I was sitting at a round conference table in an empty office when I called Pat to tell her the news. Pat was my mentor and a professor of Contemplative Psychotherapy at the university I'd graduated from and she'd supported me when I'd begun my relationship.
"We're engaged!" I told her, knowing she'd be excited, since she'd known what a good man Chris was.
"Wonderful!" she cried.
And then she said something I hadn't expected:
"It'll make it harder to break up."
Now, when you share the bubbly-on-the-way-to-marriage news with someone you love, that's not exactly the response you think you're going to get. But from Pat, I understood. Pat taught me many things, but most of all she taught me that relationships were a path of growth; a spiritual path, if you will. And knowing this, it made sense that she'd be thrilled to hear that I was committing myself, not just to Chris, but to this path of opening and learning.
Twelve years later and with some major ups and downs in our marriage behind us, I still believe in marriage. Whether you marry someone of the same sex, of the other sex, or somewhere in between. Whether you wear a white dress or a blue feather boa. Whether you are married in a church by a priest or by yourselves under the moon with only the waves as the officiant. I believe in the commitment of marriage.
So, despite high divorce rates or less than Hollywood-level passion, here are five reasons to still believe in marriage:
1. You get to see your sh#$%t in all its glory.
When we're in love, our brain lights up (in EEGs) similarly to the way an addict's brain lights up. We are truly high. This is, in part, because we have a sense of having found someone to complete us. Even those of us who feel whole and are proud of our independent sense of self probably remember the feeling of having found, in our mates, an answer to a question we didn't even know we were asking.
As we get to know someone, however, the reality of the continued presence of own personal brand of childhood wounding rears its head again. Perhaps our partner doesn't give us quite the attention we thought we'd finally receive that we didn't get so long ago. This is when we too often begin to fixate on the ways we might have been wrong about our partner. "Maybe she's not as great as I thought..." "Maybe he's not as mature as I'd believed..."
The fact is, when our partners are by-and-large available, loving, respectful people, what we are often confronting is the truth that no one can fix our old "stuff" but us. And here is the true start of the journey. Do we distance? Do we cling? Do we get angry and blaming? Are we able to stay present and communicate our needs or do we disconnect?
Marriage helps us stay and move through the icky stuff. It gives us another reason not to run from ourselves and from the promise of love and intimacy. My favorite author and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says in her book The Wisdom of No Escape:
We're here to get to know and study ourselves. The path, the way to do that, our main vehicle, is going to be meditation, and some sense of general wakefulness.
We can bring this wakefulness into our relationships.
2. You get to practice feeling vulnerable and being okay.
So here we are. The honeymoon is over and some less-than-perfect reality is in our face. Our fears were not, in fact, obliterated by love. In fact, in loving our partner new and old fears are arising in creative and unexpected ways. This is tough stuff, and marriage (and commitment in general) gives us extra incentive to stick with it. This is a chance to stay with what is coming up and learn to take care of ourselves in a new way.
3. You get to know what kind of stories you like to make up.
Commitment can feel like a sturdy house or it can feel like a cage. Usually it feels like both at different times. When we realize the imperfection of our relationship or of our partners, we usually start creating stories to justify our dissatisfaction. Maybe it's, "I really need a more social partner than I have..." or "I just don't think I can handle her corny sense of humor!" The fact is, unless we're dealing with red flag issues (abuse, addiction, etc.) these are the habitual ways we shut down. Criticism, fixation on the negative, withdrawal. We can learn so much about our focus, our attention, and our open-heartedness from watching these stories.
4. You learn about how to embrace imperfection.
Similar to number three, when imperfection in our partners comes to light, and we know we're "stuck" with them, what do we do? Do we shut down? Get cranky and snappy? Or do we soften, communicate our needs, practice gratitude? Marriage can be a relational meditation, as we turn back towards our partner again and again. Breathe, and settle in to the feelings and awareness of the moment. And as Pema Chodron says:
Meditation is a process of lightening up, of trusting the basic goodness of what we have and who we are, and of realizing that any wisdom that exists, exists in what we already have.
5. You learn how to love another person.
Of course this can be learned through other ways than marriage. But the bottom line is, marriage is a chance to experience the wild ride that is life with an open heart. Knee surgery, sleep deprivation, creative pursuits, accomplishments and setbacks -- there is something profound about continuing to build love and trust through the wonder of it all. Over time, we learn about our heart's wide-open places and constrictions and marriage is a tool we can use to loosen, expand, and embrace ourselves and another.