David Brooks begins his chapter on marriage with a poem written by a man who has just lost his wife. I share it with you here :
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around my apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months I got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner; under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped.
A year later, repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt
David uses this poem as a poignant and heartfelt reminder, that marriage is not about the big things in life. It is in fact, a bonding narrative, founded on mutual love and respect, which embraces small acts of love and kindness every day, that retains connection and joy in sharing life together. When you lose your partner, it is not the big things you miss, whether they were fat or thin, or intelligent or not, but at the end of the day what you miss are things like physical touch, acts of kindness, things that your partner does or says to make you feel valued; that is what marriage or relationship does for us, it makes us whole. David ends this section with the following :
“At the end of the day there is the brutal grinding effort of surrendering the ego to the altar of marriage, giving up part of yourself, the desires you have, for the larger union” .
This is the sacrificial love that I talk to my couples about, the love that says not ‘what can you do for me, but what can I do for you?’. Reciprocal, sacrificial love is the sacred secret of a true and lasting connection between two people in relationship. Many who come to see me have never seen this perspective, marriage was always about romantic love and what it will do to make me ‘me’ happy. This kind of love is exciting and wonderful in the beginning but it is unsustainable. Brooks describes love as a ‘quality of attention’. Brooks argues, somewhat radically although I believe truthfully, that the secret to a great marriage is when each individual sees their own selfishness as the main problem, and acts to change this. He says that the nature of the relationship, whether conflictual or harmonious depends on each partner’s willingness to change.
David tells us that marriage is a revolution, that the process of becoming two after being one, is often experienced as an invasion. He follows this by talking of the great ‘prize’ that a long, deep relationship brings. To illustrate this profoundly he quotes George Eliot :
What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined for life – to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of last parting.”
David quotes Judith Wallerstine and Sandra Blakeslee in quoting a list of difficult tasks that marriage throws at us. Tasks, that I believe, many a couple on the verge of marriage or co-habitation never even think off. Possibly this is why the power struggle comes as such a shock when it appears.
Here they are:
· To separate emotionally from the family of childhood
· To build intimacy combined with some autonomy
· To embrace the role of parents and absorb the impact of “Her Majesty, the Baby’s” arrival
· To confront the inevitable crises of life
· To establish a rich sexual life
· To create a safe haven for the expression of difference
· To keep alive the early idealized images of each other
Some food for thought……
The power struggle is that point in the relationship when the romantic stage comes to an end and for some reason, all the things people fell in love with in each other, become an irritation. This is the stage where people normally arrive in the couselor’s office as the level of conflict and withdrawal escalates.
Brooks argues that marriages survive when the partners pass subjects such as empathy, communication and recommitment. I would add compassion and sacrificial love.
Quoting the guru John Gottman, Brooks states that happy marriages “have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in big ways but in little ways day in and day out. “
In marriage, we need to understand how the past is present in the marriage. We say in Imago that a person’s past sits in the connection between the two people and it is important to be aware of its presence, and the way in which each party is triggered. He brings out the important point that before the couple met, the individual people were probably unaware of the cultural and social influences on their behaviour. It was just the way they did things. But in marriage these influences emerge, sometimes they erupt, causing the partners to wonder what on earth has happened. This would be the start of the power struggle.
Brooks talks of the demand-withdrawal cycle, so common in troubled relationships. When a partner perceives a request, perhaps seen as a demand. a s finding some deficiency in them, perhaps they perceive themselves as being devalued by the ‘tone’ of the request, they will react defensively and conflict will result. If this pattern is repeated too often one partner, or both, will withdraw to avoid further pain. It is in this way that disconnection happens. Every negative and painful interaction causes another layer to be added to their survival suits (a term I learned from Hedy Schliefer) – and connection, understanding, compassion and sacrificial love become impossible.
Although he is a journalist, Brooks is surprising in the profound understanding that his writing displays about the bond between two humans. The complex dynamics that come with it; as well as his insights into the simplicity of what heals. That while material gifts, however large or small, may have a transient benefit, an embrace that conveys the wordless message ‘you are my world’ or ‘I am so proud of you’ will melt the hardest heart and restore a loving connection.
David introduces an interesting concept which he calls ‘metis’. Greek mythology leads us to believe that ‘metis’ refers to the “mother of wisdom and deep thought.” Brooks argues that people in an enduring marriage achieve a state by which they have a “kind of practical wisdom an intuitive awareness of how things are, how things go together, and how things will never go together.” I guess he is referring to a kind of relational ‘metis’, an unspoken wisdom that knows instinctively what works.
Brooks argues that the quality of communication, or at Imago we might say, connection, is the same thing as the quality of the relationship. He says “conversation is how marriage partners rub off on each other.” At Imago we use the dialogue tool to give couples a new way of communicating, one that values listening, understanding and is underpinned with respect and honour for each other. Gottman (in Brooks) talks about ‘toward’ and ‘against’ bids in communication. A ‘towards bid’ is one that would be responded to positively and taken up to continue the conversation. An ‘against bid’ would essentially be a conversation stopper like ‘I’m busy right now’. In Imago we teach couples to respect each other’s time and to request a mutually suitable time for a dialogue. I think I am somewhat biased to the Imago way, as I prefer this than the protocol of ‘bids’. When facilitating relationships, I often encourage my couples, usually at the end of the session, to be kind to each other and to practice being kind in the week ahead. Gottman (in Brooks) identifies 4 kinds of destructive interaction that will increase conflict and decrease connection in relationships. These are :
Kindness overcomes these.
In the postmodern world we live in, society values individualism which unfortunately is a challenge in a relationship. Abraham Maslow argues that self-actualisation is a state that one strives for as being the highest level of human potential. As individuals in the western world this is a very attractive goal, which many of us strive for. But in a relationship this self-driven momentum, separates rather than connects two people. You will find that your partner, or a child will always be drawing you away from yourself. Actualisation of the relationship or the family becomes the objective. Wallerstine and Blakeslee, quoted earlier, remind us that one of the tasks of early marriage is to negotiate between intimacy and autonomy and arrive at a dynamic agreement that reflects the needs of each individual as certain times of their lives. Brooks argues that relationship demands surrender and the transcendence of self for the sake of the larger relational alliance.
I am going to end this reflection on relationship by quoting Joseph Campbell, (in Brooks) who I think outlines the ultimate challenge that we face when we enter into relationship :
“..Campbell viewed it (marriage) as a heroic question in which the ego is sacrificed for the sake of a relationship. In the ethos of commitment, marriage is a moral microcosm of life, in which each person freely chooses to take on responsibility for others, and become dependent on others in order to do something larger. In this understanding of marriage, people don’t become lovely by loving themselves, they become lovely by loving others, by making vows to others, by taking on the load of others and fulfilling those vows and carrying that load. All the dignity and gravity of life is in this surrender.”
…..and how lovely is this?
Brooks, D. 2019. The Second mountain : The quest for a moral life.