Pillow Talk

A conversation with Stephen and Ondrea Levine about lust, the meaning of marriage, and true intimacy

What is a good long-term relationship? When we asked the question around the office and among our friends, we heard a lot of fear and even more relief. Fear because asking questions inevitably rocks the boat of marriage and family. Relief because after we admit that there are few long-term relationships to emulate, we can begin an honest exploration of how to do it differently. Stephen and Ondrea Levine, with three marriages behind them, have made their marriage work for 26 years and have raised three children. They work as counselors and writers, with a focus on death and dying as well as relationship issues. Good relationships are entirely idiosyncratic, they say, but self-respect, clarity of intent, and commitment to growth are the key elements. Ondrea says each of us has to start by answering the question “What do you want out of this very short life?” But ultimately, Stephen says, it’s about “when you get to just loving the ass off that person and you still don’t know what love means.”

Nina: We hear a lot about how relationships begin, and plenty about how they end. But there’s not a lot of honest talk about how to make them last — or, for that matter, why they should.

Ondrea: Once the lust of the first couple of years wears off, once the other person is off the pedestal, and you’re off the pedestal, and you’re facing each other and you see each other’s craziness, frailties, vulnerabilities — that’s when the work really starts. The initial intensity of the passion cools, and love comes to a middle way, a balance. You have to have something more than the fact that you’re in love to keep it going and keep it growing.

Nina: And what is that something?

Stephen: I think relationships persevere because you’re interested in what’s going to happen the next day and your partner’s an interesting person to share it with.

O: Also, the people with the best relationships often have some kind of practice. It can be religious practice, love practice, nature practice, whatever, but they have something that’s so essentially helpful in their growth that it keeps the relationship going.

S: People who get into a relationship who don’t already have something that’s more important to them than themselves — generally spiritual practice and growth, or maybe service work — are less liable to stay with the process when the relationship doesn’t give them exactly what their desire system wishes for.

N: Someone wrote that 35 percent of his relationship comes from the fact that he brings his wife a cup of coffee in bed every morning.

S: What a weak relationship! Boy, that’s a miserable relationship. This guy better get himself another hobby!

O: I was just thinking how very thoughtful that is. Serving each other is exceptionally important.

S: Growth. Growth is also important.

O: Yes, various levels of growth, but certainly heart expansion. Everybody would define growth so differently, but love has to grow, your heart has to open more, you have to get clearer about your intentions, clearer about what you really want out of this very short life.

And it’s so individual; it depends so much on life experience. Love and simple human kindness are of huge value to me, and I find that I’m drawn to people who are thoughtful and kind. I used to be drawn to people who were only wise.

N: It seems like the bottom line is the level of consciousness and openheartedness that we bring to a long-term relationship.

S: In a relationship, we’re working on a mystical union. That’s a term that came from the Christian tradition, but it’s part of almost all devotional traditions. And it means uniting at a level way beyond our separation. After 26 years, the line between Ondrea and the Beloved is very, very blurred. In that context, you may ask what happens when two people’s goals change. Well, if they’re working on becoming whole human beings, they’ll change in a whole way, whether it means being together or separate.

N: Growth and service and practice are important. But what happens if you have those intentions but there are kids and hectic lives and petty annoyances and betrayals? How does mystical union accommodate that?

S: But that’s what everybody has to work with. I mean, if you can’t get through that stuff, there is no mystical union. If only mystical union were so easy — if people could just lean into each other’s soul space, as it were. In fact, people think they’re doing that, and it’s actually lust, generally. We say that love is as close as you get to God without really trying. When people live together, maybe they do feel each other’s soul, maybe they do feel the Beloved, maybe they both enter the Beloved. But mind arises, preference arises, attitude arises, inclination arises.

O: We raised three kids, and we certainly had our share of times when our hearts were closed to each other and we felt separate, but our commitment was to work on that and to work with it by trying to stay open, trying to understand the other person’s conditioning, because our conditionings were so different.

For instance, what you might think of as betrayal I might not think is betrayal, so all of that has to be defined in a relationship. How I might work with betrayal, you might not be willing to, and that’s part of what you have to work out with your partner. Some levels of betrayal are workable, and some are not worth putting in the energy for some relationships. There’s no right way other than your way.

S: And betrayal is a loaded word. A lot of people naturally feel resentment in a relationship because there are two people with two desire systems. Sometimes they’re complementary and sometimes contradictory. And when someone doesn’t get what he or she wants — it can be something so simple, like not enough gas in the car, little things — the feeling of betrayal may arise. Now, sexual betrayal, that’s something else entirely.

N: What do you think about the possibility of open marriages?

