An edited excerpt from a grad school paper I wrote on marriage:
“The one power left in life that destroys our illusion of ‘control’, that forces a man to see that there is something beyond his understanding and his control, is romantic love” (Johnson, R., 1983, p. 58) And an initial coupling, if formed out of the experience of falling in love, gives the lovers a taste of an ecstasy that is “rare, unbidden, and intensely personal” (Johnson, T., 2004). The experience imbues the lovers with a sense of aliveness and meaning through union and can spark a longing that sets them each, perhaps unconsciously, on a quest to sustain that moment of immense yet private intimacy. But an embodied mystical love comes with an often ill-defined set of practical expectations which, once revealed, can be disorienting to the lovers and can threaten to unravel the transcendent value of the bond. Such disruption in the attachment sends many of us scrambling to re-ignite the flame or searching elsewhere to recapture the experience, not realizing that the awakening of mystery is not within the capacity of the ego. The lovers cannot provide meaning for each other.
Once an institution executed for the purpose of child-reading, property acquisition, and social or political gain, marriage in the modern, Western world is expected to be an outgrowth of love between two, mutually chosen individuals. On an inner level (consciously or unconsciously), it functions as a symbol of bonding with one’s own soul (Guggenbühl-Craig, 1977), for within the lover’s eyes, the beloved sees a more whole picture (both elevating and humbling) of themselves. An outer marriage based consciously on this inner unity pledges the partners “to the daily attempt to live … the meaning of the symbol in all their dealings with each other” (Luke, 2004, p. 50). Each partner must be prepared to “strive for the ‘holy marriage’ within” by taking responsibility for his or her own unfoldment and by guarding against his or her own emotional and spiritual atrophy, and, in doing so, sets the other free to explore and integrate his or her own truest sense of self. Said another way, loving another and being committed to them demands tending to one’s own emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being and continued growth.
Here, we arrive at the difference between two people partnered for the life of a romance and two people who seek to discover themselves through their union. For the self is not defined by its defensive boundaries, but by its expansion in caring and its dismantling of the illusion of separateness. “It is selfishness and not love that is the product of insecurity and frustration, a retreat into what is poorest about the self rather than a reaching out for what is best” (Solomon, 1988, p. 256). The transformative nature of marriage is derived-—not through absolute tolerance of each other—-but through ongoing honesty and openness to oneself and to one’s partner. Such confrontations require a repeated willingness to risk a lesser intimacy for a greater one. It is this continuous commitment to the never-ending process that creates the crucible in which the two can be transformed beyond a state of simple, outer wellbeing. And, in this way, a marriage becomes more than a personal relationship.
Perhaps, if a marriage is to reflect the transcendent nature of the divine, then the responsibility of a marriage partner is that of continually preparing for the next mystical embrace (Johnson, T., 2004): We remember what first drew us to our lover and what continues to keep our hearts in their orbit; we wait; we learn to bear the intensity of our desire for greater intimacy and understanding; we channel it into clearing out the obstacles in our hearts; and, while we learn to expect no inner reward from our beloved beyond their own flourishing, we also stay attentive to and grateful for any rewarding moments. Within such a marriage bond, connectedness often waxes and wanes, and this is absolutely correct. The resolution of differences is not a static state to be maintained. It is the constant re-understanding of bonding through two-ness and the repeated emergence and resolution of that tension that deepens the union. If both partners are not willing to practice this, then the marriage dies as a symbol of salvation and becomes a profane matter of reducing tension and providing comfort.
My thanks go out to Jonathan (the husband of my dear friend Scott) for showing me how this works off the page and in the flesh, that the first way to show that one honors and cherishes the relationship is to tend to one’s own mental, physical, and spiritual health and growth and to expect that of one’s partner. Or, as my wise friend Loren put it, “you can’t give away what you do not own.”