Relationships as Sanctuary

Intimate relationships and friendships offer one of the best opportunities to practice the loving gesture of sanctuary. The basic premise of sanctuary - that it gives a sense of safety, peace and comfort amidst our worldliness - allows couples and friends to deepen their connection. This is done by honoring each other's occasional need for time and space alone. However, sanctuary is also effective in creating a bond between two people or family members, as in the need for alone time together.

The chaotic nature of modern society begs for heartfelt human connection. Men and women have uniquely different ways to make this connection in a relationship. Oftentimes, these gender-specific differences create tension and conflict. The gift of sanctuary in a partnership is effective in diminishing issues surrounding resentment, resistance, feelings of abandonment, among other "loaded" issues.

Using their 28 years of partnership as a guide, Dr. C. Forrest McDowell and Tricia Clark-McDowell share some of their insights in the following articles, in part excerpted from a book-in-progress: Islands of Grace: Creating Sanctuary in Daily Life.

  • Sanctuary of Relationship: A Man's View
    In this lengthy essay, C. Forrest McDowell addresses issues that every man (and woman) should consider in understanding how sanctuary in a relationship can empower intimacy. [Click]

  • Sanctuary of Relationship: A Woman's View
    Tricia Clark-McDowell shares her perspective on effective relationships in this personable article. [Click]

  • 4 Principles for Creating Sanctuary in a Relationship
    The McDowells outline 4 guiding principles: Nurture the Needs of the Soul, Honor the Otherness, Strive to Reduce Conflict or Tension, and Create Rituals That Bond. [Click]

  • The Signs of Trouble in a Relationship
    Relationship authority, Dr. John Gottman looks at 4 warning signs in a partnership.[Click]

  • Strategies for Resolving Difficulties in a Relationship
    The McDowells offer 12 kind and thoughtful ways to give a relationship more heart.[Click]

  • Criteria for a Lasting Friendship
    Tricia Clark-McDowell offers some sage one-line pointers for fostering abiding friendship.[Click]

  • A Relationship that has the Quality of Sanctuary . . .
    12 short guiding principles that exemplify a relationship that honors sacred space and time.[Click]

  • 18 Ways to Sustain a Partnership
    One day in a park, over a treat of German chocolate cake, the McDowells assessed their many years in partnership. Here's a list of heartfelt advice that can be applied to any relationship.[Click]

  • The Sanctuary of Intimacy
    In her notable personable style, Tricia Clark-McDowell offers a soulful commentary about how sanctuary deepens a partnership.[Click]

Sanctuary for a Minute

Take a break right now. Breathe deep a couple of times. Contemplate on the value of sanctuary in your life by looking at any of the following images.
Blessings in your life!

Click on the title

Enjoy Some Music While You Gaze at the Images
A Simple Rose

from Amber Moon CD by Confluence
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Sanctuary for a Minute

Most couples find that in the beginning, a wall of selfishness divides them as "thee" and "me." But later, with the growth of their understanding of the true nature of love, the wall of separation between these two awakened souls dissolves, and their love becomes the love of God. In that love they know true union, or oneness.

Paramahansa Yogananda

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by C. Forrest McDowell, PhD & Tricia Clark-McDowell

Nurture the Needs of the Soul

  • Acknowledge that every person needs time and space to regenerate themselves
  • Be aware of, develop, and maintain your personal sense of spirituality
  • Engage in those activities and experiences that give you peace
  • Give of yourself in ways that support the sacredness and well-being of others
  • Support the development of the collective soul (Third Body) of the relationship

Honor the Otherness


  • Focus on the other person's positive qualities
  • Acknowledge that each individual is a work in progress
  • See the larger picture of the relationship beyond your personal expectations
  • Let go of your own rigidity and be more accepting
  • Don't expect someone else to think and feel as you do
  • Strive to see God and goodness within the other person and to honor their sacredness
  • Give the gift of sanctuary to one who is in need

Strive to Resolve or Reduce Conflict & Tension


  • Be current with your own feelings and don't push strong feelings under the rug, allowing them to fester
  • Strive for communication that is respectful of each other, with peace as the goal
  • Create a safe/neutral space in which to deal with issues and feelings
  • Reward efforts toward resolution with some positive experience that eases the tension
  • Agree to check-in with each other about any residual feelings
  • Find solace and comfort elsewhere (close friends, Nature, pets, spiritual advisor, counselor, etc.) when resolution cannot yet be reached

Create Rituals That Bond


  • Acknowledge that every personal relationship requires regular periods of special time and space together
  • Seek and nurture the deepest levels of common ground
  • Pursue interests that elevate your sense of shared harmony
  • Be willing to explore new experiences and let go of shared activities that no longer serve the relationship
  • Create a diversity of short and longer bonding rituals to fit the time available
  • Be flexible with scheduling special time together
  • See any bonding activities/experiences as gifts to the relationship, not obligations

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Soul Vessel

"Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not complicated but it takes courage. It takes courage for a person to listen to his own goodness and act on it."

