One sweltering afternoon, a dear friend of mine and his wife were having a heated argument. Their temperaments, much like the temperature, rose well beyond their comfort so they decided to pause their fight and “cool off” on their porch. The much-needed quiet accompanied a gentle breeze and gave my friend the freedom to think clearly. In his refreshed state he began to chuckle.
“What are you laughing at?” his wife queried.
“I get it honey” he replied between chortles.
“You get nothing” she retorted.
“No, no, honey, I get it. You expose me. When I’m sad, when I’m angry, when I’m hurt, you expose me for who I am. And because you expose me, you are my growth.”
As a psychologist I have often joked with the couples I work with that you never want to see how three things are made: laws, sausages, and healthy marriages. Marriage is the process of being exposed for who we really are. It is the slow peeling of the masks we believe make us attractive leaving us with the blemishes, scabs, and scars from living. What distinguishes a healthy marriage from an unhealthy marriage is the couples’ ability to experience the pain of being exposed and see it as a path to sincere intimacy.
All too often, growth in marriage is marred by the pain of exposure. Being exposed in front of a partner, just like being graded in front of a class, is a position of acute vulnerability. In marriage, we may have to admit that we feel like a failure, that we are insufficient, or that we intentionally hurt our partner. Some marriages are unable to experience growth because couples are unwilling to endure the pain of exposure and be honest with who they are. This creates a relational context where spouses get sneaking suspicions about each other and try to expose their partner to confirm their perceived hypocrisy. The exposed individual senses this threat and often covers the perceived flaw with dramatics, lies, or resentment to ensure their hypocrisy remains in the dark. The pain of exposure prevents us from admitting who we really are, stunting and neutering our capacity for intimate relationships.
Because this is a human process, it gets more complex. Not only are we petrified of being exposed for who we really are, but we simultaneously crave to be exposed for who we are. The only thing we want more than keeping ourselves safe from exposure is being exposed to someone who we know truly loves us. This push for intimacy and pull from exposure creates an odd push/pull within our marriages. We want to be reliant on our partners, but desperately to want them to see us as sufficient. We yearn for intimacy, but fear being vulnerable. This swirling of desire and fear further inflames the inherent pain of being exposed, blurring our ability to create closeness.