S: Raging bullshit. Well, it’s fine for young people who don’t want a committed relationship. But you might as well kiss your relationship good-bye once you open it. I don’t think there is such a thing. People who open their relationships open them at both ends. The relationship becomes something you’re just passing through. There’s no place for real trust. There’s no place where you’re concerned about the other person’s well-being more than your own, which is what relationship is, which is what love is. I’ve never, ever seen it work, and we’ve known some extremely conscious people.

N: But when I look at the carnage in so many marriages, I think maybe we need to step back and look at the whole agreement. There are many, many different kinds of love, and maybe we’re just being too narrow.

O: We’ve known a couple of people who have had multiple relationships within their marriage and it’s worked out for them, but it takes a certain inner strength and a depth of self-trust. Part of why marriage has been set up is because of trust, and keeping track of lineage and money and paternity and all that stuff. I think it’s all based on trust, and we don’t seem to have the capacity to trust deeply unless it’s just one other person.

S: Then again, for some, sexual betrayal is like an active catapult. It can throw them right into God. It can clarify their priorities.

N: So you’re saying that an open arrangement undercuts intimacy?

O: So many people nowadays run to divorce court because it’s easier than trying to work it through. And it’s so exciting to go on to that next new relationship, where someone really loves you and doesn’t know your frailties. I know many people who keep going from relationship to relationship because it’s easier. Although they wouldn’t say that. They wouldn’t even think of the children. They would only think of themselves, and that’s okay too, but I don’t think you get as much growth.

S: That sex thing, that’s way overrated. Way, way overrated. Because if two people love each other, the part that becomes most interesting in sex is the part that may be the least interesting in the beginning. It’s the quality of taking another person internally. I don’t think people realize, with our loose sexual energy, the enormity of letting someone inside your aura, so to speak. To let someone closer to you than a foot and a half, you are already doing something that is touching on universal wonders and terrors.

As the intimacy becomes more intimate, though the sex may not be as hot, the intimacy becomes much hotter. Much more fulfilling. Sexual relationships actually become more fulfilling the longer they go on if you start getting by all the hindrances to intimacy — all your fears, your doubts, your distrust. Sex has an exquisite quality to support a relationship, not because of the skin sensory level, but because of heart sensory level.

N: What significance is there in the formality of marriage? The contract?

O: That depends on your conditioning. For us, marriage meant that we were going to work as hard as we could. But we both said that if the other person wanted to go another way or had a major epiphany or wanted a change in life, we would honor that.

The contract gives you a sense of security that both people are willing to work as hard as they can. I certainly don’t know that the marriage contract is for everyone, although I think it can be helpful with kids. Then again, I’m 60, and that’s an old style of thinking. That’s why I think nowadays maybe a six-month marriage contract might be more skillful. The most important thing is to be honest about how you see your relationship: Do you see it as ’til death do you part, do you see it as until you just can’t stand each other, do you see it as until the kids are 18? Anything is workable.

N: I’m thinking about children, this container we call family. For me, there’s a certain mystical union in families. Sometimes “staying together for the sake of the children” is actually about honoring this idea of family.

O: Of course we didn’t stay together for the children, because we’re both divorced and had children.

S: It’s only my third marriage . . . I’m working at it!

O: I got married for the old reason that many women in my generation did. I was pregnant. I didn’t really want to get married, but I would’ve been a puta, a prostitute — looked at as a lesser woman in those days.

I think that it mostly is an empty relationship when you’re staying together for the kids, but we have known some people whose love for their kids was so great that they became more brotherly and sisterly, and it worked very well for them, but that’s pretty rare.

S: And usually when people are in that kind of disarray, the children do not benefit from their staying together.

N: Are there other options than the train wreck to divorce?

S: Depends on the individuals. It depends on their spiritual practice. I think it has a lot to do with their toilet training.

O: Oh, we’re screwed.

S: What I mean is that our earliest self-esteem and self-image comes into play. The most beautiful thing about love — and the most difficult — is that it makes us go back to our unfinished places and relationships and, maybe, finish them. Your partner is the person who helps you do that, not by serving you, but by serving as a mirror for you, by his or her own honesty. By observing our partners’ struggle to be honest we learn to be honest ourselves.

N: I just see so many people who are either rushing to divorce or living in dead marriages. They seem afraid to ask these deep kinds of questions and have these kinds of conversations.

O: I have worked with thousands of people who are dying, and I have heard several common complaints on the deathbed. The first was: “I wish I had got a divorce.” Mostly it was fear: They didn’t want to start all over again with someone else. Oh, some people were happy. They said marriage was the most wonderful ride of their lives. But many were unhappy. They wished that they hadn’t let fear get in the way. But, you know, to wait until you’re on your deathbed to start reflecting on what your needs are — it’s not too late, but it’s awfully late.

N: That’s a lot of procrastination.

To learn more about the ideas of counselors, teachers, and writers Stephen and Ondrea Levine, visit their website at www.warmrocktapes.com

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