Pablo Casals

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As extracted from The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
by John Gottman,Ph.D.

  • Harsh startup of discussions - When a discussion leads off with critcism and/or sarcasm (a form of contempt), it has begun with a "harsh startup" and is generally doomed to failure.
  • Four types of negative interactions (called "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse")

Criticism - While a complaint focuses on a specific behavior, a criticism ups the ante by throwing in blame and general character assassination, i.e. "What's wrong with you?"

Contempt - Sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor, all forms of contempt, are the worst of the four horsemen because they convey disgust fueled by long-term negative thoughts about the partner. In any discussion, they cause more conflict rather than supporting reconciliation.

Defensiveness - This is really away of blaming the partner and saying, in effect, "You're the problem, not me." Hence defensiveness is unproductive and generally causes the attacking spouse to escalate the conflict rather than apologizing or backing down.

Stonewalling - By tuning out the other person, a stonewaller disengages from an argument and refuses not only to fight back but to listen, make eye contact, or respond in any way. The message is one of total disinterest. According to Dr. G., in 85% of marriages, the stonewaller is the husband. He believes this is because the male cardiovascular system has been shown to be more reactive than the female and slower to recover from stress. It is a biological fact that men are more overwhelmed by marital stress than their wives.

  • Flooding - When a spouse's negativity - whether in the form of criticism, contempt, or defensiveness - becomes so unexpected and overwhelming that it leaves the other shell-shocked, they will do anything to protect themselves and to avoid feeling flooded in the future. Thus they choose emotional disengagement.
  • Body Language - Physical distress symptoms of flooding include elevated heartrate, hormonal changes such as the secretion of adrenaline, mounting blood pressure, sweating, etc. These activate the primal alarm system of "fight or flight" and severely affect one's ability to pay attention, process information, or creatively problem solve.
  • Failed Repair Attempts - Repair attempts are efforts a couple makes to deescalate tension during an argument, thus preventing flooding. (for example: "Let's take a break," or "Wait a minute, I need to calm down."). Humor is another type of repair attempt. When these efforts continually fail or go unnoticed, the marriage is in serious trouble. All of the first four indicators can be present, and a marriage can still be happy if repair attempts are successful.

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The best portion of a good man's life -
his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.

William Wordsworth

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by Tricia Clark-McDowell and Dr. C. Forrest McDowell

  1. After a conflict, walk outside and breathe deeply at least ten times. Keep doing this. If possible, walk for awhile and then find a quiet place to sit and think things over. Let nature provide the nurturing backdrop to ease your pain.
  2. When you are unable to "tender" your relationship, try tendering a plant or a garden instead. Prune, water, weed - not obssessively, but with great care and consciousness. Lavish regular attention on your green charges (even a few houseplants will do), delighting in their incremental growth day by day. Think of your relationship as a plant that needs that same patience and extra special TLC.
  3. Select in advance at least three musical tapes or CDs that can help to restore your peace of mind after a tough day or a conflict. Play as needed, developing a strong regenerative association with this particular music. It will work more and more deeply to heal you. (Some of our favorites are: Faure's Requiem, Deep Peace by Bill Douglas, To Drive the Cold Winter Away by Loreena McKennit, Feather on the Breath of God or any music of Hildegarde de Bingen, Sanctuary by Confluence, etc.)
  4. Place an indoor water fountain in a relatively quiet room or corner, hopefully near a comfortable place to sit or lay. Allow the gentle water sound to soothe your mind, calm your body, and restore your sense of hope.
  5. To cleanse a space where an argument has occurred, bring fresh air into the room.  Then burn your favorite incense or a fragrant candle, or use a spray bottle to spray an aromatic essential oil or a healing flower essence into the air.
  6. Say a prayer of healing, repeating it in each corner of the room and again in the center.
  7. At the same time every day, write an affirmation about your deep intentions for the relationship.(Each day I am creating greater peace and harmony in my marriage  or  The love I seek is already within me, etc.) You may wish to write this ten times or more at the start and close of the day.
  8. In the tradition of the ancient Chinese system of Feng Shui, you may want to create a special altar in the "relationship ba-gua" (corresponding to the back right corner of the room or house, relative to the entrance door, i.e. in the 1:00 position). Place there an indoor water fountain, a nicely framed photo of the two of you, and/or various sacred objects of your choosing. If you wish, hang a set of windchimes or a bamboo flute above the altar (traditional feng shui cure). Pay a mindful visit to this area everyday, even bringing fresh flowers or lighting a candle there for periods of time. Especially go there when you feel discouraged.
  9. Keep fresh flowers in the bedroom, and in other ways make this room an inviting place to be, where a couple would want to spend time together. (Please, no TV)
  10. As much as possible, let your outside friendships nurture your hopes and dreams for your marriage and your own healing, rather then being the recipients of your tales of woe and dissappointment. Complaining about your partner to others can become habitual and serves only to reinforce the negative aspects.
  11. Give thanks for every bit of progress made in your relationship. Believe that together you can achieve your worthy goals.
  12. Become a spokesperson of hope for others who struggle in their relationships.We need to support each other in learning to look and move beyond the inevitable conflicts to that deeper underlying purpose for which we met. Peace is possible, and it truly begins at home.

