, meaning, being seen – our intimate relationships also pay a huge price. Without realizing it, many people expect a relationship to meet the needs that are meant to be fulfilled by a community.
We have such high expectations of intimate relationships because we are told from an early age that we will be happy and whole once we find our prince or princess, our soul mate, our beloved. Our ancestors would have shaken their heads at such an idea. I imagine their hearts filling with compassion when imagining uninitiated, tribe-less lovers attempting to have a successful relationship and meaningful lives. I can hear our ancestors ask, “Are they really trying to move forward together and even raise a family without knowing their place in the tribe and their true gifts to contribute, without mentors and elders to help them on their path and guide them to become wise leaders? How does that work? Do they have some magical power that we do not yet know about?” And then our ancestors weep when they hear about how this type of relationship does not work. They grieve deeply for our loss and for the cost our disconnected way of living has on the land and on all life.
I am not suggesting with this story that you should not have any expectations for your intimate relationships. I am suggesting that you put as much or more effort into building community, finding and following your true purpose, finding your mentors and elders, and connecting to the land, as you do into building your intimate relationships.
Most of us aren’t able to live in the kind of land-based communities in which our ancestors lived, so we need to piece it together as best we can. There are all kinds of groups that can act as surrogate communities – women’s groups, men’s groups, spiritual groups, therapy groups, social change groups – just be sure it is a group that is an interdependent group that helps you grow and shine brighter. Therapist, coaches and the like can be our mentors and elders, as can others who have the necessary experience and wisdom (be wary of those who claim to have all the answers). A deep connection to the Earth requires consistent time in nature, gratitude, and reverence – some guidance from those skilled in connecting to nature is recommended. As for finding your true purpose, here is my recipe: Rites of Passage/Initiation Rituals; Ongoing Inner Healing Work – integrating your wounds; Following Your Bliss (see Joseph Campbell) – following your dreams and doing the things that truly bring you alive; Guidance and Support. (Note: Your true purpose does not need to be your career.)
If the above suggestions seem overwhelming, don’t worry, you have the rest of your life to explore them. Consistent small steps are better than occasional mighty leaps (although, mighty leaps are called for at times). What’s more, these suggestions will not only improve your intimate relationship, they will give you a rewarding life. Author Esther Perel says that the quality of your life is determined by the quality of your relationships. In my opinion, that includes the relationships you have with your community, the land around you, and your sense of purpose.
Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Eric Bowers is a CNVC Certified Nonviolent Communication Trainer with extensive training in Interpersonal Neurobiology and Attachment Theory. For over ten years Eric has shared his passion for helping people create successful relationships through his experiential and playful workshops, retreats, courses, and speaking engagements. Eric combines Nonviolent Communication, Interpersonal Neurobiology and Attachment Theory in order to give comprehensive information and skills for building great relationships. Eric offers workshops and keynotes for organizations and conferences.
Find Eric’s blog–Where the Heart Meets the Road–and more about his work at roadtocompassion.com or facebook.com/RoadtoCompassionNVC.
Eric is the author of Meet Me in Hard-to-Love Places: The Heart and Science of Relationship Success.