This summer I attended a wedding of friends in northern Humboldt County, California. The wedding celebration itself was a model of careful and vibrantly creative attention paid to the principles of environmental sustainability. The minister, author Sunny Hill, used environmental principles as the foundation of her advice to the bride and groom. Hill identified six fascinating elements crucial to any healthy living system, including marriage. They are: cycles, growth, resiliency, diversity, sustainability and interdependence.
Every living system goes through cycles. Energy ebbs and flows across Earth’s seasons, and through the life stages natural to all living things.
Two things sustain a marriage through cycles. One is creating room for each individual’s cyclic timing – simple things like who’s not a morning person or who needs to veg this weekend instead of hiking, as well as more complex challenges like demanding work schedules and obligations to extended family.
The other is an awareness of time as a context for a whole marriage, of each moment as a piece of the larger cycle, and not as the make-it-or-break-it instant it might seem to be in a crisis.
According to Hill, “growth is not so much a goal as it is an outcome. It is a natural effect of time and events.” Living systems can grow in size or strength or importance or complexity, or all of the above. Marriage naturally grows, like a child grows from the meeting of two cells, from simple to complex, from completely helpless and dependent to strong and largely self-sustaining, if it’s well tended and nourished.
Resilient systems are able to recover from disturbances when they are adaptable and have built in redundancy which provides a backup system when a vital element is down for the count.
Resilient marriages are built by partners who are willing and able to step in for one another in a crunch, whether it’s picking up the kids or getting the taxes done. And they’re sustained and strengthened by partners who are adaptable enough to keep their footing in times of change, and flexible enough to wholeheartedly work toward the greater good of marriage, even when it’s inconvenient.
A marriage that encourages and sustains diversity is one that respects each partner’s individuality. Living systems sustain themselves through an exchange of the energy, resources and capacities of each individual member. The more each partner in a marriage expands and follows their individual interests, the more each can contribute to the all-important diversity of the system.
According to Hill, “Living systems are networks of interdependence. This forest is possible because of light and heat and earth, system upon system forming relationships and ties, like your family, your friends, and the relationship each of you has to your past, present and future.”
You simply cannot have a marriage in a vacuum. Life, work, personal histories, families, economic fluctuations, children, pets, neighbors, friends and enemies, soccer games, and the Fickle Finger of Fate are all a part of the living system surrounding and interpenetrating your marriage, for better or for worse. In nature, this interdependence is a strength; it can also be a strength in your marriage if you understand its value.
In 1987, a United Nations commission said that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Partners in a sustainable marriage work to meet the needs of the moment without compromising the future of the partners and marriage. Environmentalists frequently focus on what are known as the “three pillars” of sustainability – social, economic and environmental well-being.
These three pillars are definitely relevant to marriage, but the most important pillar of marital sustainability is unconditional love, love that doesn’t keep score, that doesn’t demand its own way, that is grounded in friendship as well as passion, and that is willing to work on differences until a true consensus – a win-win solution – is reached, every time.