Downward Mobility and Marriage

“Love must be learned, and learned again and again;
there is no end to it.
Hate needs no instruction, but waits only to be provoked.”
Katherine Anne Porter
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The verisimilitude in Porter’s quotation cannot be denied. There’s brilliance in these short comments. Have you mastered what it means to love? Probably not, but even if you have, tomorrow is a new day. Love must be learned – and then “learned again” – and after that, learned “again.” There is “no end” to this learning. You might master many things, but not this one. It’s like mastering God. You can’t do that either. (Funny to think about it this way, since the Bible says “God is love.”) If this sounds unnecessarily negative, review the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 – and please, don’t think of weddings! Instead, think of marriages:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way.It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

These are such beautiful words. So powerful. So timeless. They give a profound definition of love that can be “road tested” in any relationship – but especially in marriage. I remember in my teens when I contemplated marriage. I just knew I was going to be a great husband. (I had the same misplaced confidence about my parenting skills before I had children.) Then reality hit.

Skipping ahead some (so as not to unnecessarily depress or disillusion the reader, or to cause myself to want to stick my head in the oven), I find myself now married for the second time, and sometimes the strangest thing happens. Sometime my wife says something about me (a criticism) that I remember hearing from my first wife. Now, you know when that happens, you have to at least try to pay attention. There’s a pretty good chance that, in addition to the spouses, God is speaking to you.

And here can we turn back to Katherine Anne Porter for more illumination. She described marriage as “… the great revealer, the great white searchlight turned on the darkest places of human nature.” I’m telling you, she should have been a theologian. More valuable insight confronts us here, for here we learn that “human nature” has its “darkest places.” (You may have noticed this theme in the Bible as well.) And marriage, she says, acts like a searchlight, seeking out those previously hidden places, and acting as “the great revealer!” Relationships of all kinds will do this of course, but not like in marriage where there is more intimacy, an abundance of time spent together – and no escape! Remember this proverb, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool mom.”? Well, it’s the same with your spouse. All the crud and cruelty,  the shallowness and selfishness, the defensiveness, the laziness, and all the behavior driven by fear or lust or greed or pride – will all be “revealed.”

Porter provides a great service by letting us know we’re not alone. It doesn’t matter. She’s speaking to everyone. It’s not just you. It’s not just your spouse. In the words of C. S. Lewis, we’re all either “sons of Adam” or “daughters of Eve.” This is what we bring to our marriages – a distinct resemblance to Adam and Eve. Do you remember how they turned on each other? How in the end, the lovers sold each other out, like Julia and Winston in Orwell’s 1984? When our first parents turned from God, the logic and order of their lives was destroyed. (There was “a disturbance in the force.”) Now they would think of themselves first, refuse to take responsibility for their actions and shift the blame to the other – just to mention a few endearing new behaviors. These behaviors would come to them quite naturally, like Porter’s hate, “which waits only to be provoked.” In contrast, something beautiful and so very necessary as love, would be counterintuitive and almost impossible to practice consistently. It must be “learned, and learned again and again.”

Looking at it another way, we could say that the things that are required in marriage are anything but mysterious: Put the other person first. Control your temper. Let the truth prevail. Humble yourself. Be courteous – and so on. Just do these things – just show love in these actual behaviors, and you’ll be fine. It’s clear that anyone can have a good marriage. It’s only necessary to practice these simple behaviors which everyone understands. (It’s not like figuring out the “sound of one hand clapping”, or whether or not a tree that falls in a lonely forest makes a sound.)

But looking at it yet another way, we could say that the things that are required in marriage while simple, are also simply nearly impossible – or at least let’s say “exceedingly difficult.” (Many people seem to find it so at least, if we can gather anything from high divorce rate, as just one measure, or the Six Word Memoir book on Love and Heartbreak. which is full of painful insight.) What’s simple to understand proves not-so-simple to do. We find we disappoint ourselves, our spouse, others we know – and God. What I believe we find is that, without his help, we can hardly do it. Without his help, we have little chance of success. (I’d like to say “no chance”, but I’m trying to be academically credible. Really though, I mean “no chance.”

What then to do? I think I know. Again, it’s simple and it’s not. I’ll give you a hint for now. It’s not more information, more motivation, or just trying harder. It’s not those things – as helpful as they sometimes are. It’s more than that – or maybe less.

I’m going to separate it from this blog entry though, because this is one is long enough, and out of sympathy for my readers, both of whom must be pretty worn out by what I’ve said already. Pray for me then, as I attempt to compose part two – and what is much more challenging and not at all as much fun – living it out.

In the next installment of this discussion we will really see the centrality of downward mobility in marriage as an approach which can lead to fullness of life and love.

 

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Marital Conflict and Downward Mobility: “The Best Fight Ever!”

