There were times after a tense disagreement or beguiling misunderstanding with my wife, where I would wake up in the middle of the night, anxious and sweaty, staring at the back of her wild mane of hair, pondering…
If only she would be more…
I used to have the same relationship to my wife as I did to nature.
I was in awe of her natural power and wild beauty.
I loved being around her when she made me feel good.
But I was a cranky and controlling mess when she did not.
I have the seasonal allergies (to many natural stimuli) which mirror this in my marriage.
The truth is that for most of my life I was a consumer and an addict of nature and intimate relationships.
Green spaces and intimate moments of physical connection, both provided a profound experience of awe and wonder, losing myself to something greater. Both also evoked a cocktail of intoxicating emotional charges riding through my body.
Being a therapist and a relationship nerd didn’t mean I was above seeing my own relationship as a means to an end — chasing the high of feeling in love.
As the conflicts within my marriage intensified, my condition became worse, not better. I grew to expect more and more from my partner.
Here was my reasoning back then:
Now that I found the one, pursued her and then chose to spend the rest of my life with her, she needed to know my heart better than I do and give me what I needed, when I need it!
Sounds like a toddler, doesn’t it?
I’ve had a lot of emotional growing up to do!
But, it was the garden which played a great part in my becoming a better partner, lover and friend.
I attribute three factors to my marriage not imploding ~ like every other relationship I ever had ~ and instead to it gradually evolving into a bond I am deeply grateful for and more committed to than ever before.
First, my wife didn’t give up on us even when I was being so selfish and stubborn. She saw the best in me, the potential in us, and played the long game, as a patient gardener herself.
Second, I agreed with my wife to buy a small home with a large yard over-grown and needing a lot of care (to my chagrin at first).
Third, I overcame a lot of my insulated stubbornness and decided to join her in tending to the space.
Spending time and learning to become one who tends a gardener ~ not ready to claim the title of “gardener” just yet ~ transformed the weed infested raccoon dominated wilderness into our natural sanctuary, a small urban farm and our family’s favourite play space.
But, more importantly, the act of learning to garden and engaging with the land has transformed my relationship to my wife, deepening our love and I would even say saving our marriage.
How you might wonder?
Changing Perception — How I SEE “Our” Relationship
In the early years, after a lot of deep disappointment, resentment and grief, I came to slowly realize something obvious — in hindsight.
Our relationship — like our garden — does not owe me anything.
I wrote about this mental disease recently — how as parents we have the Parental Entitlement Delusion.
Well, an even greater blindspot and source of suffering for me has been my being under the spell of the SED — Spousal Entitlement Delusion. The pervasive belief that she should just know what I was feeling and exactly how I needed to be held, talked to and regarded.
What helped me shake out of this pervasive spell?
Desperate, I reached out to experts.
One of them sent me an email mentioning an ancient fable…
The Story of the Golden Goose…
In the version that he recounted, it was a farmer who had a goose who laid one golden egg each day.
He was delighted at first (like me being in love) but grew to become complacent and desiring of more (like me in our marriage).
Not being one to hold back his greed, he eventually took an axe and you guessed it… sliced the goose open.
To his dismay, only to find no eggs, a dead goose, and his conscience to wrestle with.
Right away, I knew that this “myth” spoke a plain and profound truth, one which the science of divorce and my own gut instinct also supported. This cautionary tale was like an ice bucket challenge which woke me to my own entitlement and neglect of our marriage.
As my mind began to change about my marriage, I began to relate to my (I mean “our”) garden differently.
I started to see our relationship as Robert Bly would call it, a third body…
A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do not long
At this moment to be older, or younger, or born
In any other nation, or any other time, or any other place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or not talking.
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.
The man sees the way his fingers move;
He sees her hands close around a book she hands to him.
They obey a third body that they share in common.
They have promised to love that body.
Age may come; parting may come; death will come!
A man and a woman sit near each other;
As they breathe they feed someone we do not know,
Someone we know of, whom we have never seen.
~ from Eating the Honey of Words (1999)
Our relationship is most obviously our third body while the garden is also our common landscape and body of care and love between us.
Changing my BEHAVIOUR — How I TREAT My Partner and Our Garden
“We don’t care for others because we love them. We love them because we care for them.”
