How the Sacred Appears in Intimate Relationships

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Written by Dr. Philip Belove. Dr. Belove, is an author, public speaker, workshop leader and psychologist. Philip received his M.A. from the Alfred Adler Institute of Chicago, and his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Philip’s fascination is with how relationships work. He has taught swing, tango and communication and is a consulting psychologist with GBLA, a management consulting firm. For more writing by Dr. Belove, see Our Response to the Contest about “Hot” Rabbi Couples and What Can You Learn From Feeding Your Dog That Translates Into Having A Great Sex Life.

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How the Sacred Appears in Intimate Relationships.

I was going to call this post, “How to make a relationship sacred,” but that can’t be done. You can’t make something sacred. You can recognize, or discover it. You can’t make it. And there is something sacred within some relationships. However it exists independently of you or your wishes and schemes, and that’s partly what makes it sacred.

What you can do, in response to that sacred something is honor and protect it, or desecrate it. Either/or. I don’t think there is a neutral position.

But first, I’m going to try to define the sacred without using words like “God” and “Spirituality,” words that are equally mysterious and poetic. (I am trying find ways to think about my experience of these things that feels fresh and personal. I don’t want to just listen to elders without including my own voice, especially now that I’ve become elder myself.)

What does it mean when I say something is sacred? I was fascinated to learn that the Hebrew word for “blessing” was very close to the word for a fresh water spring. It also means something set apart.

I like looking at how humans first start using a word. I helps me understand the deep meanings of that word. Maybe the old word for holiness is an ancient metaphor. Suppose we lived in a desert and one day, one of us found a fresh water bubbling up, a spring. Imagine that, water, the stuff of life, coming up out of nowhere right in the middle of a desert! We’d all stop and look and remember this place forever, something we discovered that changed our life for the better. That is what it’s like to find something sacred.

Meeting someone and falling in love is a bit like this. We don’t make it happen. It’s a relationship we’ve stumbled upon and now we cherish it. We mark it off and separate it from ordinary life. We are so grateful that mere gratitude isn’t nearly enough. Like those few other things in our lives that are sacred, we set aside time from all the business to appreciate it, to turn your conscious attention to it, think about how special it really, really, is. It helps us understand beauty. It inspires and energizes us and also brings us peace and contentment.

And none of this happens because some elder told us to do it, at least not in my experience. I do it because I feel compelled by what I behold. The best advice I ever got from an elder in this regard was this: “Philip, Pay attention to what’s happening in front of you.”

Things that seem “sacred” stop us. They interrupt our usual mental chatter. We go, “wow.” That’s one response that sacred calls up in you, at least as I see it in my own life. I also noticed that in the Old Testament, every time an angel appears, the first words are, “Don’t be afraid.” So I think there’s a bit of that in my reactions, too. It’s a “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” moment.

We all want something sacred in our life. Some people say they don’t, but when I hear those folks talk, I’m struck by how bitter and disappointed they seem to be and I don’t believe them.

I think the world around is filled with sacred things but (and now I go back to the advice of one of my favorite elders) we have to be ready to notice them and ready to stop and appreciate.

I suggest that what is most often sacred for us is some particular relationship.

When a relationship becomes sacred, we see something about it as a unique and wonderful gift.

Rachmiel O’Regan, one of the people we interviewed for Rabbis in Love described his relationship with his wife, Reb Shefa, as “one in a million.”

When a relationship is seen as Sacred, it is seen as something that only happens here, now, between these two, something with a texture and rhythm so unique and lovely it cannot be duplicated or replaced, ever.

It’s almost easier to see if we look at the opposite. I know a man who, when a relationship ends, he says, “Next!” In some relationships, partners are interchangeable.

There is even a saying, “The best way for woman to get over a man is to get under another man.” There’s a male version of that, too. This is a way to desecrate a relationship, to make it no longer unique and sacred.

A standard midlife dating advice to think about exactly what you want and then look for someone to fill that niche. It’s like auditioning someone for a role in a play that you wrote. Sometimes this is common in religious orthodoxies. A husband’s role is this. A wife’s role is this. None of this, to me, constitutes a sacred relationship.

The couples in our Rabbis in Love book had sacred relationships but each relationship was very different. One spoke about how after 35 years they are still discovering each other, still in amazement and wonder. That’s closer to the idea of sacred uniqueness – something wonderful and beyond your imagination. Of course to find this, you have to open to seeing it.

When you are in a sacred relationship, in some sense, you recognize its singularity and you recognize each other’s singularity. In that way you recognize it’s sacred essence. We humans can do this.

You don’t need to know this to enjoy your particular sacred realties, but on the other hand, thinking about all this has helped me discover the sacred in my life.

But then, having found something Sacred, how do you protect it?

That’s next…

Can A Relationship Be Sacred To One But Not To The Other?

Let’s look more closely at this and we’ll start with the least sacred way of thinking I can imagine: cold, impersonal, chemical interactions inside the brain. Ah, psychology has a way of getting to the heart of things, don’t you think? The presence of loved and loving partner, may I say, “the sacred presence,” triggers a specific brain chemical called oxytocin.

Now it would be a great mistake, if not a modern one, to reduce all this to oxytocin and say, “Well Really, it’s just a change in brain chemistry.” I cringe. That would be like saying that the chemical level is the only level that really matters. But still, in the presence of the Sacred, we do have a change in brain chemistry and this change makes a change in the way we experience life. Oxytocin makes us get personal and gushy. Oxytocin is the cuddle neurochemical. It appears in the brains of babies and mothers during nursing. It’s in lovers in their sweet afterglow. It appears in the brain when two become as one. It appears when we become part of something bigger than just ourselves.

Other mammals have it, too, and when it’s there, it’s the mark of a deep friendship or more. Writing in The Atlantic, Paul Zak told the story of a dog who played with a goat and became friends. But the story has a strange ending. After the playtime the oxytocin levels in the dog were elevated 48%, almost half again, and that meant that for the dog, the goat had become a great friend. But for the goat, the oxytocin levels were more than doubled, 210%. That’s what happens when you fall in love. The goat had fallen in love with the dog but the dog, yeah, really liked the goat but, no, wouldn’t say it was “love.”

So maybe the difference between a just-good-friends relationship and a sacred love really is a matter of degree. And maybe that’s why a lot of folks say that the trouble with “friends with benefits” relationships is that often one of the partners falls in love. Or maybe it’s a mistake to focus too much on the word “just” in the phrase “just good friends.”

I wish I could remember where I heard the line in the movie. A passionate woman says to a hesitant man, “The fact that I love you is none of your damn business.” But it’s so. I give love at my pleasure and it is a gift. It is not a trade or a manipulation. I’m grateful I have it to give. There’s plenty more where it came from. I’d like being in a relationship where it’s reciprocated. I don’t withhold it when it’s not. I do have limits on where I spend my time and efforts. Those things, unlike love, are not unlimited.

Dr. Belove is an author, public speaker, workshop leader and psychologist. Dr. Belove received an M.A. from Alfred Adler Institute of Chicago, and a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His fascination is with how relationships work.