Tuesday, June 09, 2009

EcclectiCarrie on Marriage and Relationships

Carrie and I go waaaay back online, like to the dark ages before yahoo groups and bulletin boards. We've walked through so many deep waters together, we had to buy scuba suits to hang out. She and I haven't agreed on everything (understatement of the new millenia) yet her friendship (loyal as Paul Newman to Joanne Woodward) has been a challenging and nurturing one for me. She's also been through a few things and somehow, that seems to render any one of us a little more humble, self-aware and compassionate.

So her comments on marriage, health and relationships jumped out at me today (in italics):

I've been thinking about this discussion a lot today and I realized what my answer is. Should we reverence long term marriage? No. That doesn't sound healthy at all. We shouldn't reverence any marriage. What I do think we should do is support and encourage healthy relationships.

I like how you tackled the thorny term "reverence." Well done. When I think about the term, it really does seem that we are elevating the institution (something I criticize in my talk about Religionless Christianity) over the people within the institution.

People are meant to be relational. It's built into us. I don't think many of us can, or want to, escape the desire to belong in some way to another person or group of people: family, community, group of friends, etc. I know we flow in and out of those situation, but losing connections always comes at a cost, even when the relationship(s) has to be, or needs to be, over.

This is a really critical point. It's what drives us to work on our marriages, our relationships with our parents or children, even at times when they stop being within our reach, or good for us. Still, cashing in history shared with your family is an enormously costly choice, as any child of divorce can attest.

Because of the pain of letting go, I think most people hope for long term, committed relationships. In most human societies that includes the family unit and marriage. The history of marriage is probably fascinating, and full or wonderful and terrible things, but right now we'll just accept that it is the "gold standard" when it comes to a committed relationship (at least in modern, western society, which is pretty much all I know). When you add children in the mix, the legality of the institution, at least in theory (and I believe often in practice) does allow some form of safety net for children and mothers (and fathers, too, but usually mothers).

This is an excellent point. I was talking to a friend going through a painful divorce right now about how disillusioned I am about marriage. She quickly reminded me that right now, marriage is saving her. Having made the legal commitment, she is entitled to half of what they've built together over their 25+ years. If they hadn't married, she wouldn't have that legal leverage. In domestic violence literature, women are sometimes cautioned against "living with a man" simply because there is no protection legally should he turn violent or attempt to harm your assets. Marriage does provide (in a backwards kind of way) protection when you are getting out of a longterm relationship.

Maybe it's my E-extrovert personality, but a marriage is what I wanted, and I believe needed, to be content. It's what most people still want. We shouldn't revere it, because then we think the marriage is the only thing worth saving. The people involved become of secondary importance. What we do need is to help, encourage, respect, and support marriages and the people involved. When the relationship isn't healthy, we respect the people and then support them as they work through whatever has to happen.

This was my favorite paragraph.

I'm still a starry-eyed optimist sometimes. I know marriage can work, and that it's an incredible blessing. Working to get there is worth it. But faking it to pretend to be there isn't. I remember how painful that was.

I read once that marriages die two ways: the hot way (arguments, passionate make-up sessions, volatility and drama that eventually exhaust one or both partners) and the cold way (gradual distancing from each other with little connection over time that slowly moves the partners into their own self-protecting cells). Healthy marriages keep an empathic connection alive and avoid the pitfalls of hot and cold.

So no, marriages of any length should not be reverenced. The people involved should be supported and respected. The choice to be married should be respected, the choice not to be should be, too. Perhaps if we knew how to really incorporate our singles in this society, we'd have people who made better choices in relationships because they would already have relational support in community.

I totally agree with this. One interesting discovery of separation is how hard being single is, in this very married culture (particularly in the midwest). I'm not even all the way single, and yet I still feel it. Marriage is a badge of social respectability. Yet even last night, my son told me that one of his friends has parents who have already said they would divorce when their youngest child was finished with high school. This declaration was made when that child was 8 years old. For me, that's an example of thinking marriage itself is the thing, rather than the relationship.

Thanks Carrie.


Susanne Barrett said...

I love hearing the back and forthness of your conversation. Both of you are so wonderful at expressing hard things to express. KWIM?

carrie said...

Thanks for expanding and commenting on what I wrote, Julie. I don't feel overly qualified to talk about marriage and divorce, even though I've been married twice and divorced once. Part of the reason I don't always feel I can say anything is because I don't know why my marriage is so good. Sometimes I think it's like a parent who raises this great kid. We want to look for something they did right so we, too, can get the same results. In reality, while parenting has a big impact, and I'm sure parents with great kids did great things, it's so much more complicated than that...or at times so much simpler. Sometimes, you just get great kids..it's genetic. ;-) On the flip side, we can look at parents who are hurting over kids gone "wrong" and we want to look at the reasons so ours don't make the same choices. Good luck with that. Sometimes, kids are built to make a lot of reckless choices, and don't seem to learn from them. When it's your child, you just chose to love them anyway, pain and all.

