In Conversation with Don Rosenthal, Part II

“To open the closed heart one first focuses on oneself: releasing feelings of unworthiness, accepting that the heart is closed, putting space around judgments, and seeing oneself clearly and honestly.”
– Don Rosenthal in Learning to Love

Don and Martha Rosenthal are the authors of a number of books for couples, including Learning to Love, a marriage manual informed by their own experiences as a couple as well as their copious knowledge of psychology and spirituality.

Don and Martha counsel couples in private practice and conduct weekend retreats in which they encourage couples to explore the roots of any personal pain that might be creating conflict in their relationships. They teach effective means of self-examination and communication methods to resolve problems that could lead to breakup. They also teach partners how to be mindfully present to each other even when the message is hard to hear.

Recently Don Rosenthal took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about intimate relationships as a spiritual journey.
(You can read the first part of this article here.)

What is Openhearted Listening? (continued)
This isn’t just some psychological tool I’m fond of. It represents what I feel is an indispensable need in a real intimacy: to be able to hear and understand each other’s emotional reality around things we do that may be unconscious or unskillful. Finally, to let in my partner’s feedback about my behaviour without justifying myself, denying, or attacking them back gives me a far richer vision of how I am contributing to whatever is happening between us.

My usual defensiveness, by necessity eliminated if this process is done well, no longer has the power to keep me blind to all the ways I fail to see the effect of my behaviour on my partner. An immense relief and a deeper trust occur when we both know that no matter how difficult the issue, we will be heard and understood by the other. Knowing this, the most difficult moments can be transmuted into a deep learning and an especially poignant connection.

On Couples Therapy
Couples therapy is difficult, and frustrating occasionally, for short periods, but never overwhelmingly so. I am aware as I get older that I needn’t be attached to results, and this helps me maintain perspective when things seem to be going poorly. I’m also becoming increasingly aware that I don’t know what another’s path should look like. The memory of this keeps frustration at bay.

Tales of Failed Love in Songs and Films
Truthfully, songs or movies aren’t needed for this repeating lesson, because I get to see in the course of moving through my life so many relationships not working out. Not just in my professional work, but among friends and acquaintances as well.

Sometimes I share in the sadness of that, but my understanding of compassion is that it does not entail joining others in their suffering. I am aware of how hard a relationship can be and am inspired by the thought that perhaps one day all our educations will provide the skills needed to maintain intimacy between equals.

Relationship as Spiritual Journey
Martha and I almost split up about seven years into our marriage, having gone through intense difficulties after emerging from Alaska. We saw an opportunity for two people, both wanting to lead a conscious life, to join together to learn how to love more purely by practicing with each other as equals in a lifetime union?a union that serves as a spiritual path.

We realize that our prime task together is to be allies on the path to waking up. We have elicited negativity from each other that we otherwise would never have known?it has been humbling. With two pairs of eyes we’ve seen so much deeper and learned more efficiently.

In a healthy relationship each of us will display our own areas of strength and weakness, and with our strength we can be uniquely helpful in nourishing each other. Along the way we can surely create a lifestyle together that suits us, as well as find many ways to enjoy the journey. It helps to believe that such a thing as waking up exists, is highly desirable, and is possible for us. Such a shared vision, held consciously, has added depth and meaning to our union.

A Closed Heart Never an Appropriate Response
We each had in our Alaskan days certain experiences the world would call spiritual. We saw clearly that love was the only sane response to our partner when they were unable to love us because they were too afraid. In other words, we saw that there was no situation in which a lack of love would be an appropriate response. In such moments of clarity this was highly apparent.

In our usual, less enlightened state, it was sometimes hard to be in touch with this truth and to act on it. The moments of Truth served as a beacon, a reminder to us of the way we wished to be. We saw the spiritual component as finding a different attitude, one that encouraged us to open our closed heart to the best of our ability. We wanted in our union to recognize and confront difficult feelings without escape, to express them without blame, to listen without defensiveness, and most importantly, to work within to transcend them. We remain works in progress.

(to be concluded next week)