Already is but not yet … I’ve used that phrase more than once in this column. The phrase points to a favorite paradox of mine. To wit: The most important endeavors of being human must be understood paradoxically. We claim the deepest realities (“already is”), then we spend days, years and sometimes a lifetime realizing the reality we have claimed (“but not yet”).
Things can be real that aren’t yet realized.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this same paradox in two unlikely bedfellows: marriage and divorce.
When two people wed, they claim a reality. A covenant symbol. The Radical We “until death do us part.” They say yes to a way of life based on an understanding that is on many days counterintuitive and contraindicated by biology. They say, “I will live as We.” They say, “I shall find my ‘I’ in service to the identity of We.”
They say, “I do.” And, “I will.” And, in as many words, “So be it. … It is.” And then they spend the rest of their lives regularly stumbling upon dimensions of character, behavior, words and attitudes not yet surrendered to An Entire Marriage. Their marriage, like all marriages, already is but not yet.
See, there is no way a mortal, finite human brain can or could possibly comprehend and anticipate every consequence and implication of marriage vows. (If we could, we might never marry!) We say, “I give all of myself to you,” and then, in regular intervals of epiphany, often prompted by our mate’s protests and indignation, we find ourselves confessing yet another part of ourselves we are withholding from An Entire Marriage: “Oh … ‘all of myself’ means that part of myself, too? Hmm.”
I tell couples all the time to relax into this paradox. Stop being surprised when you stumble across really important, crucial conversations you merely, simply, astonishingly forgot to have! Yep! You forgot to talk about this while you were courting and considering marriage. It never occurred to you. Don’t panic. Talk about it now. Feel ridiculous and dull-witted if you must, but talk about it now.
Be like the husband who sat, slightly stunned, in my office. His Spousal Unit, sitting on his left, just demanded an explanation (an accounting) for why only his name was printed on the checks! Eight years into a marriage, she asks about this now. She gets the checkbook out of her purse and points fiercely at his name, alone in black and white. “I don’t know,” he says. And then, “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Hmm. Maybe. More likely he didn’t mean any conscious malice by it. More likely this unconscious oversight does indeed “mean something.” It points to the next step in their journey of realizing An Entire Marriage. His name alone on the checkbook symbolizes what is yet withheld from his wife. And, conversely, what she has not yet claimed from him. Not the dollars. Rather, parts of himself.
Divorced single-parents, when they remarry, are notorious for selling themselves a not-entirely-conscious “bill of goods” regarding An Entire Marriage.
Nobody says it out loud — well, a few do — but the new marriage is designed to be a half-baked facsimile of An Entire Marriage. They may as well include in the vows, “and make no mistake, my allegiance will never be to you; rather, always first and foremost to my children, but Perpetual No. 2 in my life isn’t so bad. It will be nice to have you around when time permits me to pay attention to you.”
“I didn’t mean that,” remarried parents will protest.
“But you are living that way,” I will insist. Choosing the form of marriage absent an entire commitment to marriage’s radical content must inevitably be destabilizing to the new union.
So, marriage is a work in progress. It already is but not yet. There is no need to be discouraged when, together, you discover that one or the other is holding out. Holding back. Protecting some part of The Self both proud and frightened. In fact, these discoveries mean your marriage is chugging along right on schedule. It’s a good thing, if a little disconcerting and uncomfortable.
Perhaps the marriage vows should include this tag line: “And I promise to never let you off the hook. I expect you to choose An Entire Marriage.”
Next week, choosing An Entire Divorce.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.