But back to marriages. I can't give anyone advice on how to be happily married. Oh, sure, there are things to do to encourage good communications and such, but I'm not naive enough (anymore) to think perfectly intelligent people hadn't already thought of ways to improve those things. There's no more a blueprint for healthy marriages than there is for "good" kids. No guaranteed outcomes.

Will and I fit. We just do. We've never really worked at it. Our relationship is, honestly, easy. And just as honestly, I don't know why. We are far from perfect people. But with each other there is an ease and a trust that goes bone deep.

(to be continued)

carrie said...

I was talking at length today with a good friend (I've known her 24 years) about her (30 yr) marriage. It would be considered a good marriage, and they have 6 great kids- kind, hard-working, loyal. But she was sobbing on my shoulder because of this recurring problem in her marriage. She doesn't know when something she does or neglects to do will upset her husband. He shows his upset by withdrawing from her emotionally. Usually it is because she has done, or neglected to do, something that makes HIM feel neglected or rejected. (I'm so tempted to talk about fragile male egos, but that sexist, right? Sorry, but, damn, men can be so wrapped up in their sexual identity. Or their identity is so wrapped up in sex and sexuality. Another post is needed how how we can better raise our children to understand male and female sexuality and how it effects the way men and women relate to the world, the opposite sex, and each other.)

This friend loves her husband, he's a good guy, and a good dad. But her heartfelt cry was, "I can't take another 30 years of this. I need consistency and stability. We have to find a way to get past this one thing that trips us up over and over again and keeps us from being truly happy." (BTW, she sees her own part in this, just to be fair.)

I sat there with her feeling helpless. She only wanted me to listen, not solve, but still, I wanted something concrete to say. I couldn't think of anything. All my husband and I can do for them is continue to be their friends and sounding boards when needed. To support, love and not judge. But I keep thinking there has to be a way to help before it all gets out of whack. My friend was saying that their problems got started in that very first year of marriage, and their still trying to find their way out. She feels if they'd understood how men and women relate to sex and love, to affections and intimacy, and how all that effects communication, that they could have gotten off to a healthier start. I think she could be right.

Will and I seem to attract young couples. Most of our friends are actually 30 and under. Perhaps we're the family replacement in our society where parents and grandparents live elsewhere. I look at these young singles and married couples and wonder how we can help them start healthy relationships? I know having Erik (my son-in-law) move in with us three years before he and Hannah got married was such a good thing for him. He's never had any kind of healthy nuclear family, and after moving here he got lots of experience with the give and take of siblings, and an example of how a decent marriage works.

Well, I'm rambling. Sorry to usurp your comments. But, you know, I'm really not blogging anymore..... ;-)

Northwind said...

Hi Julie. In the seventh paragraph you're quoting Carrie (I think - it's in italics) and she gives one reason why people want long-term relationships - to avoid the pain of letting go. I can understand that point of view for sure, but I tend to think that the reason people want long-term relationships is that each of us wants a place to be, in the words of Richard Foster, "naked and vulnerable and free" – and safe. It may be to avoid something that we want that kind of commitment - but I think it more likely that it's because we WANT something we were made for. Intimacy.

I do not make any actual judgments or decisions for anyone else than myself. My experience is that marriage to Susan has been used to heal me, but I didn’t realize that was going on until we’d been married for at least fourteen or fifteen years. There’s a parable about the Kingdom of God being like a seed that a man plants and it grows into a large tree while he’s unaware of it and doesn’t even know it is happening – but then, there it is.

In earlier years of my life, emotional wounds and bone breaks occurred, through my own decisions and those of others: broken people in relationships with each other. Many of these were the common lot of people growing up in a broken world, though all of us experience them so personally. To carry the metaphor a little further, some of those bones had not set correctly, and the treatment involved re-positioning and re-setting them. For me, my emotional range of motion is getting better.

Just because a relationship is long-term doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good or deserving of reverence. I agree. But in my case the commitment provides the freedom to make decisions about how I’m going to act.

Colleen said...

I'm following this conversation, Julie, wishing I could express my thoughts. Between you and Carrie, you're doing it well for me, though. Love hearing your dialogue and feeling in a sense like we're talking (or listening, in my case) face to face, heart to heart. Thank you.

brianna said...

thank you so much for these thoughts. leaving a bad relationship might get you applause, but breaking up a marriage that has gone wrong still earns indictment. i haven't lost faith with marriage as an institution, but it's as terrible an idol as any.