My husband and I recently saw one of our favorite bands, Guster, perform at a small northeast Florida venue. The three core members of Guster have been together since 1991. They are great musicians that sound amazing together and write enjoyable, accessible songs. I experienced many striking moments seeing and hearing Guster live the other night, but one of the main takeaways I had was how remarkable it is that the band members have managed to stay together for an astounding thirty-two years. Moreover, they are still touring, jamming, goofing off, and seemingly enjoying each other’s company.
Many other bands whose music I admire have quite a different story. Band relationships are notorious for ego battles, drama, and burned bridges. None of David Crosby’s former band members from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were even on speaking terms with him when he died a couple of years ago. And they broke up in 1970. Another of my favorite bands, The Beatles, was only together for a little over seven years. Far from a friendly parting of ways, their business partnership was decisively dissolved by a legal suit filed by Paul McCartney. What is the difference between combinations of people who find a way to work through disagreements to find common ground and those who do not?
This is no trifling question. The science of social dynamics and the ability to “get along” is relevant to many kinds of groups, from bands, to families, to a group of astronauts going on a space mission. The social dance of a group of astronauts can make or break a mission. In fact, the ability of astronauts to work together is so crucial to the success of a mission that there are currently “analog” groups set up in a remote Antarctic location. Close quarters and isolated conditions are designed to mimic a long-term space expedition. Ongoing psychological studies and extensive trainings are underway to explore the question of how humans can best get along, especially when under extreme levels of stress.
What about relationships closer to home? What about lasting marriages? What social skills make a lasting marriage possible, and can anyone develop these skills? As my own marriage began as a band (a duo), I’ve read a number of articles about the survival of bands and marriages and had my share of learning experiences, too. There is actually quite a lot of crossover between the advice for a marriage and a band that stands the test of time.
Some major recommendations I’ve noted are:
- Give every member “a voice,” in other words, allow each participant to have input and be heard.
- Have a “band agreement” in writing if possible. In marriages, this can take the form of a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.
- This could also be an “unofficial” but written agreement between the partners.
- Have some common goals that you are working on together. For marriage, this could be maintaining a stable household for your children or making your retirement plans together.
- Get together and socialize outside of “band practice.” For marriage, schedule date nights and do things outside of your typical “day-to-day.”
- Have side projects. For band musicians, this often means engaging in your own solo projects or working with other bands. For marriage, have some of your own hobbies.
- Take responsibility for your actions, build trust, and learn to forgive.
- Pick your battles. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
- Laugh together — having a “clown” in space missions, bands, and in a marriage can go a long way to dissolving tensions.
Seeing Beyond the Personalities
I recently read a short essay in Elizabeth Lesser’s book, “Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help Us Grow.” She tells a beautifully raw story about her interactions with Ram Dass. She explains that she knew two sides of the man that many look up to as a spiritual teacher. There was the side whose wisdom helped her through her divorce. But there was also the personality with whom her personality clashed!
Co-founder of the Omega Institute, Lesser is respected as a spiritual leader in her own right, and it would seem that Dass and she butt heads on many things on the occasions they tried to work together. Relations between them became so sour, they went for years without speaking! Prominent spiritual teachers don’t often show their “sharp edges” to the public, so I found this personal story so revealing. Where the story gets even more fascinating, though, is when Lesser came to visit Ram Dass after the stroke he had at the age of 65 which left him severely disabled.
This meeting was extraordinary because both sides of the man Lesser had known had fallen away. From his wheelchair, the brilliant orator, Ram Dass struggled to clothe thoughts with words as he once had. But as they sat together, in the absence of pretense, Lesser experienced something profound:
“There was nowhere else to go, nothing to do, no one to be — just now, just this precious day, these shared breaths with a friend. I learned something that afternoon that will serve me for the rest of my life. All along in my relationship with Ram Dass, I had been aware of two sides of the man — the brilliant teacher Ram Dass and the frustrating friend Ram Dass. But now I was with a third Ram Dass, one who seemed to be both simpler and grander than the other two combined. This was not another side of the man — this was his soul, his core, his true self. The other Ram Dasses stepped aside in deference, as if they were merely surface-level apparition; as if the “good” Ram Dass was a temporary ghost, formed of genetic gifts and karmic awards, and the “bad” Ram Dass was made of learned defenses, coping mechanisms, and old wounds. This new Ram Dass, this soul version, contained the other two and transformed them into a whole and luminous being. Of course, the Ram Dass I greeted had been there all the time. It was not just something in him that had changed to allow the soul to shine through. Something had shifted in me too, so that my soul was greeting his, and we had both come home” (pp 75–76).
Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to maintain a lasting relationship is to practice seeing past the other person’s personality. If we remind ourselves that what we deem to be the “bad” version of the other person is ultimately just an apparition made up of old wounds, bouncing off of our own apparition made of old wounds, we can at least gain a more expansive perspective of the situation. The truth is, there is always more to a person than their personality.
Sometimes the personality may be coming through and triggering our own so intensely that it can feel challenging, if not impossible, to see through it. There is also a chance that, even if we can see past the other’s personality, their personality may be toxic to us, endangering us mentally or physically. In this case, we need to make space between ourselves and the other person. We can still recognize that, beyond their personality, there is a soul in there, but it is just not our time to interact right now. It’s still cooking.
There is something beautiful about longevity, and I am just beginning to sense that it is a true treasure. Wrinkles, perfectly imperfect human relationships, knowing someone intimately, seeing them evolve over the years, doing meaningful things together, and growing together over time- it’s quite amazing.
While the Beatles managed to make an immense amount of inspiring music in their handful of years together, I would have loved to have seen them make more. But, then again, perhaps it was simply their time to go in separate directions and learn new lessons on diverging paths.
In any case, I will continue to appreciate the glimpses of longevity I see around me. Such visions inspire me and remind me that it is possible to work through our differences one day at a time.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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