Intimate Relationships as Training for Service

An Interview with Evelyn and Paul Moschetta
By Melissa West


Drs. Evelyn and Paul Moschetta, authors of "The Marriage Spirit: Finding the Passion and Joy of Soul-centered Love," have evolved a model of spiritual intimacy in personal relationships. So many of us, claim the Moschettas, married twenty five years, try to fix our intimate relationships by focusing on emotional or sexual healing, never considering the state of our souls. They have discovered, in their twenty-eight years of counseling, that most relationship problems arise from the inability to let our spiritual self, our highest self, determine the course of love in the relationship. Marriage, says the Moschettas, is a sacred place, one created when egos fade into the background and the spiritual self emerges.

Given their focus on spirituality in intimate relationships, Personal Transformation decided to pick their brains on how compassion, desire, and right action are woven into the fabric of intimate relationships.

Personal Transformation: What is the importance of compassion in intimate relationships?

Evelyn Moschetta: We see compassion as something that clearly requires going beyond your own self. To be compassionate you must be able to have empathy, which means you actually have to feel for another person. That's different than identifying with the other person.

Transformation: What's the difference?

Evelyn: When I identify with my husband, let's say my husband's brother or sister treated him badly, then I feel as if they've treated me badly as well. If I have empathy for him, I can feel his pain for having been treated badly, but it isn't me, it hasn't happened to me, it's happened to him. I feel his pain, but there's a difference: if I identify with him, I'm not going to be able to see him as a separate individual, which he is.

Obviously, in any marriage, especially a spiritual marriage, we're functioning on two levels. On one level we have to see each other and respect each other as two separate individuals with our own views, opinions, and ways of doing things. On another level, we are one, and there is no difference between us.

Paul Moschetta: What comes up for me in regard to compassion in intimate relationships is acceptance. When we live together there are things about one another that are just different than how we'd like them to be. I think living together on a daily basis is where you find compassion, the ability to really accept the things we wish were different but simply can't be.

Evelyn: With compassion, it's important to have passion for the other person as well. It's not just sexual passion. We're talking about a passion for your partner: being attentive to that human being, being able to focus on that human being, having a true passion and unselfish interest and involvement. When we have that, we are going to feel compassion for that person.

Transformation: Is it possible in an intimate relationship to be too compassionate?

Paul and Evelyn: No!

Evelyn: I should ask, what do you mean by being too compassionate?

Transformation: I'm thinking of the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa's term "idiot compassion," mushy compassion rather than a more strong-hearted compassion, losing your own boundaries in an overpowering feeling for the other's suffering.

Evelyn: That's just what I was saying about staying two separate individuals. If I stay separate, I can't lose my sense of self. In a healthy relationship, my partner wouldn't want me to lose my sense of self. If I've lost my sense of self, then I simply cannot have compassion for you; I'm needy and dependent and insecure and frightened. I'm simply not going to be capable of having the compassion for you that you will need when the time arises. What you're talking about isn't compassion; it's neediness and dependency. That isn't even love. That's a clinging attachment. When we talk about compassion, we mean it in the healthiest, strongest way the way in which a person knows clearly who he or she is, and is able to go past themselves in an unselfish way, to put the needs of the other person first. That doesn't mean you lose who you are.

Transformation: How do we learn to be more compassionate in an intimate relationship?

Paul: We have to begin to see all the places where we're not so compassionate. We have to be willing to look at all the places where our ego rises up and we act in selfish, insecure ways. Evelyn and I talk about relationship being a classroom for personal and spiritual growth. It's an opportunity to really see ourselves as we are. I might think I'm a wonderful guy, but it's only when you live intimately with another person day after day that our rough spots start to show up. We can use these rough spots as an opportunity to learn if we don't attack one another.

Evelyn: It is essential to learn to see how we work as individuals, see how and when our self-absorbed, self-centered self comes through, which leaves very little room for caring about the other person's well-being and needs. To really have compassion in an intimate relationship, you have to be able to be aware. In our book we call it witnessing, being able to witness our selfish self come up on the scene and interfere with our ability to be compassionate.

Paul: It's how we describe spiritual intimacy: using the everyday give and take between us, the difficult moments, as an opportunity to rise above our selfish self and express our higher self.

Evelyn: We don't wonder very often how to be compassionate when it comes to our children. When we love our kids, our hearts open and that selfish part isn't even there. We're just open and giving. But that doesn't mean you're not wise or losing a sense of self. It's not any different in a partnership.

Transformation: So I start to practice this and I notice all the places where I'm selfish. What does self-compassion mean in that context?

Paul: It would mean not beating myself up, not judging myself, not laying guilt trips on myself, just seeing the fact that I acted in a self-centered way, and making a commitment to do things differently next time around. To have a forgiving attitude toward ourselves is so important; it doesn't do any good to beat ourselves up, it just wastes a lot of energy. We need to be compassionate, kind, and loving to ourselves as well as to everyone else.