The act of tending to another is what binds us and creates the experience of love.
There are daily habits to grow like the practice of appreciation which many couples, like the Hendricks discuss often as essential to cultivating lasting love.
And the experts on the science of relationship, The Gottman’s, remind us that it’s daily small acts of connection which balance and grow our emotional bank account.
Changing my EMOTIONS — How I FEEL About Marriage and My Wife
There’s a deeper layer alive as well.
When the garden started to change my perspective and behaviour, there emerged also the negative emotions which may still some days get in the way of love, like weeds which strangle and crowd the plants we wish to nurture and grow.
What is needed at times is a type of “healing” or what I consider as needing to pull out those weeds — at their root.
The song “Digging In The Dirt” by Peter Gabriel speaks to the vulnerability and tenderness needed to tend to the weeds in ourselves and one another.
I’m digging in the dirt
Stay with me I need support
I’m digging in the dirt
To find the places I got hurt
To open up the places I got hurt
Digging in the dirt…
To find the places we got hurt…
But, wait! Changing my mind and how I saw relationship ~ a big paradigm shift ~ and daring to get real and heal ~ acts of courage many of us avoid ~ was not all that the garden inspired in me.
How Power Plays Out In Our Garden…
Here’s another key angle ~ how we negotiate power together.
My wife, Maria, is not only a force of nature, but professionally a nature consultant and gardening visionary.
So concretely, we work (err, rather relate to and steward) the land adjoining our urban home together.
We’ve learned to be smart and efficient in dividing the labour. We each do the parts we know how to best while learning (a bit) to do what is harder for us by swapping at times.
She is the brains and I the braun. When I dive in to move big things and do grunt work, she buzzes around like a bee to tending to overall harmony while going into detail to address pests, plant new life, and generally finesse the scene.
What it all amounts to is a great exercise and test for me as the man in how well I take (or resist) her influence.
Many a time, I wanted to bulldoze a section (easier and faster).
Other times I was eager to claim a corner and make it be something I imagine as fun and personally meaningful — not knowing much about how the rest of the garden relates, whether it’s good soil or appropriate sun there.
End result, I get “blocked”. My generous attempts get frustrated. And I get humbled about how little I know.
I used to huff and puff and walk away grumbling. “Stop lecturing and patronizing me!”
These days, as the garden works her magic on me. And as I understand the fluid balance of the ecosystem of our relationship a “little” better, I have more grace with her and myself.
I am learning, slowly that…
The needs of the garden come first.
And within the space between us…
The needs of our relationship come first.
And another most obvious profundity…
The garden needs regular attention and care.
It’s never-ending what needs care.
Looking at the future…
I don’t mean just us getting old together.
A recent brush with death and a dance with cancer has prompted me to ever consider the very end, and then working backwards…
To be committed to the tending of love means embracing losing everything you hold most dear.
Love goes through ebbs and flows…
And just like in spring when new life emerges,
there is a time as well when everything dies eventually…
This truth is undeniable, even more ancient and primal than philosophers ~ like the stoics , Buddha or Lao Tzu and Confucious ~ could capture thousands of years ago.
Accepting (gradually and reluctantly) this utter reality of impermanence has impacted me two-fold.
One, is it has made me want to savour each precious moment with my wife and loved ones. As the Roman poet Horace first stated “Carpe Diem” imploring us all to live fully and enjoy the pleasures of the moment, to literally, “pluck the day.”
The second realization impossible to ignore is as the poet Virgil wrote “Amor Vincit Omnia”, which translates to “love conquers all things” which he followed up with “let us too surrender to Love.”
Our legacy as a couple and as stewards of this land is how we are shaped and changed by one another’s acts of love….
The actual garden we tend these days will one day be paved over, tended by another, or it may go wild.
What I am committed to making certain is that when we turn to ashes and dust, the love we grew in ourselves and in one another, will be passed on to our daughter, our family and friends.
The precious gardens we tend are inside each of us.
The ones we tend in the world reflect this reality.
Last words, for now…
Let me encourage you dear reader to take hold of the time you have left, to not search for love but tend to growing it within your own heart and in your garden ~ as both the literal and the psychic space ~ between you and another you hold dear.