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Wrestling with the Furniture of Marriage

It has been said that the work of marriage is rather like the work of moving a sofa: it requires two people who are willing to cooperate— each one carrying an end, and trusting that the other is doing their part as well. Often enough, as they move along, they won't easily see one another's point of view; they can only sense how each other is doing through the way the sofa is moving— and of course, they can speak to one another often, and encouragingly, as they go. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, one of them— usually the one that is more flexible and agile— will have to go backwards occasionally, when they get to the tight places.

And there may come a time when the marriage is not working as well as it might. One or the other may begin feeling concerned or dissatisfied, and begin wondering if something ought to be done before things get any worse. This is a time when it would be valuable to consider these statements: "I want this marriage to improve," "I want this marriage to end," or "I want this marriage to stay just as it is." It would be useful to have both husband and wife consider these statements closely, and for each of them to rank them in order of preference— which ones they lean away from, and which ones they lean towards— comparing their opinions afterwards to see where they agree and disagree.

Where we agree and disagree can surprise us. Frank discussion of what we think and feel often falls away soon after the wedding. Assumptions, hopes, and fears begin to intrude, and in time all we have are our fantasies of a perfect marriage— and the ways in which we believe they are not being met. Conjoint marital therapy includes reopening these clogged avenues of communication to re-establish a more mutual reality. Then, where we agree and disagree will not need to be taken personally; instead these differences can be recognized as individual characteristics, without having to feel defensive or mistrusting.

When a problem arises we often identify with one point of view or another; usually these points of view are felt to be opposed, which we then typically argue out in one manner or another. This adversarial approach may bring about a quick solution, but only in an atmosphere in which one person has won and the other has lost. A better way of resolving a problem involves the collaborative approach, in which two people explore the problem as members of a team, looking at it from every point of view— rather than simply two— together. In this way personal attacks do not need to be experienced, and a mutual appreciation may develop instead.

I often suggest good old-fashioned kitchen-table paper-and-pencil work to promote this collaboration. If you are trying to decide about something that you seem to disagree upon, you might list all the reasons each of you would be in favor of it on one side of a sheet of paper, together, and then list on the other side of the same piece of paper all the reasons each of you would be against it. In doing this you may discover how much you really agree after all, and the best solution can emerge on its own merit— without having to be debated. This alliance clearly requires patience and discipline, but at the same time it will encourage increasing trust, respect, and mutual care.

Another kitchen-table assignment that often proves useful is the listing of all the changes you want to have made. Each of you might make three such lists: the changes you want to make in yourself, the changes you want the other person to make, and the changes you think should be made in the home, the family, or the marriage. People are often surprised when they compare these lists afterwards, for there is usually more agreement on issues than is generally assumed. Always, just discovering where there is agreement helps organize the steps that must next be taken, and establishes a workable level of cooperation in taking them.

A marital journal may become a significant tool, using one of those blank books often used for private diaries— but this time one that would be shared. The first entry is written together, perhaps a vision statement about your marriage, or the lists of changes that you have already developed and want to pursue. Then— over the next few days— one of you will compose a thoughtful statement on the following page, which then is signed and dated. In time what has been written will be read and considered thoughtfully, before a statement in response is composed.

Unlike conversations that are differently understood, or easily eroded by a vulnerable memory, this book— which must never be read by any other person— will develop a deliberate sort of dialogue, one that will support a deepening of trusting communication. Over the months and years it will become an extremely valued document that faithfully chronicles the changes as they take place in the relationship.

If there is a fundamental problem in the human condition, it is the trancelike state of addiction into which we can so easily slip, and fall asleep. We must remember: life is not meant to be convenient or pleasant, it is simply alive, and to be enjoyed to the hilt— even the work and the discomfort of it. As exhilarating as it may be however, at times we may become, for a while, so weary that we would rather avoid than embrace the challenges of life. We have to be careful not to indulge the natural tendency to rest beyond a healthy need for recuperation.

Relationships provide the means and ultimate challenge to remain awake in life; they are there to help us learn about ourselves and how we live— as a mirror that reflects our attitudes and behavior. But it is not the mirror that changes us: we change ourselves before it. We do not shave the mirror, nor put lipstick upon it; we work upon our reflection within it, and depend upon its reflection to do so effectively.

Because it is as ambiguous as life itself, and its relationships, marriage never remains the same— it has its seasons. Some in fact may reach a natural conclusion and be done. There is no shame or blame in this, for any two people may grow in such different directions that they simply no longer belong together. As with great symphonies, when their final chords are played, I know that things do not fail simply because they have come to their conclusion.

This then becomes a time for redefining the relationship, for reaffirming the original regard and putting it on a new level. Marital therapy is now grief work, for something is tangibly, permanently, absent. What had been made available must now be integrated in a different way, so that each person is free to go on in life. In grief work of any sort, our feelings of sadness and anger are not simply dismissed— they are held in the wider context of newer feelings, feelings of gratitude and forgiveness. This work is done in order that each person may feel at last complete in the relationship, knowing that the relationship is at last complete within them.

This article previously appeared in The Listener: volume three, issue one (Spring 1998).

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