By Ken Trainor
The best book I read in 2013 was Passionate Marriage by a therapist named David Schnarch, who says that what passes for love is often little more than seeking external validation. We "love" the other person as long as he or she validates us, but since that level of regard usually wanes over the years, it's not a surprise that couples frequently grow more distant.
Despite the apparent "distance," paradoxically, the difficulties most couples experience actually result from being "emotionally fused," i.e. stuck in patterns, sometimes established long before marriage, that lead to repetition of the same old arguments about the same old issues.
Emotional fusion is the opposite of intimacy. Another paradox: We are capable of genuine intimacy only when we become our own person — when, as Schnarch calls it, we "differentiate." That doesn't happen till we grow as individuals, until we learn to "self-validate" instead of seeking it from someone else.
And that often doesn't happen until the difficulties in our marriages force one or both to grow.
Many of the couples he works with are sheepish at first because they're having troubles so "early" in their marriages. But he asks them a question that challenges their assumption:
"What makes you think you shouldn't be having these difficulties?"
The "problems," he tells them, make perfect sense. The key is going through the process of discovering what they mean, which the couple must figure out for themselves.
The payoff for all this effort is a passionate marriage, which, Schnarch insists, is not a contradiction in terms.
But love and marriage aren't synonymous either. Contrary to the famous song, they don't always go together like a horse and carriage. If anything, we tend to put the cart before the horse, i.e. marriage before love.
Some marriages dissolve because the two people aren't willing to do what it takes to save what is savable. Some fail because the love the marriage started with never evolved into the love needed to make a mature marriage work.
If you don't grow as a person, love won't grow either, and neither will your marriage. The kind of marriage that works when you're young won't work when you're middle-aged — which, if memory serves, is when most marriages end.
"Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort," wrote the poet Wendell Barry. "It creates pain that it is the only cure for. It is the only comfort for its hardships. ... Though we had our troubles, we had them in a true perspective. The universe, as we could see any night, is unimaginably large, and mostly empty, and mostly dark. We knew we needed to be together more than we needed to be apart."
Love is a remarkable journey. It is not for the faint of heart. It is not the end of growth, but the beginning. In true love, we don't lose ourselves. We find ourselves. In the fairy tales, living "happily ever after" is the end of the adventure. But with true love, the adventure is just beginning.
A marriage without adventure is like a carriage without the horse. Some choose to stay in a carriage that never goes anywhere — the "good enough" marriage. Some just want to ride the horse, uncoupled from the carriage, usually alone. Fortunately, those aren't the only options.
I'm a romantic. I still have a tendency to sentimentalize and romanticize love. There's a time and place for that (this Friday, for instance). But romance isn't the whole story. Love is a mysterious force, which we are only beginning to understand. It simultaneously pushes us from behind and draws us forward.
Love is the means, not the end.
Intimacy is possible. Passion is possible. So is romance.
I still believe in true love, but it's not what we grew up watching in the movies.
As Leo Tolstoy wrote (by way of Chris Ware in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review section), "Each time of life has its own kind of love."
But with a little bit of luck, and a lot of personal growth, it keeps getting better.
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