I’m reminded of John Cleese in a comedy sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Cleese is dressed as a woman, Anne Elk, a paleontologist with a new theory about the brontosaurus, being interviewed by a television reporter. “I have a theory, which is mine, too,” Anne says. Then she frustrates the reporter by clearing her throat and coughing for several minutes. Then, finally, she says it: “My theory is, the brontosaurus is thin on one end, much, much thicker in the middle, and thin again on the far end.”
I have a theory, too. But it’s not about dinosaurs, it’s about human beings. Like Anne’s theory, it is so obvious that it borders on ridiculous to say it out loud. Yet, that which is obvious can hide from us precisely because it’s so obvious. So I find myself saying it out loud to people, especially people trying hard to fight for their marriage.
My theory is, human beings, by the time they reach their 25th birthday, are each, in their own way, beat to hell by life.
I mean by this that adult human beings each bear a particular wound or wounds into their adult lives and adult relationships. Some form of psychic/emotional injury is part of what defines us. All of us. Nobody gets to their 25th birthday without some combination of losses, betrayals and injustices shaping who we are and thus shaping what we believe about love and intimacy.
It is not possible to participate in thriving intimacy but that intimacy must provoke this psychic scar tissue. It’s like the way your old high school knee injury aches on a cold and rainy day. Not only is it not possible, but I’m convinced that emotionally committed relationships are designed to do this. It’s a good thing. Great love awakens psychic injuries and then presents us with an opportunity to take the next step of healing and resolving those injuries. When marriage works across a lifetime, it works by providing an ideal context wherein we develop and grow into increasingly free, competent and whole human beings.
This, I think, is what author/researcher David Schnarch means when he calls marriage “a people growing machine.”
So, if thriving, growing life partnership is what we seek and value, it behooves us to become learned experts about our own particular brokenness. This is part of the discipline - the work - of marriage, that we would embrace without excuse the particular ways our brokenness is habituated to “act out” when threatened by intimacy. Each of us has an array of mostly unconscious strategies for mitigating, dodging, protesting or interrupting vulnerability and closeness, strategies we deploy even as our conscious selves grasp desperately after closeness with our beloved.
If deep intimacy in life partnership is what we seek, then we must become cognizant of the ways we avoid it. What do I tend to do when I’m feeling afraid, anxious and insecure in love? What particular behaviors or moods do I mobilize when I’m feeling alone, neglected, or feeling hurt, slighted and taken for granted? What are my particular dysfunctional ways of behaving when I’m trying to say how desperately I want to feel close to my beloved?
I’m not kidding when I say that sometimes life partners scream hateful obscenities at each other as a perversely encoded private language. “(Expletive deleted)” is one strange way to say, “I love you, I miss you, and I’m terrified because I can’t feel deeply connected to you.”
In the NFL, a player will face a huge fine if he loses his playbook. Well, of course. If the playbook should fall into enemy hands, the season could be ruined. Your opponents will know just what plays you will run, and thus, how to stop them.
But your mate is not your enemy. So, in life partnership, it’s just the opposite. Partners willingly exchange playbooks. “Hey, sweetie, this is the play I like to run when I’m feeling disconnected and alienated from you. Here’s the play I run when being close to you forces me to look at my own brokenness. Here’s how to recognize the formation. And here’s how to stop it. Here’s how to make that play not work.”
It’s a paradox. At once you and your mate surround your mutual brokenness with compassion … and a non-negotiable expectation. To wit: that, over time, you will less and less often find it necessary to deploy behaviors that get in the way of the joy and wellness that you came together to find.
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.