Radical Marriage: Anyone Will Do (in theory)

What is the point of working on my marriage if my partner isn’t doing likewise? Doesn’t it take two people to make a relationship work? Should I bother to seek individual counsel and direction?

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Two Men Courting Girl’s Favor, Norman Rockwell, 1917

Remember that you create half of the relationship. Anything that you do better, in either giving or receiving, can only improve the situation. Of course, you cannot arrive at a consummate marriage, a reciprocal union, from only one side. But you can move towards it. Your healthy human needs will not be adequately addressed by your stagnant partner. (This is a problem that needs a separate discussion.)   But you can grow in wisdom and love and partially reshape a relationship that will then look and feel different to both of you. Your personal growth continually renews and updates the invitation to your partner to join you in a dialogue of eros.

The soul purpose of life is to grow in capacity to love. Philosophy and psychology alone will not get you there. Love is too big of a mystery to tackle in the abstract. A bottom-up approach is needed. Start with an example, not a concept. Perhaps this soulful purpose adds to the basic desire for romantic coupling. Grow to love this specific, flawed, frustrating, infuriating, ordinary person in front of you. If you can love any one particular person unconditionally, unrestrictedly, unreservedly, then you can love anybody. Then you will know a greater love than connects all things. Ironically, what seems like an individual, one-sided endeavor actually helps you participate in something even more inclusive than your marriage. So, yes, working on “relationship issues” by yourself is still worthwhile.

In this sense, it does not absolutely matter who that specific person is. The beauty and the suffering of marriage is that any person, fully revealed, is difficult to love. Some are more difficult than others, of course, and we all might prefer a shallower learning curve. Since perfect love is not attainable and all are equally worthy of love, you are ultimately tackling the same project with whomever you choose; it just has a different shape. And it’s the same project no matter how many times you choose.

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Marriage: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Renewing or reneging on the marriage commitment is, for most people, their biggest discernment ever. Many factors go into the decision, but the core dilemma is often integrity versus suffering. Commitment means something; it has enduring power within conscience (though its limits are rarely explored). Marriage highly structures social and private life, thereby creating family. Will anyone recognize me once I am suddenly single? Will I recognize myself? A commitment to a central structure largely constitutes integrity for the married person.

farmer-and-bird-1923

Farmer and Bird – Norman Rockwell – 1923

On the other hand, divorce presents an escape hatch for a world of hurt. Humans instinctively look for the first available exit from suffering. Do I work indefinitely to improve the relationship with no guarantee of success or eject now? Ending the immediate pain and dealing with any side-effects later sounds like a big relief. It might even be the most charitable move in the short- and long-term for all concerned.

I want to put in a strong disclaimer here that in any particular marriage, the question of “should I stay or should I go” is a personal one. Family, friends, spiritual advisors and marriage counselors cannot answer the question for you and should not judge your answer afterwards. With that proviso, as an example, here are my criteria for remaining in my own marriage.

My Non-Negotiables of Marriage

The dignity of the human person has primacy in all human affairs, including marriage. You are the final guardian of your own dignity, which is the object of an appropriate self-love. If you do not love yourself, you cannot really love anybody else (and vice versa). Any kind of abuse, by definition, attacks dignity. Physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse cannot be permitted.

Marriage obviously requires active engagement from both spouses. The absence of engagement is abandonment. It is clear that if your spouse does not come home one day and is never heard from again, you’ve been abandoned. There are other ways, however, that  one can leave a marriage. When your spouse refuses to work towards mutual satisfaction in the marital relationship, you no longer have a partner and likewise, you have been left alone. Infidelity or betrayal is also a form of abandonment. You cannot be in two places at once.

Two engaged people with basic respect still have a marriage. If both parties choose to stay, there is hope. However one person may find the challenge too great and choose to go. May there be mercy either way.

Marriage Must Satisfy This Equation

The success of a marriage depends upon the relative values of four variables – really, two instances of two variables, one instance for each partner. Let’s call S the Shadow, that part of the self where wounds hide (some call them defects of character; I call them wounds). Wounds are revealed, first to oneself and then to the other, in an act of intimacy. Then let E stand for Enlightenment, a common word for maturity in many spiritual traditions. Carl Jung and others called it individuation. The “light within” that comes through spiritual and psychological maturity (wisdom) illuminates and integrates one’s shadow into the whole person (healing). In marriage, enlightenment provides visibility and calm when your partner’s shadow is cast over you.

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The Ouija Board – Norman Rockwell – 1920

Each partner has wounds, more or less, and each partner is enlightened, more or less, which makes for two instances of these variables. Thus we have Shusband and Swife, Ehusband and Ewife and the marriage predicate is:

(Ewife > Shusband) & (Ehusband > Swife)

E > S means that one has enough enlightenment to stand in the other’s shadow with equanimity and compassion. Put a different way, one can hold the other without becoming overwhelmed, offended, defensive, resentful.

This “equation” might seem rather obvious, but here is the real point. Nowhere is it stated what are the literal values of E and S. There is no cultural standard value of E or S. There is no threshold above which you can say, “Well, her shadow is obviously too dark” or below which you can claim, “He is a certified dimwit.” The variables are always relative – too dark for his brightness, too dimwitted for her shadow. Without objective standards there can be no blame.

