Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In Appreciation of Duets

In Honor of SD & BS - Mazel Tov!

I’ve been re-reading parts of Carl’s writing about marriage (He’d be nearly 100 by now so it’s probably safe to now say “committed-long-term relationship”. From here forward, when I say “marriage“ feel free to paste in CLTR; to me, they are nearly synonymous.) Carl viewed marriage as the most natural venue where emotional growth could blossom. Granted, things were so much different even 40 years ago but in many ways we are so much the same in our psychological makeup.

Like Carl, I’ve long been an advocate of marriage. I’m certain there’s much to be said about the merits of singleness and even serial monogamy but that is not my focus in this column.

The thesis of this column is the idea that “maturity” is only half accomplished when we are physically and intellectually mature – the rest is a process that happens in the context of a marriage. Perhaps an apt metaphor is the event of two compatible DNA strands meeting and the explosive proliferation of Life that comes from it. One strand is insufficient (unless we dare venture into the world of cloning). While we are initially attracted by preliminary dynamics, we soon find ourselves on the launching pad for the ride of our life – and like a rocket launch, the ascent is not a cushy ride, but bone shaking. The ride will test our fortitude and endurance. Here, we discover if we are still in an adolescent stage of insisting that Life conform to what “I” say, or have we matured enough to accept that our partner is different and often sees things differently – not wrongly.

Carl likened marriage to the tennis player who decides that playing doubles is more enjoyable because of the creative interplay that develops. Learning when one should  hit the ball for the other and admiring the other’s abilities. Playing as a twosome is entirely different than being the staring monad. “… the simple joy of teaming becomes more important than whether we win or lose”.

I’ve talked with many couples who seem to be under the impression that marriage is about winning. The partner is seen as an opponent. The couple is playing singles against each other. When they are in my office it sometimes seems I should be wearing a black robe as I listen to attorneys for the prosecution and the defense. I often wonder, “Where is the jury?”

If we successfully graduate from our family of origin, we might be ready for the challenge of marriage. Successfully graduating helps to make it more likely that we won’t have to re-enact old unfinished familial battles with our mate – somehow again proclaiming our independence and worth, but this time, to the wrong ears. If we have successfully matriculated, we won’t be forced to complete our adolescence in our marriage.

Often couples present the bi-lateral pseudo-therapy model. In this set-up (pun intended), there is a covert awareness that HE isn’t quite right in his current form but SHE will subtly shape him into the man SHE knows he can be. HE temporarily tolerates HER inconsistencies with the intent of “helping” her become the woman HE thinks she should be. This is an idea that borrows the dubious notion that a therapist is going to change another.

Marriage is not a long-term remodel job on your partner. Marriage is teaming.

For certain, there will, in marriage, be trying moments, there will be moments of “blah” and there will be moments of great joy. Carl spoke of “…[a] whole-person to whole-person relationship…” It is a more mature love that hopefully develops. Of that stage of relational development he commented, “It is independent of sexual stimulation or sexual attraction [do not infer sexual abstinence].”

A marriage, like a swinging pendulum, increases one’s capacity for being part of a WE.  A thriving marriage allows for the increasing ability to express each party’s individuality and reflexively, each increases their capacity for togetherness.

This increasing back and forth arc describes the growing development of the WE co-created by the He and SHE.  

(Please forgive the limitations of my sexist language. I do not intend to exclude those too often marginalized. Specifically, I mean to include the wide spectrum of gender preferences) 

In this way, a marriage naturally has the movement of Life. The tides come in and go out; the heart contracts, and relaxes. In this manner we develop our personhood. Too often, this natural movement provokes anxiety for a couple:

“Oh no, they’re moving away!” or the opposite “Ugh, I’m feeling smothered.”

When we fearfully resist (or escape) this natural and reflexive dialectical process, anxiety and the resulting impulse to control the other can soon follow. Being able to relax - rising and falling with the swells of Life is freeing for both in the marriage. It is similar to what is taught in meditation – “follow the breath” – inhale… exhale. Would someone argue that it is more RIGHT to inhale than exhale? (Probably, some would.) Together there is Life, when one stops the other does too – it’s called death. 

The idea of WE, as something distinct from HE and SHE, is an idea too often unappreciated by a couple. I have always enjoyed the following poem which expresses this ephemeral idea:

The Third Body

A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, or time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or not talking.
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.
The man sees the way his fingers move;
he sees her hands close around a book she hands to him.
They obey a third body they have in common.
They have made a promise to love that body.
Age may come, parting may come, death will come.
A man and woman sit near each other;
as they breathe they feed someone we do not know,
someone we know of, whom we have never seen.

Robert Bly

To me, a compelling question is: How does the couple move from the “bilateral pseudo-therapy stage” of relationship with its assorted games and maneuvers to the more mature, enjoyable, less controlling and anxious, “whole-person to whole-person stage”?

In my personal and clinical experience, it seems that, like other forms of evolution, it is a process borne of necessity, not choice. Either we adapt and evolve a more expansive and flexible style of relating (my Analytic friends might call it sublimation) or the relationship will fail like a root-bound plant. The plant’s previously useful pot (older ideas about the relationship) must expand to allow for new growth. For those with green thumbs, the concept is familiar – sometimes the pot needs to be discarded in the interest of the plant’s health – but the important element is the plant, not the pot. Too often, a couple fears discarding their earlier definitions of the relationship because redefining the relationship carries a risk – a risk of change – and who among us welcomes change when we have become accustomed to what is familiar – even if that familiarity is the very thing that is killing the relationship.

I remember with great fondness (before the constraining “pot” of today’s health insurance), my colleague Tomaso and I practiced co-therapy for more than a decade, a sort of professional marriage. We saw hundreds of families, couples and individuals as a professional team. His therapeutic style encouraged me to see things differently, we sometimes openly disagreed in front of our patient(s) but we were not vying to be RIGHT. Musicians, probably, (I’m not a musician so if I’m wrong, my brother or others will correct me) will agree that playing with others is more fun than… (Dare I say it?) playing with yourself. (Another intended pun.)

There is room for solos, but in this brief commentary I have addressed duets.

A commentator from an earlier column chastised me for not being more encouraging and so I end this column with my prayer for couples:

Look for what is different in the other, strive to appreciate the differentness. Resist the impulse to make others more like you. Look and listen for the rhythms created by the WE.

Perhaps this is what musicians would describe as the “unplayed notes” or playing “in the pocket”. 

Thank you to JB, TH and Bill for your help.


  1. I like the idea of a third body. When I look back, I can see moments of it. Thanks!

  2. I too like the idea of the third body. I've seen many an older couple that seem to interact with the intentional unassumption (real word?)of knowing what it's like to be in the skin of their spouse. The comfort levels and patience (or understanding when the patience is waining) used to be astounding to me. Now as I mature myself although a solo as you put it, I appreciate that it takes listening and appreciating and complementing each other to experience that great relationship. Besides why would I want to understand the other person so intimately, I'd never be surprised! This I've found is also for music, friendships as much as for lovers/partners/spouses. Now what a lovely thing.
    Peace, Lynda


As always, your comments are helpful.