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All are nothing but flowers
In a flowering universe.

Nakagawa Soen-Roshi

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Criteria for Lasting Friendship

By Tricia Clark-McDowell

  • Unconditional love
  • Open-ended time when together (at least some of the time)
  • Mutual commitment to supporting the other's personal growth
  • Sincere concern for the other's best interests and overall well-being
  • Ever-deepening trust and high-level honesty
  • Enjoyment of each other's company and the ability to laugh and have fun together - even when doing ordinary things
  • Willingness to share or hear anything - no secrets
  • Respectful communication
  • Evolving soulfulness
  • Realistic expectations of each other
  • Ability to turn to each other in a crisis or "dark night of the soul"
  • Desire to bring out the best in each other and to help moderate or shift "the worst" through understanding and patience
  • Lack of manipulation or guilt-tripping
  • Frequent expressions of gratitude for the friendship
  • Patience and forgiveness when something temporarily comes between you
  • Loyalty to the friendship over time and distance
  • Doing whatever is required to stay connected  as the circumstances of your lives change
  • Integrity in keeping commitments made to each other
  • A good sense of humor

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I come here to find myself.
It is so easy to get lost in the world.

John Burroughs, Chapel in the Woods

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A Relationship That Has the Quality of Sanctuary . . .

  1. Honors the need of each individual to have special time and space to themselves.
  2. Insures that time and space is spent together in special ways.
  3. Has rituals that bond.
  4. Values the need to give and receive affection.
  5. Priortizes quality time
  6. Incorporates unconditional generosity and gift-giving.
  7. Acknowledges that each individual is a work in progress and is trying their best.
  8. Contains inspiration.
  9. Accepts that certain interests, activities, and experiences for an individual may be uncompromisable and unnegotiable.
  10. Embraces an unspoken code of conduct that upholds the dignity and sovereignty of each individual.
  11. Has a tone of reverence, gratitude, and honoring.
  12. Strives for peace in every way possible.

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"Only the individual who is solitary is like a thing placed under
profound laws, and when he goes out into the morning that is just beginning, or looks out into the evening that is full of happening, and if he feels what is going on there, then all status drops from him as from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of sheer life."

Theodore Rilke

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18 Ways to Sustain a Partnership
by Tricia and Forrest McDowell (partners 28 years)