Instead of deciding who is on the wrong side of the non-existent human norm, the way forward, either within the marriage or after the divorce, is two-fold. Grow further towards enlightenment and integrate more of your shadow. A couple has to meet each other half-way in this work. A newly single person wants to be in a better position for the next time.

Marriage Requires Accommodation

If we have been trusted to look at the depth of our partners’ wounds and through empathy touch their pain, we cannot help but be moved to compassion (unless we are completely blinded and numbed by our own pain). Without a compassionate response, your partner will immediately retreat behind old defenses and you probably won’t get a second chance. Assuming that your heart can look outward, what is your next move?

billiards is easy to learn

Billiards Is Easy To Learn – Norman Rockwell, 1920

Here are some thoughts leading to responses that are not going to work:

  • Eureka!, I thought. She finally admitted that it is her problem. I knew I was right!
  • Now he has to change and he knows it.
  • I’ll do everything I can to help her fix that problem.
  • Poor thing. I guess I’ll give him another chance.

A better idea is to participate and reciprocate, as in:

  • Gosh, if we’re being that honest here, I could share a few things.

Seeing Through the Heart Space

Still, a direct response to your spouse’s wounds is invited. Empathetic acknowledgement is the action in the moment. Beyond that, do understand that these wounds likely have roots in childhood and are not disappearing anytime soon, if ever. Your partner’s radical change is not right around the corner. The difference in your relationship is that you now have the interpretive key for his or her out-sized defenses and aggression. With this key, you can take less offense, dampen irritation and stay cool, for more of the world’s pain is caused by taking offense rather than by giving offense. Remind yourself that what is really happening is that his/her wounds are crying out and then recall the innocent one who received them and the powerless one who confessed them.

Accommodation Is an Act of Mercy

Then you make a series of accommodations. The word means “towards a fit.” You go out of your way to avoid the irritants and positions that are uncomfortable for your spouse’s wounds. You exercise greater patience. You act this way not because of any requirement of fairness or honor. You accommodate as an act of mercy. It is needed, so you provide it, with no expectation of recompense. Henri Nouwen wrote of healing friendship:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

You want to be that friend for your beloved.

Marriage Conflict: Vulnerability is Disarming

I am unhappy with my spouse. At best I am disappointed and at worst I am fully ticked off. The tender support of a loving partner that I imagined in the beginning isn’t happening. Our relationship “isn’t working out,” to say the least. I still can’t believe that anybody, let alone the person who claims to love me, could be so cold and even callous in ignoring my needs. On top of that, some the behaviors I see repeatedly, some of things that are said, are just not right, not for a sensible adult, and at times they are simply mean. If I say anything it gets thrown back in my face – all my fault.

In the struggle of life, I find myself in the cruelly ironic position that my own spouse is against me, not for me. Is what I’m feeling closer to love or hate?

if only mother could see me now

If Only Mother Could See Me Now – Norman Rockwell, 1918

One day my spouse “wants to talk.” I expect the usual litany of my faults and shortcomings. Already my blood pressure is rising. But within seconds I realize that it’s a very different kind of talk. I’m not offended; in fact it’s not even about me. Not an apology, but a kind of confession. I hear about fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and shame – things that go back a long time, even before we met. There is some acknowledgement that my needs are real along with an admission that the strength and skill to respond is just not there. What I think should be automatic is actually very hard without any training, any early example to follow.

This talk feels very honest and very sad. And I suddenly find myself seeing my spouse with new eyes. I just can’t be angry with this miserable person right now. All my standard defenses and counter-arguments seem pointless and inappropriate. I’m disarmed. Instead I actually feel a tinge of sorrow for the raw vulnerability that I’m hearing – a first moment of compassion.

Marriage Intimacy: Exposing Your Wounds

Marriage intimacy (into-me-see) is of two parts: acknowledging your own wounds (shadow self, character flaws) and daring to expose them to your partner. Until you have seen the other’s shadow, you do not know him/her, and it is unwise to marry someone unknown. In fact, this is the best answer to the perennial question of how long is long enough to be in relationship before committing to marriage: until you’ve seen it all. The shadow self is always the last to emerge, despite best efforts to hide or deny it forever.

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Girl Reading Palm – Norman Rockwell – 1921

First things first, however. There is nothing to own and share that you do not first see in yourself. One sacred text calls it “the plank in your eye.” Marriage aside, any progress in personal or spiritual growth starts here. Think of Socrates’ axiom on the unexamined life. Yet rigorous honesty with oneself is very difficult. Your ego has to be strong enough to survive the come-down without crumbling and humble enough not to veto the entire project. Ordinarily, we would defend against such critiques, especially when they come from outside. The key is to stop playing the worthiness game. Your worthiness cannot be a character judgment (by anybody); it has to come from something larger and/or more intrinsic. Some call it grace.

The second step is also not automatic. Disclosing the nature of your woundedness is a risk, a dare. The central question is – will your partner be a safe guest inside your tender truth? Vulnerability refers not to the wounds revealed but to the possibility of new ones. The trouble for many couples is that one or both partners are not safe. Safety in this context means listening without judgment, without righteousness and without exploitation. To grow in intimacy is to slowly reveal yourselves to each other, building trust along the way. One threatening response can set you back a long way.

The opposite of intimacy is estrangement. All of your problems are external, “over there,” in your partner, who is simultaneously thinking the same way. Marriage becomes a scapegoat system rather than a support system. We get married to have a very close-in support system, for which intimacy is not just an asset, but a pre-condition.