And who's the Jedi? It's Master Relationship Coach Charles Zook. Here's his bio. Charles Zook, MBA, CPCC has been coaching professional and personal relationships for over 20 years and he loves it. He has advanced systems coaching training from the Center for Right Relationship and has worked with for-profits, e.g. Unilever, non-profits, e.g. Stanford Medical Center, and governmental agencies, e.g the State of California. What inspires his work with well over 1,000 couples is not only the impact it has on the couple, it is the impact it has on the children. His work allows clients to create fulfilling relationships and is so effective his only source of clients is referrals. He and his wife, Sandy, consider their relationship a laboratory for how to have challenges in relationship and know how to address them effectively. They have two adult children and a grandchild.
I'm turning to you because you have achieved a level of mastery in relationship, and the world needs what you have to give. As a lifelong letter writer, I extend my heartfelt sharing and asking, in this letter, to you.
Since I was a kid I've noticed that people's lives really seem to be wonderful if their relationships are healthy, and not so fulfilling if there is a lot of struggle in their relationships.
I've seen marriages end, mostly without much dignity or grace, and wondered why it seems so hard to complete with appreciation, when there was once such a shared sense of care. I've seen siblings, who were the best of friends for decades, tensely part ways after a parent dies simply because they didn't know how to handle the big, challenging feelings involved. Shouldn't we be taught this all of our lives?
I have so many questions about intimate relationships... between couples, parents and children, siblings, business partners... you name it. Here are a few I hope you'll share your insights on.
Jessica: Why is it so tough to be in committed partnership?
Charles: In supporting so many couples with this issue, the biggest impediment to creating fulfilling relationship is the idea that it should not be so tough (or challenging, or effortful, or time consuming) to be in a committed relationship. We live in a culture where we are taught that when I meet the "right" person, we will live "happily ever after", as the oft told story goes. When we get in a relationship and inevitably it moves beyond the superficial level, very predictably we encounter not agreeing about something or unskillfulness that results in misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
Without any models or education about how to work with these very understandable challenges, we are left with the mythology of the culture. If I am not "happily ever after," then you must not be the "right" person, so I have three bad choices.
1) Just do what I have seen others do, argue, defend, attack, make wrong, etc., which results in nothing really getting resolved or improved.
2) Get out of the relationship with this person who is obviously not "right" for me, because if my partner was the "right" person, it would not be this hard, and go back out and try and find the "right" person with whom it would be easy to live "happily ever after", and try again. Or,
3) Give up. Give up and stay in relationship, or give up on being in relationship at all, and just live out your days never finding a way to feel loved in this way, or to share your love with another.
The alternative to these options is to realize that contrary to what the culture teaches us, committed relationship, in my opinion, is the most challenging thing humans can undertake. Potentially very rewarding also, if we learn how to do it. Climbing Mount Everest, easier. Starting a successful business or career, easier. Being a Buddhist monk, easier. Committed relationship, constant challenge, constant growth and learning, 24/7/365. Intensely challenging and can be intensely rewarding if we are willing to undertake it as a learning environment on how to love and be loved.
Jessica: In romantic partnerships, few couples seem to maintain a shared spark after years of committed relationship. How do the couples who have this spark keep the fire alive?
Charles: Couples who keep the fire alive keep choosing to do what would keep the fire alive. Instead of continuing to do all of the things that made the relationship special early on, most people let the relationship decline.
In practical terms, when we do not know how to resolve challenges, it becomes harder and harder to choose to do the things that would keep the spark going. Couples who keep the spark going make very intentional choices to do the things that keep the spark going. In simple terms (and it is not simple), they focus on their goal of what can I do to keep the spark going rather than not focusing on those choices. When the relationship is young, we are highly motivated to make sacrifices for what is sacred to us, having our partner feel loved and appreciated, desired, special. As time goes on we are less motivated to make those sacrifices and we lose something sacred, the opportunity to share our love with each other in a way that has our partner feels special and desired. Commonly, we would rather be right than in love, and sadly, when we don't make sacrifices to keep the spark going it becomes the new normal that the spark is gone. This really sets the stage for loneliness and pain, which leads to more "hurt people hurting people", addictive behaviors, affairs, etc. All of which is super poor modeling for the next generation to be left with similarly poor choices.