Actually, it’s wasn’t a fight, but it would have been any other time. It wasn’t an argument either, since we weren’t doing that. It was us talking about something very painful I had done to my wife. And it was the “best ever” because in the past, this never would have happened. We would have argued and fought, and most likely, nothing good would have come of it. Instead the outcome would have been only greater misunderstanding, pain, and distance between us. Here’s what I think made for part of the difference. (And it definitely relates to “downward mobility.”)

I gave up any right to defend myself. This is huge for me, since I’m known for my defensiveness. It’s a big part of how I’ve been for decades. (Being wrong would not have kept me from defending myself, nor made it any easier to renounce such self-defense.) I gave up my right to defend myself because I knew I had to. I knew what was natural and familiar to me was counterproductive. It’s just not possible to demonstrate love to someone you’ve hurt while mounting a defense strategy. (In my times with God, if I’m learning the power of relinquishing my rights – think here of the example of Jesus in Philippians 2 – then I will be better prepared to do so in this kind of situation.)

I gave up any right to be understood. Obviously, it’s important to understand and be understood, but timing is everything. When the other person is hurting, it’s not time for explanations that sound like excuses – or may actually be excuses. I have to approach my wife in her pain, and wait for another time – which may or may not come – to hope to be understood. Obviously, none of this comes easily.

In the midst of most arguments, it’s common for both participants to relate how their partner “always” or “never” does a certain thing. Motives are judged, and many times, because of the hurt, the very worst interpretations are placed upon innumerable actions of the distant and recent past. It can feel very unfair, and it can be very unfair. It can also be a painful time when God reveals some unpleasant “stuff” about you through your spouse. Selah. Either way, it’s natural to want to explain yourself. One hopes that doing so will create a more informed, forgiving environment. This is precisely what must be given up. The urge to be understood comes naturally, but in the presence of great hurt, progress requires another approach. My focus must be my wife and her hurt, not my self-protection. (If I’ve learned not to make excuses to God when he reveals my dark underbelly, that will be training of use to me now.)

I gave up any right for things to make sense. My training and life experience makes me a very analytical, cerebrally-oriented person. I’ve been trained to “distinguish the things that differ” and, almost like a lawyer, to avoid logical fallacies and press hard to win the case. For irrationally to prevail, or go unchallenged, seems a senseless and hopeless approach. After all, Jesus himself said, “The truth will set you free.” (I suppose this is just a subset of “needing to be understood” above, but it’s helpful to me to separate it out.) It’s counterintuitive to leave illogic unchallenged, and that’s the point. The counterintuitive way must be chosen. Trusting in the power of logic and reason demonstrates misplaced trust – as if hurt could be healed by logic and reason. (Again, if I’ve learned in God’s presence, to trust in Him whether it makes sense or not – and here we could think of Job – then I’ll more easily remember the limits of logic here.)

I gave up any right to control the outcome. I’ve mentioned already what I can‘t allow myself to do. The question remains, what will I need to make myself do? What specific change to promise? What sacrifice might I need to offer up? What do I have and what do I love that may be required from me as part of moving forward? And even the relationship itself – what will become of it? Will this be a “full moment” (Nouwen) that works for painful but powerful transformation and growth in the relationship? Will this represent the entrance into an unprecedented time of pain (the “for worse” of the marriage vows)? And when things are really bad, there is always the unspoken question, “Will this be the end of the relationship?”

I have some control over the outcome, of course – and that’s what I’m writing about. Ultimately though, I can only submit myself and my partner – and the final outcome, to God. I can’t approach God in this process as if striking a bargain – “I”ll give up these rights of mine, if you’ll give me what I want or feel I deserve in my marriage.” The Psalmist says, “With all that I am, I wait quietly upon God, for my hope is in him.” To “wait quietly” is to submit. We submit because we confess that we don’t know what is best. We don’t know what God is doing. And to “hope in him” is to depend on my relationship with him more than anything else. I need to trust him, and I can trust him. I need to have hope in this process, and I can have hope. I can have hope because of his unfailing love for me and for my spouse. I can hope because the God of the Resurrection and the Exodus (the two great saving events of the Bible) is exceedingly more than sufficient to save. But to hope in him also means a release of anxiety about the outcome, a refusal to bargain with him or to manipulate my spouse. It means stepping out into the great greyness of “unknowing” – and “waiting in expectation” (Psalm 5:3) upon God.

Postscript: I don’t have any illusions that I did a great job in this conversation of ours, and I don’t want to give that impression. My point is that I did much better than in the past – and that my taking a different approach allowed my wife to do much better too. (My friend Tad would explain that when I changed, the family “system” was changed.) More conversations and work must follow, and that’s why I wanted to remind myself of what to do. In forcing myself to think it through, and write it out clearly, I’m developing a Rule of Life for times of conflict. I know the only good strategy will focus on being changed myself. I also know that only God can change me – and I know that’s a big order. I’m counting on the fact that He is a very big God, and on that, although I’m tempted to do so at times, I’m not giving up.

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“My life is a mystery which I do not attempt to really understand, as though I were led by the hand in a night where I see nothing, but can fully depend on the love and protection of Him who guides me.” – Thomas Merton