Reframing Marriage: A Commitment to “That Which We Are”

In my last post, I told the history of my marriage to my husband Jamey and ended at a crux moment: the moment our marriage almost ended.  This was not, however, the end of our story.  We stayed together and are very happily married today.  So why did I decide to begin my series on marriage by talking about this difficult moment?

One reason I did this is to try and alleviate some of the stigma of difficult and failing marriages.  When I was struggling in my own marriage, I felt a lot of shame.  When I did talk to others about it, however, what I found is that there were many other people dealing with the same issues and emotions that I was feeling.

I’ve read a lot of research on shame and vulnerability (shout out to Brene Brown) and shame and secrets cause disconnection, pain, and suffering.  Marriages fail.  It’s a fact.  I don’t want to idealize marriage.  It does not come easy, and even when it lasts it is often not as good as one might hope.  If by saying this out loud I can help one other person to say “Me, too” or “I’m not alone, and it’s ok that this is happening” then I want to do that.

I also believe that seeing how bad it gets and then knowing that it can get better is life and marriage affirming. Couples can go through the lowest points, and come back from it and be better and healthier than ever. It happens. It happened to me.

This is one reason I started there. Another is because the reality of almost losing one another changed us, and I think it made us better, more forgiving, more loving. I was brave enough to tell him I thought it was over; he was brave enough to try with me again, and again, and again.

This started with my words “I want a divorce.” It continued with a realization on the part of my husband. He finally saw the pain I was in and why for the very first time. On my part, I had a melting inside of me. I realized that I loved him, still, despite anything else that I might be feeling.

We kept going.

What did it mean to keep going after this? It didn’t mean “putting our heads down and moving on.”  It meant dwelling in the pain that our relationship had caused both of us.  It meant admitting to the truth of what had happened between us and mourning all of the lost time, grieving for ourselves and one another. It meant that we continued to admit to the things that had gone wrong, and were going wrong still. It meant a thousand little micro corrections to find a new balance, a new version of who we were, a blunt honesty about what we were both experiencing every day, spoken with as much love as we could muster.

I believe, that in many ways, our story is not unique.

In the article “What Makes a Marriage Successful” from Business Insider, it cites researcher Ellen Bader’s claim that an inevitable stage of marriage is differentiation. This stage begins with the understandings that, “We really are different people. You are different from who I thought you were or wanted you to be. We have different ideas, different feelings, different interests.”

In my own words, this would be the stage in marriage were you look at your partner and have the thought, “We are SO incompatible. How did I not see this before? How are we ever going to make this work?”  This process is self-differentiation, or the realization of who one really is and one really wants. It is a stage of development, and it happens in families of all kinds, not just in marriages. This being said, within a marriage it has distinct characteristics.

“I thought this person completed me, but look! They are a whole different person…  What does this mean? Are we wrong for one another, or do I have to complete myself now…” 

In essence, it can create a crisis point for having figure some things out.

After this stage, there is a second stage: the differentiation of the relationship.  In this stage, both people grow as individuals separately, but stay “involved” at the same time. According to Bader, “For couples to survive that differentiation process and maintain their compatibility, the real secret sauce is effort.”

This is a hard part of the process. It means “seeing” one another, the relationship, and even ourselves with new eyes, and this is not easy after having been in a relationship for a long time.  It might mean noticing some really great things that were missed, and it might also mean seeing some bad stuff one might rather avoid (in one’s self and in the other person).  It also means growing in ways that are not very comfortable.  Change creates disorientation, and this is serious change. Pema Chodron might call it “groundlessness.” There is nothing to stand on, and it may feel like being held to one’s  partner by a thread.

A thread is enough sometimes.

This connects to an interview I once heard where Paulo Coelho, the author of The Alchemist, spoke with Krista Tippett on the radio show On Being. He talked a lot about love, and at one point spoke specifically of his relationship with his wife of 34 years.    

“I think that she changed a lot during this… 34 years. And when people ask me how did you manage to get married with the same woman for so long, I answer that they are wrong. She is not the girl that I met back in 1979…  She changed a lot. So did I. And throughout all these years, our marriage went through many moments of destruction, so to say.  But not destruction in a bad way. For example, just like you build a house, and then you say this house does not fit me anymore. So, let’s reorganize, but let’s continue to live here. We don’t need to move. Because I love you, and you love me, so let’s reconstruct this house. So, we’ve been through many ordeals, many, many, many ordeals, but to survive it, why? Because of this, what that you call it, cheesy word — love.”

I love these words, because in my own marriage, I am not the same woman from a decade ago. He is not the same man. Our relationship is not the same relationship either.  I am thankful for all of this.

So let’s say a couple makes it through this arduous process. What is on the other side of a transformation of self, other and relationship? I feel like the term “self-expansion” as described in the New York Times article “Sustainable Love” by Parker-Pope, is a good explanation for what happened next in my own marriage.

