Originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL, February 2011
A few months ago, I met with a couple of ministers of a local church, and as we sat down and got through the opening chitchat, one of the ministers asked, “So, tell me, how do you feel about marriage?” Truthfully, I was caught off-guard by the question. My immediate thought was, ‘Are you kidding? I’m a marriage and family therapist. Isn’t it obvious?’ I didn’t answer the question that way, nor with my second gut reaction, which was to inquire, ‘Why do you ask?’ (I suspect this minister has met many “counselors” who do not think very much about marriage). Instead, I went into a rather winding answer in an effort to give a sound bite for what I consider a very complex issue. Personally, I think of marriage in the highest regard, and I think about marriage most of the time (especially my own). What follows is a few of my thoughts on this entity called marriage:
Marriage is … an investment. It is an investment of self. And it is a journey of continual investment of a self that is in a continual state of maturing, growing, changing, becoming. I quoted a couple of months ago C.S. Lewis, who wrote, “I may act kindly, correctly, justly toward someone, and yet withhold the giving of myself, which is love.” If love is the giving of yourself, then marriage is the place it is done most fully, most intimately, most continually; and that also presents a place where it is reciprocated. In marriage, one gives of him or her self; it is also the place where one receives the self of another. Thus, it is an investment of self, and also a reception of another self, that creates a new self, a new entity, a new “flesh” that the two becoming one creates over a long period of time. Thus the most fruitful of these investments are those where faithfulness and longevity are regular commodities in this investment market.
Marriage is … a process, rather than a destination. It is a journey through the terrains of individual styles, perspectives, pasts, hopes, and disappointments. Storms are encountered when the warm air of expectations meets the cold air of reality. And as the soil of souls is watered, as negotiation of selves occurs, as maturity is gained, the participants of marriage change, grow, and connect. Identity develops and intimacy happens. Often when a trip is not treasured, and it is all about getting there, impatience rules and sites are overlooked. Everyone is frazzled when they arrive, and all that is wanted is a nap, and to get away from each other. What’s the fun in that? And while it may be an institution, once institutionalized it loses its intimacy, its vulnerability. Here in the South, we hold marriage as a vaunted institution, but it becomes a sacred cow when we don’t help people know HOW to be married. We help them to make vows to stick together “for better or worse, in sickness and in health”, but we don’t help couples understand what it takes to grow through the sickness and the worse. There is no need for awareness of need in the better and the healthy times, yet it is often too late by the time they get to the other side, to the sickness and the worse.
Marriage is … something I choose, rather than a fulfillment of expectations by another. It is active work, rather than a passive happening. It is intentional. It does not wait for the other to serve, but takes the initiative to do the serving. It participates in deciding who does what when, rather than assuming the other will take care of something just because that’s the way it has always been done, or the way that mom and dad did it. And it chooses to appreciate, for appreciation and gratitude are the real currencies of relationship, what we each long for from one another, and that which fills us up and unleashes us to pour ourselves back into the other.
Marriage is … a description, rather than a goal. It is a part of our identity, reflected from the inside-out. It is not a trapping, only meant for external representation. And it is less about getting it right, and more about patience and forgiveness (my other favorite quote on marriage is from a movie I saw a long time ago: “We realized in the end that marriage was less about getting it right, and more about being able to forgive.”)
Marriage is … a crucible, where the individual pieces are broken down to its most basic elements, then combined to create a new being that is more than the sum of its parts, but a multiplication of its components into something that exponentially impacts the world in which it lives.
And finally: marriage is … a dance. There is an ebb and a flow, a rhythm that two souls are attuned to. It incorporates the natural and individual grace and skill, and taken to the next level when coordinated through practice and repetition with another. And the best dancing is done by those who look less at the floor to be sure they are making the right steps, but rather trust their feet, and look into their partner’s eyes, delighting in who they see, delighting in being seen and enjoyed.
Just a few of the reasons I am a marriage and family therapist, working on behalf of marriage and the individuals who take up the challenge and the call.
To talk further about what marriage is and can be for you, contact LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama. He believes in and trusts all that marriage holds, transacts, and unleashes.