I spent part of my weekend in Boulder, Colorado with my brother and his fiancé. My visit was short but sweet. It included relaxing in a hot tub and snow shoeing for miles in the Rocky Mountains through a gentle snowfall. I felt relaxed and pampered.
My brother, who is in his early forties, is marrying late, but marrying well. My sister in law to be is a wonderful woman. She learned some hard lessons from her first marriage on what not to do in a marriage. My brother will be the fortunate beneficiary of her experience. I suspect my brother learned some things too in his long quest for a spouse. Ms. Right, when she finally appeared, did not come from meeting someone on eHarmony or one of the many Internet dating sites out there, but inadvertently through friends at work.
Of course, neither my brother nor his fiancé want or expect their marriage to fail. She knows the heartache of divorce. My brother knows the difficulty in finding the right person to marry. They inquired into my thoughts on marriage, from the perspective of someone who has been in one for 21 years.
I have written about marriage before, so I will not attempt to repeat myself. I have written a bit about love too. However, this latest conversation helped me clarify in my thoughts on the meaning of love. It made me believe that love’s mission is not what we think.
Love, if you can find it in its modern manifestation, is a wonderful experience. However, the word “love” does make me grit my teeth from time to time. I think it does because the word comes loaded with all sorts of baggage which can turn love from something joyful and freely given from the heart into an albatross around the neck. Keeping love joyful, particularly throughout a long-term relationship like a marriage, is a trick worthy of Houdini.
Like pornography, love is hard to define. Just as you can tell pornography when you see it, you will know love when you feel it. One person’s pornography though is another’s erotica. Similarly, one person’s experience with love will not be the same as another’s. The book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to your Mate, and its many variants by Gary Chapman, suggest that most of us feel and broadcast love in different ways. For me I feel most loved when my wife spends quality time with me, and just me, in ways that I find meaningful, such as working on a joint project together. Her way of expressing love might be to buy me gifts, but such expressions of love would largely be lost on me. It would not take too much behavior like this to conclude that she may be trying to love me, but she does not really love me, because if she really loved me she would express love in a way that I would feel as love.
Most couples expect their lovers or spouses to be mind readers. Chapman is one of many marriage therapists out there who suggests this is folly, and divorce statistics would probably bear him out. Nonetheless, after 21 years of marriage I think I have become something of a mind reader. I truly believe that at this point I know my spouse better than she knows herself. Moreover, I am convinced she knows me better than I know myself. This is a bit of a problem because after 21 years neither of us are the idealized creatures we found when we fell in love. Now we see each other’s warts, blemishes and fallibilities, much the way a doctor can focus in on a symptom and ignore an otherwise remarkably healthy body. In addition, what we see in each other has become, not so much an accurate picture of the other, but a darker image of ourselves. It is the phenomenon of projection that has been so well studied by psychologists: we see in our intimates the unacknowledged deficiencies in ourselves.
This is a tough lesson to learn. Now, whenever my wife does something that irritates me, I try to turn it around. What is it about me that makes this aspect of her behavior irritable? That she does X or Y does not mean that she is unlovable, but it does mean that there is something about X or Y that irritates me, and which I need to resolve.
I think in the natural course of events, that love moves from the infatuation stage to the stage where love becomes this mirror that shows you yourself in the form of your spouse. The challenge then becomes to move beyond this phase. It involves being psychologically naked to yourself and your spouse and seeing the warts on yourself and your lover. The real trick is to move past them.
I think love fulfills its mission when you are both stripped naked of all pretenses. Love is not about having all your specific needs expertly met by some other human being. It is about a new stage of growing up. Rather than being an end in itself, love is a means toward another end. The end game of love is understanding that your notion of love was all wrong. Perhaps “love” was just a trap. For I believe that the purpose of love is to give you an intimate encounter with yourself that would not likely occur any other way. It is there to find a way to help you tackle your deepest fears and deficiencies.
For most of us, this becomes too daunting a task. That is when the marriage devolves toward superficiality. We press what we think are our spouses buttons in order to keep them docile, so they do not give us an intimate encounter with ourselves. For it becomes easier to do this than acknowledge our shortcomings. However, marriage by design puts you in a long-term intimate space. Rather than acknowledge and work through our issues because they can no longer be avoided, it becomes convenient to project them onto our spouse instead.
If it becomes too acutely uncomfortable, we will seek someone else. For we will need someone else who will give us the illusion of love, but not its reality. What we really want in a spouse is someone who continually places Band-Aids on our self-inflicted cuts, rather than helps us to the doctor. We want a spouse that can distract us from confronting some fundamental and disagreeable facts about ourselves. It seems that the ideal spouse must lie shamelessly to us. In short, we desire the spouse we want, not the spouse we need. The proper spouse is like eating a glazed donut: it brings us a sugar rush and makes us feel wonderful. Unfortunately, what we really need is a spouse that tastes like a serving of vegetables instead. To get there we must convince ourselves that our spouse makes vegetables taste like glazed donuts. It can be devilishly difficult to maintain perspective when inside a positive romantic relationship.
In fact, the ideal spouse will love us in spite of our faults, and we will honestly love them in spite of their faults too. They will not lie to us. However, they will help us find the courage to acknowledge and tackle tough issues within ourselves. Moreover, they will be there to reassure us that they love us in spite of these flaws. The ideal spouse will be more coach than critic, and do so in a loving, firm but gentle way. In doing so they help us move through our issues into acceptance of who we are as human beings. In the process, we will grow in understanding of ourselves and eventually put these issues behind us. As a spouse it is our mission to do the same.
I wish my brother and his fiancé the very best in their upcoming marriage. Deep, intimate and caring communications seems to me to be means to achieving a long, lasting and healthy marriage. This kind of communications though will be a challenge for any couple. They will probably be moving through a minefield of sorts on a journey of joint self-discovery. If it works out right, I suspect it will be a journey of self-exploration through the lens of someone who will be a partner with them on this most intimate of journeys. I suspect (though I will never know) that marital love will complete neither of them, but instead it will be a conduit: a swiftly flowing journey of the soul into brave, uncharted worlds of self-understanding.