In essence, self-expansion is a process studied in happy couples. Basically, both partners help push one another to experience change and development in ways that serve one another’s needs. This sounds selfish, but as each partner seeks to change in ways that are life-giving to the relationship, they are often changed for the better. They are expanded beyond the boundaries of their own needs.

In my experience, marriage brings out all of the issues that would make me a hard fit for anyone, my husband included. As a creative I am very single-minded at times when I am engaged in something. This expresses itself as selfishness or lack of connection with those around me. Anyone would have a hard time with this aspect of my personality.

“Oh, you don’t like that you have told me the same thing three times after I asked you to repeat it, and I still have no clue what you said? Weird.”

Now, its easy to say “that’s just who I am” but human beings are flexible like putty (see neuroplasticity in this video). And if I have a real motivation to change- like having someone I love put me to the task, then I can- at least somewhat.

I will never be adept at multitasking, and I will always be a little annoying in this way.  But should we still keep talking about how it makes other people feel?  Absolutely.  I want my husband to tell me when he feels unimportant in my life or when I am ignoring the kids. As a positive repercussion, my five-year-old knows to tap my shoulder when I am working and he needs something.  I just won’t hear him otherwise.  If my husband wouldn’t have shared his insights in this, my son might just think I don’t care about him- a terrible consequence I would do anything to avoid.

As another benefit to this process, both partners become much more significant to each other as self-expansion continues in the relationship. Dr. Lewandowski states it as such, “If you’re seeking self-growth and obtain it from your partner, then that puts your partner in a pretty important position,” he explains. “And being able to help your partner’s self-expansion would be pretty pleasing to yourself.” No one can help to do this work better than one’s own spouse (if both are fully invested) if for no other reason than the amount of time spent together (though I think there are probably other reasons, too).

The article states that early in marriage self expansion happens swiftly because lives are becoming enmeshed, but the process continues throughout the life of the marriage in happy couples. In fact, after a long period of time, the couples have a hard time distinguishing traits that are one’s or the other’s.  According to Parker-Pope, “It’s not that these couples lost themselves in the marriage; instead, they grew in it. Activities, traits and behaviors that had not been part of their identity before the relationship were now an essential part of how they experienced life.”

Now this is interesting to me. A definition of marriage that isn’t about “completing one another” which I think for many remains elusive.  Instead, it is about growing one another. Expanding each other beyond what is comfortable and participating in a form of continual transformation. That is a version of marriage that makes sense to me. This is what I feel I am starting to experience now.

On my quest to understand this thing called marriage the last couple of years, I talked to many other wives and a few husbands, too. Some of them were very happy and some of them were very unhappy.

Those who were unhappy sounded a lot like myself: “I don’t feel seen anymore” was a common vicissitude. Conversely, those who were happy said things like, “my partner is my best friend” or “he (or she) makes me feel like my best version of myself.”

When my marriage was struggling, these happy couple statements did not make sense to me. I have a best friend, and my marriage does not feel like that. Furthermore, I often feel like a worse version of myself with my partner- like the version that is failing at one of the biggest commitments one can make in life.

I have one friend, however, who had seen some serious struggles with her partner, and she said something different.  At one crux moment in her relationship, she had pondered getting out, and she said she stayed because she had realized in a flash of recognition one day that if she left she would “stop growing.”

“It wouldn’t have been bad to leave,” she said, “but I just knew I would stay where I was, growth wise.”  On another occasion she stated, “Marriage is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but also one of the most rewarding.  It just gets deeper and deeper all the time.”

Each of these comments rang true for me in the long run, and though I didn’t fully understand them at the time, I am so grateful to that friend, because here is what I have learned:

As I become better wife to my husband, I become better for every other person I love. I am a better daughter, a better sister, a better mother and a better friend.  In seeing the ways I needed to grow in my relationship, I saw the ways I needed to grow for myself. This is the joy of staying. And the work of staying. And the reason for staying- at least for me.  

Marriage is huge commitment, and it is not for everyone. I believe, however, that when two people really work at it, and are in the right circumstances, it can make them better humans.

For me, this is a reframing of marriage that works.  I don’t need someone to complete me, but I love having a partner committed to making me a better human, and loving me even when I fail to be.

In my last post, I quoted Joseph Campbell as saying, “Marriage is not a love affair… [it] is a commitment to that which [we] are.”

What does this mean to me? It means that marriage does not “complete”, it does not “fix” and it does not “replace” who I am. A good marriage is, instead, a commitment to myself. A commitment to being better and growing more.  I do this for the other person, sure.  Really, though, the benefit is to myself, and it has repercussions for everyone around me.

So, to my husband Jamey, thank you for staying.  Our journey has had some unexpected twists along the way, but you make me a better person, and for this I am so grateful.

____________

This post is the second in a series on marriage where I explore the topic as a personal journey and a social issue.  

Thoughts?  Opinions?  Connections, please share? 

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