We're not perfect, but we can commit to being on a path of manifesting the highest that we're capable of doing. We can do that if we just look at the facts of our behavior.

Evelyn: That's so important, and that's why in the book we call that witnessing: being able to observe not to analyze, but just to observe your self-absorbed behavior. That observation means no judgment or criticism or beating yourself up; otherwise, you're right back into your ego. The only way you can lessen the power of your selfish ego is non-judgmental observation.

Paul: Krishnamurti called it being choicelessly aware.

Evelyn: Choiceless awareness has a powerful impact, because when you can simply observe yourself without criticism or judgment, you can immediately let it go; that's just how it was.

Transformation: If a couple consciously practices compassion in their relationship, how might that affect their level of compassion toward the greater world around them?

Evelyn: It would have a very profound effect, because once you are able to be compassionate to one human being, you will be compassionate toward all human beings. You can't go out and save the world, but you can act compassionately toward those around you. People in strong, healthy, compassionate marriages never have a mindset of "us against the world." Instead, it's "you and me with the world." Once you can practice compassion in your intimate relationship, you can automatically practice it with the whole world. You see that we are all fundamentally the same, with the same pain, the same grief, the same joys and fears. As a couple, when we're able to go past our own self-centeredness and care about each other's well-being, we grow and our hearts open and expand. You can't help then but to begin to feel deeply for others as well.

Paul: It's an impersonal compassion then: you see yourself in everyone else. There isn't a separateness. If you're in a relationship that's helping you to grow and be more compassionate, by definition it's helping you to be more compassionate with the world around you. Compassion isn't private, it's transpersonal. It's beyond a self-identity.

Evelyn: With compassion, you're no longer identified with your personal, itty-bitty ego. A good relationship literally bursts open your capacity for love.

Transformation: What is the place of desire, sexual or otherwise, in marriage?

Paul: A good relationship makes me more conscious and careful of what I desire, since most of what we desire seems to make us pretty ill. As a couple grows together, they become more discriminating about what they desire. Most of our desires are about "me, my, and mine," and inevitably bring about suffering. In a relationship where the partners are on a spiritual path, one of the things we can help each other do is to look at the nature of our desires and see if they help our life unfold in a harmonious, peaceful way, or are they desires that literally drive us crazy.

Transformation: What kind of desires might lead us in one direction, and what desires in the other, in intimate relationships?

Paul: Well, my desire for control or power or prestige in an intimate relationship obviously creates competition and suffering. That's the main reason for a lot of couples showing up in our office.

Evelyn: My desire to be right, my desire for things, my desire to expand myself at the expense of my partner, so I can feel better about myself. There's no harm in desiring something material that can bring us harmony, but a lot of people desire things they can't afford and that becomes their priority and their center of being, rather than the relationship. Desire in itself is not bad; it's our compulsion to have to satisfy the desire, and lack of discrimination to ask, "Is the satisfaction of this desire going to add to harmony in my life and in my relationship, or is it going to bring discord?"

Paul: Frustrated desire is a big source of anger, which then gets churned up in the relationship.

Evelyn: A major source of anger in the relationship. What do couples do with frustrated desire? They take it out on each other.

Paul: Frustrated sexual desire leading to anger is very clear. But there are all sorts of more subtle desires that also lead to anger.

Evelyn: In terms of sexual desire, it is clearly an expression of this love that we have for each other, of who we are together in this big picture, expressing harmony and connection and spiritual in-sync-ness. Of course we have a desire to express this at a physical level, enriching our relationship. But if it's sexual desire only for self-satisfaction and self-absorption, then it's going to cause pain between us.

Transformation: Are you saying it is not desire itself that causes pain and suffering in a relationship, but first, what the desire is actually for, and second, a person's relationship to that desire?

Paul: Yes! It's about discriminating between healthy and non-healthy desires, and also about not identifying with that which I desire. I might desire a new car. If I'm not identifying with the desire, then if I get it, fine, and if I don't get it, that's fine too. If I identify my well-being or self-worth with having the new car, and I don't get it, then it's an awful disappointment and I'm going to suffer. Then the relationship is going to suffer as well. If I'm identified with that desire for a new car, if I do get it I'm going to feel good about myself and my life for a short time, a lift, but that good feeling will quickly burn out and I'm on to the next desire.

If I have a desire in the relationship to be right, or to be in control, and am willing to see it, or if my partner can skillfully point it out to me and I don't get defensive, then I can say, what is that all about? and look at the consequences in the relationship.

Evelyn: Or if I have a very strong desire to achieve, if I'm very ambitious, and everything else comes second to that, then I'm not going to be able to give my relationship the care and importance that it needs. And the relationship will pay for that. Many, many people sacrifice their marriages, and their children, for some very self-centered desires.

Transformation: As a couple works to become more conscious, what kinds of desires might arise that could be helpful for the relationship?