  1. Make an individual commitment to your spiritual path and soul's growth.
  2. Commit to changing and healing yourself - do not assume that your partner must do the changing/healing, or that you must change them.
  3. It is essential that each of you have your own support system.
  4. It is also essential that you both have a collective support system.
  5. Have a larger vision that unites your energies (a Big Foolish Project).
  6. Practice these two precious daily arts: forgiveness and humor.
  7. Honor your individual need for occasional solitude; give your partner the gift of sanctuary time as well.
  8. Strive to raise self-esteem through inspiring and growthful activities: art, music, theater, writing, yoga, gardening, etc.
  9. Foster a variety of healthy emotional outlets in order to vent or express unresolved feelings, issues, thoughts, etc. - counseling, journaling, co-counseling, playback theater, meditation, improvisational dance, etc.
  10. Regularly check-in to keep current with each other so that negative feelings, thoughts or issues do not stack-up. Make sure that check-in also includes positive expressions.
  11. Be willing to confront and address potential/addictive behaviors such as: substance abuse, physical or verbal abuse, criticism, cynicism; judging, over controlling, withdrawing, cheating, jealousy, lying, deceiving; consuming, overeating, unhealthy diets, passive lifestyles; too much television viewing, internet use, lazying around, etc.
  12. Spend time together doing fun, simple, loving things (walking, sunset watching, reading).
  13. Maintain a high level of hope and optimism.
  14. Keep open communication about all aspects of sexuality, sensuality and intimacy.
  15. Spend time together regularly in Nature.
  16. Be willing to hear and hold your partner's life story, pain, suffering and grief with compassion.
  17. Maintain a deep devotion to your partner's well-being, highest goals, and individuation.
  18. Above all, keep a deep devotion to the partnership.

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"I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect."

Hermann Hesse, Siddartha

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By Tricia Clark-McDowell

Like the heady fragrances that waft from a secret garden at dusk, the treasures of intimacy call to us even from the depths of conflict. It is a summons as haunting and inimitable as the mysterious scent of a damask rose or the plaintive call of a great horned owl high in the forest canopy. If one does not heed this subtle beckoning from the soul when it whispers ever so softly at these times about the peace possiblebeyond the pain, then there will always be the temptation to give up.

Of course, giving up on intimacy can certainly be justified by the mind at almost any point that pain is strongly felt. No one, after all, enjoys pain, whether it relates to feelings of rejection, anger, dissappointment, betrayal, abuse, lonliness, or sadness. Yet these very feelings can serve to stir up within us a deep longing for love and safety. Such yearning almost seems to contain within it a type of soulful remembering. It's as if we sowed those seeds somewhere eons ago and ever since we've been searching for the garden where we know they are growing. But it's difficult to keep on seeking and believing when we have to face so many instances of failure.

Even more difficult to bear is the frequent and long-term repetition of distressing circumstances within a relationship, month after month, year after year. It all seems so pointless, so cruel. If nothing else, however, such a hurtful situation should eventually serve to remind us that we've given over too much power to our mind and ego. The mind/ego is stubborn and often full of pride. It tries always to preserve the certainty that "I am right". The mind blames others and entrenches itself for battle. It may abhor reflection and the kind of humility that would naturally seek resolution. Instead, the mind seeks, often desperately, to avoid taking responsibility for a negative situation, deftly upholding the sanctity of self at all costs.

The Self (the higher self) is sacred: there is no denying this, but the self (the ego) is more often than not deluded, particularly when it is so busy defending itself from exposure. I spent more years than I care to admit courageously (I thought) fortifying my defenses against the onslaught of Forrest's criticism. Although there is little doubt that he can be very critical (can't we all?), I rarely considered wondering why I was so sensitive. If I delved into that part of my psyche, it unleashed such a torrent of distress that it seemed impossible to continue. Far easier was my typical response to his criticism, which did not take into account whether or not he might be right. I simply lashed back in a surge of anger and then withdrew deep into my shell to salve my wounds.

I developed a tougher hide over the years, but the old wounds still festered beneath the surface. Even when I could maintain a relatively calm exterior (and this took extreme self-control), I still might be seething with anger. I had just mastered the art of concealing it. And I had to run away from any argument that became too intense, lest I explode. Running away from conflict may well be a necessary stage. It is a beginning because it can allow escape from the scene of an intense argument before too much harm is done, either verbally or physically. Removing oneself from danger, however, all too often extends itself to removing oneself from the opportunity to learn to move beyond conflict into the heart of intimacy.

This is where the concept of sanctuary often has its birthing, for if one can escape to a place or state of mind that is safe and non-threatening, gradually inner peace and hope is restored. Once I discovered this place of sanctuary, which for me was a physical place first and foremost, I began to make progress in unravelling the tangled threads that led to the origin of my great fear of being criticized and ultimately rejected. Fear of anything, as we all know, inevitably seems to attract it to us, thus the more I dreaded being rejected, the more I created that reality.

