In our 24/7 society, staying busy with work, family, relationships, home and community to the point of exhaustion is often viewed as a sign of success. In the long run, this overwhelming “busy-ness” can cause problems like anxiety or sleep disorders, as well as relationship issues.
Trying to balance our responsibilities and emotional needs by hours on a clock is too simplistic, according to poet David Whyte, who also writes and speaks on purpose and meaning in the workplace.
What works better is to honor the three critical human relationships that Whyte calls “marriages.” In his book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationships, Whyte says when these complement each other, life is more fulfilling and balanced. Trying to separate these three relationships simply in terms of equal time can drain energy and meaning from all of them.
Of the three critical relationships, Whyte cautions that it’s important to give each one adequate attention, in terms of time and especially in terms of energy. Opportunities for balance often arrive, whether it’s a new friendship, an activity with a loved one, or time alone in nature or to meditate. It’s our personal responsibility to be aware of these opportunities to nourish body, mind and soul and accept the ones that enrich and balance our lives.
Whyte points out this common excuse, that’s not completely in jest: “I don’t have time. Please give it to me in three bullet points that I can look at later, when I get a moment, when I retire, when I’m on my deathbed or even when I’m actually dead, then surely there’ll be time enough to spare.”
Whyte cautions us to be aware of the true balance needed and to use time and energy wisely. And he does break his suggestions for balance into bullet points about the “three marriages.”
Romantic relationships and deep, long-term partnerships are what come first to mind in this most sought-after, possibly primal, connection to seek a mate for life.
Whyte says most people view this first type of marriage as “...two people entwined for as long as we can imagine the future lasts.”
We know from divorce rates, the dramatic increase in people living together without legal marriage, and changes in gender and family structure that this idealized romantic marriage comes loaded with obstacles and challenges. There’s a shifting landscape that no longer provides a “traditional” foundation for many people.
This marriage relationship is often colored by our childhood, whether we try to repeat the good and loving behaviors we learned from our parents, or find better examples if our parents were entrenched in anger and dysfunction, says Whyte.
While this type of romantic marriage and long-term partnership requires loving attention, respectful dialogue and a commitment to resolving troubling issues, the success of the relationship does not just depend on understanding and working with your partner. The often-quoted comment, “you can’t love someone else until you love yourself” may seem simplistic, but it is essential to take the time to honor, understand and love ourselves first. Time alone in activities, nature or meditation gives an individual more to offer to a romantic partner. No one knows us like we know ourselves, and when we understand and enrich our inner self, we can offer our authentic “self” to our partner. That enriches the marriage and gives it more depth and strength to evolve over time.
In spite of the challenges, Whyte says many people retain an inherent desire to make this “...very passionate commitment and abide by it through any dark and loveless nights of difficulty ahead.”
Work is related to survival, so it combines the practical details of keeping a roof over our head and food on the table with the more poetic or spiritual desire to offer something of value to the larger world.
The trouble with work is that it’s endless, or it seems to be, or we allow it to be.
In many ways, work must be a “marriage,” says Whyte. “Otherwise, why would we put up with so much over the years?” We dedicate ourselves to work to provide for our loved ones, and also if we find work that feels like it’s part of our “destiny,” something that fits us well and evolves along with other changes in our lives.
“Work is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world,” says Whyte.
The “marriage” most often ignored or pushed aside in our busy society is the relationship with our inner self, says Whyte. But this less visible “marriage” is the critical foundation for the other basic relationships.
“What is heartbreaking and difficult about this inner self is that it is not a stationary entity, an immovable foundation,” says Whyte. “It moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world.”
Neglecting this internal marriage with self can hold us “hostage to the externals of work and the demands of a relationship,” says Whyte. “We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out…” If we have that sense of inner authenticity, evolving though it may be, we have the strength to step into our other two major relationships with conviction.
The increasing appreciation of mindfulness and meditation is in many ways a recognition that we need silent time with ourselves to bring the three “marriages” into balance. When these three “marriages” are in balance they complement each other.
Contemplation can quiet the “noise” for a time and allow us to see and feel what’s truly of value in our lives. Meditation and prayer are common to most of the world’s religions, and the universal value of these practices is accepted by a vast number of individuals and mental health professionals.
Most important is that mindfulness and meditation can allow us to see a broader vision for our lives, whether it be considered religious, spiritual or even an unnamed sense of meaning.
The value of silence is expressed in this portion of David Whyte’s poem Sweet Darkness.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
Whyte, David, “Poet David Whyte on Our Work and Purpose,” Psychotherapy Networker, Sept. 20, 2018
Whyte, David, Reimagining Work, Self and Relationships, Riverhead Books, 2009