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 – 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 (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.
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.
We are all wounded people. The hurts, frustrations and their compensatory character traits were already baked in as early as age 4, when ego identity began to emerge. They were the inevitable product of an imperfect human genome, wounded human parents and wounded human culture. If there was any trauma involved, stressful or catastrophic, multiply by 10 (95% of families, according to one expert). This is the real, messed-up person who you “gave” and “took” in marriage. There are no other kind.
The Party Favor – Norman Rockwell – 1919
Most couples live in denial of this foundational picture. Their working theory is that their partners were great when the relationship began but then began behaving badly later. Part of the problem is that we tend to see our strengths (areas where we are healthy) as normative for all. “This is not a problem for me. How could it be a problem for you?” Then we are blind to our own weaknesses because our egos are too fragile to look at them. Our partners can look at them just fine.
Until we can examine ourselves with radical honesty and humility, we have no chance to grow in love. Loving your own ego ideal projected onto another person is neither human nor divine love. Simply, it is not love, but enchantment (making beautiful music together), or idolatry, neither of which is not going to sustain a marriage past the honeymoon. You have to go much further; you have to be able to acknowledge the wounds and embrace the whole person.
To expose one’s wounds is to be vulnerable (Latin vulnus is “wound”). Nobody with a pulse is going to be vulnerable if they are going to be attacked or rejected. Thus, the first question in a marriage is a personal one: Can you acknowledge your own wounds and still hold yourself together in dignity as a person worthy of love? Loving yourself, a significant other, others and the Other is all one project. Take the simple case first.