Marriage: Excruciatingly Wonderful

I have found marriage to be excruciatingly wonderful. It sounds like an oxymoron when really it is a both/and. Let’s start with the wonderful part. Romance is one of life’s keenest compliments. It feels magical to have another person love you, choose you, woo you. And it feels equally good reciprocating that love. You are best friends or good companions, sexual intimates, home builders and partners through the challenges of life. You may raise children together or care for extended family members. In marriage you get support to be the person you were meant to be and, as a marriage team, you bring your gifts to the world. You are enlarged to embrace complexity, to learn tolerance and to overlook your partner’s dirty socks. Through the tragedies you share, you develop an even deeper bond, and maybe even a special calling in your lives together. Together you enrich, heal or challenge the world.

In the movie, Shall We Dance, Susan Sarandon, the wife of an attorney (Richard Gere) is secretly having him followed because she thinks he is having an affair. It turns out he is learning to dance and is embarrassed to tell her. In a conversation with the investigator she describes the importance of marriage. She says the most important thing about it is that you have another person who is a witness to your life. Someone who knows you best and is there for the most important moments of your life, both positive and negative. It is, indeed, wonderful to have that special someone who knows more about you than anyone else and still loves you. I have experienced profound witnesses to my life in marriage. And I believe that marriage has been the single most transforming experience of my life, molding me into the kind of woman I was always intended to be. Even though marriage as an institution, has been through some tough times, with high divorce rates, these rough times seem, also, to make it resilient.

And…in all marriage there comes the excruciating part as well, when your romantic expectations aren’t met, when your witness doesn’t show up for the important event, or when your life together feels nothing like a team. All of these experiences are normal. They are things that happen to get our attention that it is time for us to grow.

Here’s my version of the truth about marriage. Marriage brings us our work to do. My advice: Do it. Get help. Go for classes. Ask others how they manage the issues they face. Don’t get adept at complaining about your loved one. Learn to have your own voice and speak your truth in love. And remember, sometimes tough love is the best kind for a while. I’m not a marriage expert and, Lord knows, my own track record is sub-par, but there are a few things I’ve learned about marriage that lead to life instead of resignation. I offer them for your reflection.

I’ve learned that love is what you’ve been through together. Live it to the fullest. I now know that if there is an addiction or mental illness going on in either of us, it’s my job to do my own inner work to get healthy and not take on the other person’s work, while still holding them accountable for their behavior. Sort of like the airline instruction of putting on your own oxygen mask before attending to others! It’s clear to me that if I’m drawn to another man outside my marriage it is a sign that I am avoiding some important issues I need to address within my marriage. I’ve learned that if marriage is not safe, due to any kind of abuse, what I need are clear boundaries, a strong advocate and an exit plan. I believe that God has to be central to my marriage or I am less likely to have the courage to do my inner work in order to grow. It is just too easy to stop growing if I get scared, insecure or withdrawn. Once I learned how to face my own fears in my marriage, I could see a similar pattern was going on everywhere else in my life, so facing it and changing my own fear response had a transforming effect on my whole life. Lastly I’ve learned that if you are waiting for someone else to make you happy, you will wait for a very long time indeed.

Healthy marriages grow deeper layer upon layer upon layer. They just keep getting better and more intimate. It’s not easy and sometimes it looks rather bleak. In fact sometimes there are years in which the marriage sustains your love rather than your love sustaining the marriage. But if we stop growing we settle into a pattern of resignation or, worse yet, bitterness. A wonderful therapist gave me this wisdom on marriage; we marry a person who is like one of our parents so when we do the work we need to do within our marriage, it can heal both relationships. I have found this to be a profound truth.

And let’s not forget the most transforming gift of marriage, that which has the most potential to form us as human beings—its ending. All marriages end, either in death, divorce or dissolution. We rarely consider the emotional cost of these losses going in. But how we deal with these losses, whether we deny them, embrace them, get bitter, get depressed or sick determines who we will become. Each loss takes us deeper into wisdom if we embrace it well or with good support. Those who have loved and then lost well—even though the loss is excruciating—are those who can love well again. It is a difficult truth to ponder but worth the effort. If we can be truly present to what we have together as a couple now, and if we can talk about it, it will be an easier journey after one of us is gone.

I’m in favor of marriage even though I do not think it is necessary for everyone. What I’m really in favor of is the opportunity to do the personal work that marriage calls us to do in order to heal our inner selves and live well. Then marriage has fulfilled its purpose in us. God uses marriage to profoundly heal us and open our hearts to who we are called to be. For me, marriage is also a metaphor for our relationship with God—our Beloved. If we have come to know how great it feels to bask in the glow of love from a person on earth …

What if we lived as if we really were God’s Beloved?

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

What is your positive experience of marriage or a long-term relationships?

What is your excruciating experience?

How are you a different person because of marriage?

Did you make a decision to “settle” or to grow in your marriage? What resulted?

How did you process the loss of marriage if you’ve experienced it?

How do you experience yourself as God’s Beloved?