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.
Life in marriage, then, begins when we are able to endure the pain of being exposed and transform it into personal and relational growth. Unlike promises found in countless relationship articles, intimacy in marriage cannot be achieved by simply applying six rules or doing 11 things that other healthy marriages do. Rather, closeness in marriage occurs as we are exposed and learn how to love ourselves and our spouses in our exposure. This process, like writing a song, is inherently unique and cannot be predicted or premeditated. I cannot learn to love myself by applying someone else’s marriage rule any more than I can learn math by using someone else’s calculator. I have to do the work to solve the intimate mystery that is myself and my partner so that we can both be fully alive. A healthy marriage is more like embarking upon a great expedition than going on a guided tour, it only begins once we venture into the unknown.
While frustrating, the unknown-ness of this paradigm draws out the most profound aspect of marriage: in loving ourselves and our spouses in our exposure we create more of us. The more I am able to love myself in being vulnerable before my wife, the more I am able to be myself. Healthy marriages are not defined by the couples’ ability to exist peacefully or follow a list of rules, but by the depth in which they are able to discover and experience themselves. When our vulnerability is met with love, we become more of who we are. A healthy marriage, then, is an ongoing revelation of the intimate riddle of personhood.
Suddenly, our pain in marriage is no longer an impingement of personhood but the chiseling away of our insincerity. Each fight and every joy is a unique opportunity for us to become more of ourselves. In pledging our lives to one another, we create the opportunity for us to be exposed, and thus to become. Yet, we often allow the fleeting pain of embarrassment prevent us from embracing our exposure and becoming ourselves. The sad reality of marriage is that it is so, so short. For every marriage, the best case scenario is that we die first, that we can grow intimate over years and not have to endure the pain of missing our spouse. We have, at best, 40 years to uncover our personhood, 40 years to solve the mystery of intimacy.
Because marriage is a process of being exposed, of being revealed for who we truly are, it is one of the most profound prospects for self-discovery. Much too often the pain of exposure blurs our self-perception preventing honesty, and subsequently, intimacy. This leads couples to be bored in their marriages, claiming to be too busy or too tired to actually engage with one another, all the while screaming for an enlivening connection. Couples, in the midst of their push for intimacy and pull from being exposed, never seem to realize that their marriage will only last a short while, that the unique pain their spouse causes creates an equally unique opportunity for self-discovery. Unlike laws or sausages, the messiness of marriage is worth enduring because our lives together are so, so short. Legal declarations will endure but the opportunity for me to be me is limited by my breath. Long after I’m dead people will enjoy savory sausages, but I may only have today to look at my wife and say, “You are my growth.”