So what keeps the spark alive? It is very different for each individual and couple and it even evolves over time. You have to want to discover what it takes, which can be an amazing adventure.
Jessica: Whether siblings or business partners, romantic couples or best friends, what does it take to be in a deeply fulfilled relationship? What's their secret?
Charles: BIG BIG question, teeny tiny answer. Tell the truth with yourself and each other that you want it and make it a priority to do what it takes to create it. Be willing to learn and try things and discover what moves you closer to your shared vision of fulfilling relationship. Accept that this is not the same for every relationship, we need to discover what works for us, which is complicated and takes sustained effort. Learn how to do better at building the positivity, the good feelings between the two of you. And, learn how to do better at dealing with the negativity in a constructive and effective way, the miscommunications, the hurt feelings, the incompletions. Be willing to be intentional about making the relationship a priority, especially when it does not feel like your inclination. Compassion, curiosity and intentionality are big pieces. Be learners and learn more about this, IF it is important to you.
I realize these are very partial answers to very complex questions. I hope I have been even the smallest bit helpful. All humans desire to love and be loved. It is hard work to create it and it is very lonely to give up on creating it.
Thank you for being so passionate about relationships, and devoting your life to seeing them thrive, so the people in them are fulfilled and can give more of themselves to create a more love-filled world.
With enormous gratitude,
I used to think intimate relationships were all about romance. I had watched enough Disney movies and chick flicks, swooning over the guy who constantly dotes on the girl. It seemed dreamy to be in a partnership where "we always get along" and that seemed so very possible based on the movies and fairy tales. Disagreements were a sign of failure, because couples who always got along were the happiest... right?
Well, actually, there's no such thing.
Sure, in the beginning of many relationships, there is a period of time where the waters between you and your partner feel like they're sparkling, when you're so enraptured in the newness of this person, so enamored with the way you feel in their company, that a significant disagreement seems almost impossible.
Arguments have no room here. This time is meant for feeling what it's like to fly together -- because later on, if you stick with it, you'll need to know that this sense of flying is possible. You'll need that early state of ecstasy to keep you rooted in doing the work that long term intimate partnerships are meant to offer.
The truth is, relationships are always mirroring back to us precisely the work we need to do in order to grow spiritually. While companionship is certainly a jewel of committed partnership, the big gift it offers is the deep and brilliant beauty it can illuminate within us. Relationships are the core of life; they present us with the greatest opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth, and for joy.
All my life I've been observing relationships. My own, my friends', my parents'. Real relationships, not the kind in movies. I've watched what makes them thrive, I've watched what deteriorates them, I've watched how people tolerate mediocrity even when their insides are screaming out for something more fulfilling. I've watched the courage that it takes to let them take each partner to a higher level of being.
I've felt suffocated in my own partnership, feeling I'd done everything in my capacity to rise to the occasion and "do the work," finally choosing to end the relationship because it had milked everything out of me. It had served its purpose; it was time to move on. Staying would only be an attempt to force something to work that wasn't working. And damn, I took good notes that time around. One of the notes was that I could only do my own work; I couldn't do somebody else's.
What's become clear now is that if we are to rise to the occasion as a species devoted to advancing our potential spiritually, we have a stellar tool in relationships. (Here's a recent talk on Oprah by Marianne Williamson called The Spiritual Purpose of Relationships.)
Whether you are:
Then, I want to say that all the love in the world is "on your side." The key factor here is your desire. If you are ready to see a shift, even if it involves stepping out of your comfort zone -- and it likely will -- then it is simply a matter of knowing what's true for you, honoring it in word and action, and inviting your partner to step into this place with you.
For me, the rigorous personal and spiritual work of intimate partnership has required stellar support, both from friends and family members, and from mentors and a coach. I have able to stretch myself spiritually only because I've asked for and received help from others who care for me.
Energetic applause goes to anyone doing "the work" of intimate partnership. It is far from easy, and everything you do helps to make this a world with more skillfulness and compassion between people.
P.S. Walt Disney has contributed a lot to the world of family entertainment, but Disney films have not been so good at presenting a guidebook for real life relationships.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a lifelong letter writer, Love-based leader and eternal fan of Mr. Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.