Marriage is an institution unlike any other; it’s all about personalities and there’s nothing as inscrutable as the complexity of personalities.
Soon, my wife and I will celebrate our 36th anniversary. I’ve been thinking about marriage.
What other social institutions can exalt the humble, and humble the exalted like marriages or can calm the troubled and trouble the calm. Marriages drive the sane, mad, and the mad to become sane. Marriages complicate the simplest issues, like the legendary toothpaste cap and simplify the most complicated– like identifying the one “who’s really at fault, here.” Marriages bring happiness and joy and create acrimony and heartbreak. All this because marriage is a microcosm of our human condition. It highlights the most elusive thread in all human interactions: what specifically are the personality conditions that promote mutually satisfying relationships?
Clichés about marriage, the one’s about what it takes to make them work, while folksy, are guesses. I’m convinced nobody really knows. I’m sure this will sound horribly irreverent but I believe marriage is a crapshoot. It is a guess. We have high hopes when we marry but no substantial idea just what we are getting into. I don’t imagine anyone would make big decisions like buying a car, house, refrigerator or taking a job with as little solid information as we have about the person we are about to marry. The varied personality types – widely ranging from poet-like to statistician – decide on a spouse basically in the same way; intuitively. We act on the basis of a feeling not on any well-reasoned rationale. Intuitions may be spot on, but are typically unreliable.
I have been married twice. My first marriage ended in acrimony and heartbreak. My children were hurt. It took me years to finally acknowledge my own pain much less the pain of my ex. It’s common during divorce to fault the spouse for the marriage’s failure. Blame and anger are frequently a defense. There’s a tendency to hang on to grievances, to feed the anger; it’s grief that’s the bitterest legacy of a failed marriage and no one wants to feel its pain in any depth. The loss of what began with such high hopes and grand dreams ended tragically. It’s like experiencing a death but with subsequent ghostly visitations from the ex. Rather to stay angry; it’s less painful to be angry than to feel the grinding ache of grief and loss.
I have been in the second marriage now thirty-six years and in every sense of the word, it has worked. I mean by that, how real love survived the initial excitement of entering into an intimate relationship, as the real differences in personality and temperament emerged. Occasionally we will talk about the marriage and about us and about changes we’ve noticed. We’re pleased how an abiding and deep affection has slowly morphed from the titillations of early love. I keep wondering just what are the conditions that make for a mutually enhancing marriage. How can radically different kinds of people be together in satisfying ways? Is it to be schooled in the psychology of marriages or informed in the complexities of human relationships? I doubt it. I have been a marriage counselor in my career. Among my professional colleagues, one was married three times, with some short-term relationships in the interim, and the other is in his fourth marriage . . . maybe. They both have huge counseling practices. Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach, or in this case, become marriage counselors. Or is the message here that we must have lots of practice–– hands on, in a manner of speaking–– to finally get marriage right. I’m not convinced. Serial monogamy can become a way of life in itself.
At the core of making durable marriages and partnerships, is our need to be together, to know someone is there for us. I know this for certain; there’s a primal fear of being alone in all of us. We need and want others. As much as ants, bees and geese, we are social creatures. With the advent of birth control, marriages have become much more complicated alliances than just being fruitful and multiplying.
Even God was convinced Adam shouldn’t be alone. Early on, he tried some match making. The problem was that God offered him only animals for soul mates. Adam would have none of it. God finally made Eve. It was a great match for a while and like so many marriages, things got out of control and went bad. Strictly speaking, Adam and Eve weren’t married. They lived together but were confronted with the same challenges that any committed partnership demand. For better or worse is an understatement.
One wonders at times what might have happened if Adam had settled for a zebra, or if he went for polygamy, choosing a few cats. For sure, our evolution would have looked a lot different.
Let me offer some of my own guesses about what I’ve thought makes marriages work and how social relationships in general, can be mutually enduring.
Trust is a huge factor; not just sexual fidelity but the sense one has of knowing who the other is and depending on that knowledge; finding something supportive in the other in living out the day-to-day experiences. I’m convinced that a sense of humor also plays a huge role in keeping the boat from rocking too perilously. Humor has a way of softening the hard edges of significant differences. Humor has a way of weaving what are naturally antagonistic threads into a larger cloth, which produces stronger seams. Acrimonious issues when considered humorously, lose a lot of sting.
By now I’m sure it’s clear that I don’t have a real clue why some marriages work while others do not. I have seen couples who are as prickly as porcupines. Yet they seem fine together, as if they’ve found ways to poke each other but only enough not to scuttle the marriage.
Now, in a world grown so rancorous, it seems all the more important that we evolve more holistic views of how to intentionally create mutually enhancing communities, marriages especially. So much begins with a marriage, and now today, partnerships.
One thing I can say with absolute certainty: marriage is a pure blessing when it works.
In our house, a long hallway connects our bedroom to the den. My wife, Jo, rises earlier in the morning than I do. She goes to the den to read. When I first get up from bed, I see directly down the hallway to the den. Her chair sits next to a large window covered with a sheer curtain. The curtain picks up the early morning sun and makes it glow. What I see first thing every morning is her profile as it appears in relief against luminescent background. My snapshot accompanying this essay is what I see. For me, the picture is worth a thousand words.
Most every morning (except when she sleeps in) I see her bathed in light.
I’m grateful for her. I’m grateful for us.
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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