Partners and Marriage
I have never met a man who didn't want to be loved. But I have seldom met a man who didn't fear marriage. Something about the closure seems constricting, not enabling. Marriage seems easier to understand for what it cuts out of our lives than for what it makes possible within our lives. When I was younger this fear immobilized me.
I did not want to make a mistake. I saw my friends get married for reasons of social acceptability, or sexual fever, or just because they thought it was the logical thing to do. Then I watched, as they and their partners became embittered and petty in their dealings with each other. I looked at older couples and saw, at best, mutual toleration of each other. I imagined a lifetime of loveless nights and bickering days and could not imagine subjecting myself or someone else to such a fate.
And yet, on rare occasions, I would see old couples who somehow seemed to glow in each other's presence. They seemed really in love, not just dependent upon each other and tolerant of each other's foibles.
It was an astounding sight, and it seemed impossible. How, I asked myself, can they have survived so many years of sameness, so much irritation at the others habits? What keeps love alive in them, when most of us seem unable to even stay together, much less love each other?
The central secret seems to be in choosing well. There is something to the claim of fundamental compatibility. Good people can create a bad relationship, even though they both dearly want the relationship to succeed. It is important to find someone with whom you can create a good relationship from the outset. Unfortunately, it is hard to see clearly in the early stages.
Sexual hunger draws you to each other and colors the way you see yourselves together. It blinds you to the thousands of little things by which relationships eventually survive or fail. You need to find a way to see beyond this initial overwhelming sexual fascination.
Some people choose to involve themselves sexually and ride out the most heated period of sexual attraction in order to see what is on the other side. This can work, but it can also leave a trail of wounded hearts. Others deny the sexual side altogether in an attempt to get to know each other apart from their sexuality. But they cannot see clearly, because the presence of unfulfilled sexual desire looms so large that it keeps them from having any normal perception of what life would be like together.
The truly lucky people are the ones who manage to become long-time friends before they realize they are attracted to each other. They get to know each other's laughs, passions, sadness, and fears. They see each other at their worst and at their best. They share time together before they get swept up into the entangling intimacy of their sexuality. This is the ideal, but not often possible. If you fall under the spell of your sexual attraction immediately, you need to look beyond it for other keys to compatibility. One of these is laughter. Laughter tells you how much you will enjoy each other's company over the long term. If your laughter together is good and healthy, and not at the expense of others, then you have a healthy relationship to the world. Laughter is the child of surprise. If you can make each other laugh, you can always surprise each other. And if you can always surprise each other, you can always keep the world around you new.
Beware of a relationship in which there is no laughter. Even the most intimate relationships based only on seriousness, have a tendency to turn sour. Over time, sharing a common serious viewpoint on the world tends to turn you against those who do not share the same viewpoint, and your relationship can become based on being critical together.
After laughter, look for a partner who deals with the world in a way you respect. When two people first get together, they tend to see their relationship as existing only in the space between the two of them. They find each other endlessly fascinating, and the overwhelming power of the emotions they are sharing obscures the outside world. As the relationship ages and grows, the outside world becomes important again. If your partner treats people or circumstances in a way you can't accept, you will inevitably come to grief.
Look at the way she cares for others and deals with the daily affairs of life. If that makes you love her more, your love will grow. If it does not, be careful. If you do not respect the way you each deal with the world around you, eventually the two of you will not respect each other.
Look also at how your partner confronts the mysteries of life. We live on the cusp of poetry and practicality, and the real life of the heart resides in the poetic. If one of you is deeply affected by the mystery of the unseen in life and relationships, while the other is drawn only to the literal and the practical, you must take care that the distance does not become an unbridgeable gap that leaves you each feeling isolated and misunderstood.
There are many other keys, but you must find them by yourself. We all have unchangeable parts of our hearts that we will not betray and private commitments to a vision of life that we will not deny. If you fall in love with someone who cannot nourish those inviolable parts of you, or if you cannot nourish them in her, you will find yourselves growing further apart until you live in separate worlds where you share the business of life, but never touch each other where the heart lives and dreams.
From there, it is only a small leap to the cataloguing of petty hurts and daily failures that leaves so many couples bitter and unsatisfied with their mates.
So, choose carefully and well. If you do, you will have chosen a partner with whom you can grow, and then the real miracle of marriage can take place in your hearts. I pick my words carefully when I speak of a miracle. But I think it is not too strong a word.
There is a miracle in marriage. It is called transformation. Transformation is one of the most common events of nature. The seed becomes the flower. The cocoon becomes the butterfly. Winter becomes spring and love becomes a child. We never question these, because we see them around us every day. To us they are not miracles, though if we did not know them they would be impossible to believe.
Marriage is a transformation we choose to make. Our love is planted like a seed, and in time it begins to flower. We cannot know the flower that will blossom, but we can be sure that a bloom will come. If you have chosen carefully and wisely, the bloom will be good. If you have chosen poorly or for the wrong reason, the bloom will be flawed.
We are quite willing to accept the reality of negative transformation in a marriage. It was negative transformation that always had me terrified of the bitter marriages that I feared when I was younger. It never occurred to me to question the dark miracle that transformed love into harshness and bitterness. Yet I was unable to accept the possibility that the first heat of love could be transformed into something positive that was actually deeper and more meaningful than the heat of fresh passion. All I could believe in was the power of this passion and the fear that when it cooled I would be left with something lesser and bitter.
But there is positive transformation as well. Like negative transformation, it results from a slow accretion of little things. But instead of death by a thousand blows, it is growth by a thousand touches of love. Two histories intermingle. Two separate beings, two separate presences, two separate consciousness come together and share a view of life that passes before them. They remain separate, but they also become one.
There is an expansion of awareness, not a closure and a constriction, as I had once feared. This is not to say that there is no tension and there are no traps. Tension and traps are part of every choice of life, from celibate to monogamous to having multiple lovers.
Each choice contains within it the lingering doubt that the road not taken somehow is more fruitful and exciting, and each becomes dulled to the richness that it alone contains. But only marriage allows life to deepen and expand and be leavened by the knowledge that two have chosen, against all odds, to become one.
Those who live together without marriage can know the pleasure of shared company, but there is a specific gravity in the marriage commitment that deepens that experience into something richer and more complex.
So do not fear marriage, just as you should not rush into it for the wrong reasons. It is an act of faith and it contains within it the power of transformation. If you believe in your heart that you have found someone with whom you are able to grow, if you have sufficient faith that you can resist the endless attraction of the road not taken and the partner not chosen, if you have the strength of heart to embrace the cycles and seasons that your love will experience, then you may be ready to seek the miracle that marriage offers. If not, then wait.
by Kent Nerburn
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posted January 2004