Life Lessons from the Garden

“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” – May Sarton

Since it's spring, we thought we'd use the metaphor of gardening to talk about nourishing your relationship and yourself. The garden teems with life lessons. For this month turn your awareness to the wise teachings of your garden. If you don't have a conventional garden, even a container garden on your porch, or potted plants in your home offer valuable lessons. Here are a few:

Water it. This is the obvious lesson everyone will think about. Water is necessary for survival. You “water” your relationship when you get enough sleep and exercise to be really present in your couple partnership.

Feed it. Even a garden needs extra nourishment from time to time. Did you know that blueberries, salmon, spinach, beans, brazil nuts and walnuts, oats and soy beans make particularly good “brain food?” When you anticipate having a challenging discussion with your partner, consider loading up on some extra good “brain food!”

Regular maintenance is important. Isn't it soooo much harder to clear an overgrown jungle of a garden than to regularly pull encroaching weeds? Think of the clutter that can accumulate in your house, the extra pounds that are harder to lose than to keep off in the first place, or the illness that can result from inadequate self-care.

Two relatively simple forms of routine relationship maintenance are:
1. Date Nights. These are regular opportunities for just the two of you to share an experience together. Few couples, especially those with young children, make “date nights” a priority, but everyone benefits enormously from them. Invite your partner to lunch, dinner or a movie. Go for a walk or carve out some time after the kids are in bed to sit by the fire or listen to music.
2. Brief weekly planning meetings. These can be very short. Just review the schedule and each family member's commitments. Don't use this as a time to discuss big or ongoing problems. Just review the week, anticipate possible glitches and brainstorm and plan accordingly.

Pruning improves growth. Removing old habits that don't serve us opens new possibilities for growth in areas that do serve us. The worst old habits are our typical defensive reactions. Usually these are some form of blame, attack, withdrawal, criticizing or getting passive aggressive. Pick one of these that you'd like to prune …and make way for new growth in yourself and your partnership.

It's OK to be imperfect. Trying to grow the perfect rose, or the perfect cabbage, is an exhausting, never-ending quest for flawlessness. “Imperfect” roses are still beautiful and “imperfect” cabbages still burst with flavor, just like we humans. With your own imperfections and your partner's imperfections, you still contribute your own beauty and zest to your family. Don't minimize what you do have to offer.

Pay more attention to your health than your appearance. As author William Longgood wrote, “Over fertilized plants may be beautiful but they are otherwise useless, like people whose energies are devoted so completely to their appearance that there is no other development.” Your internal development will carry you and your relationship much farther than any external beauty.

Take care with predators. It doesn't take long for predators to damage the result of your careful cultivation, in the garden and in life. What toxic relationships, substances and emotions are feeding on your energy and taking away from what you have to give to others? Do you have friends or family members who only see the bad in your partner? Do you sit around and gossip about “how awful men are” or “how scatter-brained women are”? If so, consider how this is undermining what you want to create with your partner.

Transform your trash. The compost heap turns rotting plant waste into a treasure pile of rich, organic fertilizer. What negative patterns in your life can you work to transform? Often the seeds of positive change are found in your worst fights. Ask yourself, what are the repeating patterns in your fights? What are your own “flash” points? When you do this hard work of breaking down negative patterns, the results are often very rich and beneficial to your life.

Thriving in the face of adversity. Consider the dandelion. Reviled by many as an insistent, bothersome weed, it nevertheless continues to proudly display its pert, bright yellow self in lawns and gardens everywhere, thriving in the face of adversity.

Every relationship has its times of adversity. Every partner thinks at times, “Why did I marry that jerk?” Everyone has those really low days where you think your relationship is tougher than anyone else's. How do you face adversity? Do you slog through it hanging your head down, beating yourself up, feeling defensive and resentful? Or do you carry yourself through with your head up and face open, like the dandelion?

Have faith. In a garden, you plant a seed, water it, feed it and trust that it will grow. Similarly, believe that the shifts you make in your life and in your relationship will be worth it. The dreams you hold dear will fully blossom if you nourish and protect them.

Pete has developed a new, one-hour talk about relationship growth. If you're connected with an organization that might be interested in inviting him to speak, please call our office at (650)-327-5915 or toll free at (877)-327-5915.

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Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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