Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Difficult Work of Love

by Michael Bridges

When I first see couples who are struggling in their relationship, I sometimes share this line from the poet Rilke “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” I share this quote from Rilke to both validate their sense of struggle and effort while providing hope that their hard work is ultimately worth it.

A few years ago, I was asked to be one of the keynote speakers at the annual conference of The Pennsylvania Association for Marriage and Family Therapists. In my opening remarks I said, only partially joking, that I had become so frustrated with how useless the DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) was in conducting therapy, particularly couples therapy, that I had returned to my first inspiration, poetry, for guidance. I then shared the following poem. The number of couples therapists who emailed me for a copy of this poem afterwards suggested I had hit a nerve, so I decided to share it here.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

by William Stafford


If you don't know the kind of person I am

and I don't know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.


For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,

a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break

sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood

storming out to play through the broken dike.


And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,

but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty

to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.


And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,

a remote important region in all who talk:

though we could fool each other, we should consider—

lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.


For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


Stafford’s poem offers a darker and more somber vision of the repetitious cycles and legacy burdens that can be passed on from childhood, or even previous generations, that can get triggered in our intimate relationships as adults and end up, “sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dike.” However, I still think his poem harkens to and encourages us to engage in the same “difficult work” that Rilke reminds us is, “…the work for which all other work is but preparation.”



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