I’m fortunate to have married someone different from me.
I directed a counseling agency for many years. My staff and I often treated couples for marital difficulties. Although I have theories about marriages, I have to say honestly that I don’t really understand how marriages work. Why do some marriages that look destined to crash endure, while some that seem made in heaven don’t? It’s a mystery.
I found one thing that seemed clear: that being married to someone who is just like you is a prescription for an unhappy alliance. I believe this is so because all the aspects of my personality that I disown because I find them disagreeable, I would see in full bloom in my spouse. This would make it very difficult for me to hide, not from my spouse, but from myself. It’s not all bad having our least endearing traits hidden from us.
The psychology of marriage might be described as the Collect for Purity reads in The Book of Common Prayer: our spouses are the ones “ to whom [our] hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid.” The collect is talking about God, of course, and how God’s omniscience sees right through our masks like clear glass. I suspect many couples feel less threatened knowing that God can do this, than knowing their spouses could.
We easily con friends, but rarely our spouses. Spouses or partners see through most charades and, like bats on the wing guided by sonar, deftly navigate the twists and turns of their relationship that others have no idea of.
In the first bloom of love we earnestly believe that our sweethearts are just like we are. Remember thinking how wonderful it was that we loved the same music, read the same books, enjoyed the same food and on and on? Lovers think marital bliss is assured because they believe they’re alike. As marriages settle into the domestic pace of day-to-day, differences arise and the challenging task of regulating these differences begins.
Freud had a phrase to describe romantic love. Lovers, he claimed, “overestimate their object.” This is a clinical way of saying that the object of our affections, in reality, ain’t necessarily all that great. We just think so because we’re in love. In time, ‘over estimation’ settles into a ‘sober estimation.’
Finding personal space is a huge issue in intimate relationships. There’s an old saw about two porcupines in love that found themselves in a pickle. As they yearned for intimacy and closeness they’d snuggle up, but they’d poke each other with their quills. This made them distance from one another. Making distance, however, left them feeling lonely again so they kept at it until they established the proper ratio between being too close or too distant. No one has ever learned just what the formula was that they came up with. This is a great loss to our understanding of how, in the long haul, we successfully bond with others.
Having one’s own space it seems to me grows more critical over time. Young lovers cling like leaches, but happy ones at that. They want only to be together. Time raises another need heretofore unacknowledged: the need just to be alone and to have one’s own space.
My wife, Jo, and I have done reasonably well in making accommodations to our individual peculiarities. It occurred to me the other day when I went to my studio to write I said, “I’m going to my house to work.” It sounded odd in my ear.
When we moved into our present home there was a shed alongside. We fixed it up and by some unconscious collusion, it became known as ‘my house’ and the den located in the house where Jo works, as ‘our house.’ It’s been a blessing. I realized this when one day I came over from ‘my house’ to ‘ours.’ I felt particularly chatty that day and started talking to her. She was engaged at the computer, and being a good-natured soul, tried listening to me. The strain on her face revealed her mood, however. I could see “buzz off” written all across her forehead. I respected it and retreated to ‘my house’ where I could wait and try another time. Marital relationships require significant elasticity to work well. A room of one’s own can make all the distance in the world.
How we process information is a big deal in marriages. This is an ongoing issue between Jo and me. I behave more like an extravert. I don’t have a thought that I do not express out loud. One side effect of this mental trait is that I talk to myself. I’ve been surprised with just how verbose I can be . . . even when no one is listening, or perhaps especially that no one is listening.
On the other hand, Jo is an introvert. She requires significant room for rumination when considering issues before she is comfortable in saying what’s on her mind. Sometimes when I’m asking her a question and urging her to tell me what she thinks, she feels invaded and intruded upon, while I grow more insistent. I may say something like, “Millions of wives would love to have husbands who talk to them,” to which she usually replies, “Perhaps you know one that you could talk to.”
I retreat to ‘my house.’ Strategic retreats, I must add here, are always a win-win.
For better or for worse, we pledge; it’s only that, in weal or woe, marriages take a lot of strategic maneuvering.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.
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