Safe within my sanctuary I learned to suspend fear and later to suspend judgement of my partner as unequivocally guilty of all charges. Instead, I calmed and soothed myself with beautiful music, drew solace from sacred books, found deep peace in meditation. The desire was strengthened to try harder to establish harmony in my relationship. And finally, the path to inner healing was shown to me, allowing me to painstakingly analyze myself and change what was not serving me. At times I had to be very gentle, especially when connecting with my inner child. In other cases I had to be ruthless, exposing my manipulative or selfish behaviors with the cold searchlight of clarity. It was holy work. Peering into the dark recesses of one's pain always is. Yet the soul goes with us willingly into this darkness, guiding us, even prodding us at times, to step nimbly over the corpses and unflinchingly seek out the truth. Being absolutely willing to know and face the truth at any cost is essential, I believe, for the long term resolution of differences.

When you are involved in a major conflict in your relationship, either on an ongoing basis or as a result of occassional flare-ups of one or more hot issues, it is important not to beat yourself up about it. Again, conflict resolution must be seen as sanctuary work. No matter how hard we try, sometimes we can't seem to avoid disharmony. It thrusts itself upon us as inevitably as a snow storm or a sudden thunder shower. Such a painful situation actually offers a marvelous opportunity to peer beneath the carpet or the floorboards to see what's under there. Clearly, to be willing to do this, you must be more curious than afraid, more curious about the real reason for the conflict than angry that it's happening.

The important question is, how do you use the space you take as a result of conflict? Are you merely escaping, running away from that which you are unwilling to face? Or are you busy hating and blaming your partner for their inadequacies? Are you hatching out a plot for revenge or wallowing in a deep pit of misery and self-pity? Any of these behaviors are very normal- for a little while. But the concept of sanctuary work challenges you to be willing to move out of the emotional/reactionary realm and into the more thoughtful realms. Such soulful explorations will eventually lead to a deepening understanding of the origins of your personal pain or anger and a means for healing it at that  place. You may have to travel back in time, perhaps even to your early childhood, to find that source. An old proverb says, "You search for God where you lost Him." God is synonymous with peace of mind.

First, however, you have to come back to center.This is what I was talking about earlier.Claiming sanctuary means putting the focus on regenerating yourself and returning to a place of calmness and balance.(Just as they tell you on an airplane to put on your own oxygen mask first before you try to help anyone else).You can begin this centering process by taking a long walk in the woods or a nearby park.Or you can take a relaxing, hot bath or sip on a cup of tea.There are numerous strategies.

It is especially good, however, if you have a special place you can go that is in your own home or garden. This is where the layout and design of your house (or a certain room) plays a critical role in supporting you in this process. If the house/room is exceedingly cluttered or uninviting, you may simply stay in the negative space you are in, feeling overwhelmed, numb, or depressed. On the other hand, if you have created a space that is relatively quiet, serene, aesthetic, and hopefully private, you will require less time to come back to center. Soothing water sounds, soft lighting, inspiring images, gentle music, and a cozy place to sit are all important aspects of a nurturing environment.

You don't need a large space in which to create a sense of sanctuary. As we are fond of saying, your sincere intention is the most important thing. A comfortable chair in a corner of the living room, hidden perhaps by a screen or a grouping of plants, may be just right for a little retreat space. Again, playing peaceful music in the background may help to make up for any existing ambient noise, whether from your own family, nearby neighbors, or the traffic outside.

Your sanctuary space isn't just a place to go when you are exhausted, burned out, or upset. It's a place that can nurture you on a regular basis, allowing you to form such strong positive associations that you're instantly "at home" whenever you go there. It becomes a sort of touchstone helping you to establish and then maintain a higher level of personal wellness in your daily life.

When you yourself are healthy and physically, mentally, and spiritually balanced, your relationship is much more likely to be thriving as well. Sadly, for many couples there is the expectation that the partner should be everything- the sounding box, the counselor, the entertainer, the lover, the provider, the parent, perhaps, the scapegoat, and the shoulder to cry on. Too many expectations flying around and too many roles for each person to play make for trouble! Who can keep all there parts straight much less remember to say the right lines.

The ability to restore and regenerate yourself is critical. The right place in which to do it is also essential. Otherwise you will be putting pressure on your partner to do this for you when they may be unable to meet your needs because of their own pressing needs. So be proactive. Think deeply about where, when, and how you can take care of the needs of your body, mind, and soul. And allow this to feed the wholeness and strength of your relationship as it expands to encompass your growing insights, wisdom and peace.

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