Evelyn: A desire for a simple, well-ordered life that's going to give us time together. A life and lifestyle that will enrich our togetherness. If that's a priority desire, that will determine the decisions that we make about the work we do, where and how we live, the vacations we take and the friendships we make.

Paul: The desires become primarily to have a peaceful mind, a peaceful heart, to keep our senses from running away with us because we know that causes agitation. We would still have material needs, but our desires would run toward the non-material dimensions of life.

Evelyn: That doesn't mean not having comfort in life, but it does mean not going after things that we know very well in our heads are only going to increase our agitation and pressure.

Transformation: What does right action mean within intimate relationships?

Paul: They are those actions that keep my partner and my relationship a top priority in my life. Right action means having decisions, values, and behaviors that honor the primacy of my relationship and my partner's well-being on a daily basis. Right action leads to emotional, spiritual, and sexual closeness.

Evelyn: Right action is action which is sane, healthy, clear, and compassionate

Paul: which leaves no trace of regret.

Evelyn: In order to engage in right action, there are certain values that we need to embrace: truth, integrity, harmony, both within myself as a human being, and between us.

Paul: If we value goodness, then our previous discussion about compassion applies here. When you value goodness, you will act with compassion and look to see where you can put your partner's needs before your own. Forgiveness, to let go of things, not hold on to angers and hurts. If you practice these values on a day-to-day basis in your relationship, right action will naturally follow.

Transformation: If we practice right action in our intimate relationships, how does that affect our ability to practice right action in the larger world?

Evelyn: You'd be doing exactly those same things in the larger world. You can't practice right action in your close relationships and act in a contradictory fashion in the larger world. You just can't practice right action over here but not over there. Practicing right action is just like practicing compassion; it's having a larger vision of humanity, seeing that we're all one.

Paul: Being an active participant in the conscious evolution of consciousness. If you have a better intimate relationship, you'll have a stronger family. More loving families make for more loving communities. More loving communities make for more loving societies.

Transformation: As we talk about compassion, desire, and right action, I am reminded of how all the major spiritualities talk about how easy it is to go to sleep, to become unconscious. It's easy to practice these things when we're in a great mood and things are going our way, but how do we work with self-deception and going to sleep when things are not going smoothly?

Paul: We strongly encourage couples to use their relationship as a vehicle for self-transformation, as a classroom to wake up spiritually. When I go to sleep and act in self-centered ways, my partner can call this to my attention if we've made this a conscious goal of our relationship. We can use our everyday interactions to go past our ego. When the ego shows up and causes friction, whether it's a little pinch or a big, big ache, we deal with it in a positive way.

Evelyn: And we make a commitment to letting go of images of ourselves. For instance, I don't want to have an image of myself as this wonderful person and all-loving partner. I want to be real. If I'm real, I've got to be willing to say when I'm not acting in a loving manner. This is, once again, where witnessing comes in: stepping back, observing yourself as you're really behaving, and having a loving partner who can, without attack or blame, show you that this action was not very kind or loving. That gives you an opportunity to look, let go, and correct.

Transformation: It sounds like a key ingredient is that a couple make a conscious commitment to entering into the relationship as a way of waking up and growing spiritually.

Evelyn: We've got to be conscious that we're a team, and we can help each other. It's a difficult task, this waking up, but it's not something that can't be done. We begin also then to honor our relationship as a sacred place that we don't want to pollute with a lot of ugliness and selfishness and unkindness.

Paul: This is the new emerging idea for couples: to see their relationship in these terms. It's a whole new ball game when that's the contract between us.

That's what most men and women are wanting today, especially since the old ways are breaking down, but it's not widely articulated or understood in the culture yet. A lot of couples are still groping around in the dark looking for a new way of relating. This could be a way of turning on the light.

Transformation: This model could help the couple to not only grow spiritually, but directly engage the couple in helping to heal the world around them as well.

Paul: Absolutely. You enter into the relationship as a way to grow, and then you grow beyond yourself into the larger community.

Evelyn: It's practicing love, soul-centered love, at its deepest and highest levels. We discovered it's the kind of love you are able to give and receive when you are fully awake, when you can go past self-absorption. In our book we talk about three kinds of love. The first is nurturing love, when we can listen and attend to our partner, and be there for each other

Paul: to give each other the feeling of being deeply understood

Evelyn: to know that if I'm having a hard time understanding myself, I have here a partner who made this commitment to me and who loves me in a way that will help me understand myself. And then there's intentional love, which means that both of us do everything possible to help the other to grow as an individual emotionally, intellectually, spiritually

Paul: where the other person's growth is just as important as my own.

Evelyn: And finally we talk about revering love. That's the kind of love we give to each other that sends the message that you're important to me, you're a major priority. I value you and appreciate you. I have a deep sense of gratitude that you're in my life. When we are able to give each other these kinds of love, then what happens is that we become strong, independent individuals and, at the very same time, intensely connected.