Why a Marriage Ought to be Painful

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Over the last week my wife Sarah and I have moved to a new state, got an apartment, began to wage a war against cockroaches, went thrift store shopping to any number of places to try and find decent furniture that won’t give us lice, bought a new mattress, carried many heavy objects through ridiculous humidity, built a bed frame to save a few dollars, etcetera. Stress levels have been high and my wife and I were more than a few times upset with each other, which only makes everything more miserable, which only makes me more upset that we’re upset because things are bad enough as it is, which makes me more miserable, which makes me more upset, and so forth. At moments of resentment, for whatever silly reason, rather than a helpmeet, Sarah has felt like an inconvenience, and I know I have felt like an inconvenience to her. During these times of dissonance I have wondered, “do I even love my wife?” It sounds bad of course, and admitting it is not a form of liberation for me, but humiliation.

Don’t get me wrong, our marriage is still strong and there have been many good times this week as well, and our apartment is looking pretty good, but I have had a chance to reflect on our wedding day and some of the advice I wrote for myself. I have decided to share a large section of it now, because I think the advice has helped me learn that the feelings of alienation and distance are natural to a healthy relationship and maybe even worth preserving. And though I wrote it, I am still learning—because learning has never been as simple as knowing.

Like many of you I grew up playing games of imagination. The games could not be confined to a board, area, or a set of rules. While our bodies remained resigned to the laws of this world, our minds were liberated through powerful inventions. We would fly, time travel, or metamorphosize. Sarah has told me about some of these games her family would play, including Orphan Catchers and Mermaids. My siblings played Army Champion and Star and a game called Baby Rat. They were games of imagination. However, the games were not entirely free of regulation. What controlled the game was not rules but the imaginations of the other participants. Anything could happen, so long as the other participants in the game were willing to accept the sudden turn of events, or your newly discovered power, or potion. There was always some complex form of diplomacy at work in the creation of plot—in fact, that’s what made the game a game.

I’m sure many of you have observed similar games, and seen how they often turn into a battle between imaginations. Whichever child, often the oldest, is able to capture the imagination of the other participants will enjoy almost complete felicity as their imagination expands into the other players. While the younger and less experienced ones soon join into the story laid before them.

There is, of course, interesting parallels between these childhood games and the larger human politic. Our lives and much of history can be seen in this childhood game—the battle of imaginations. The ability to imagine and to capture others with your dreams is the signature of a successful entrepreneur. It is seen in the history of governments. It is disputed in war, and rewritten yearly at the university.

I would like to talk about one of these imaginations that has captured me. It is the story of love, marriage, and family. I have been occupied by the imagination, perhaps aided by Hollywood but no doubt more defuse and diverse were its messengers. Whatever the source, I believed true love would liberate me from loneliness, it would direct my life, amend my mistakes, bring me joy—in the end I believed true love would make me lovable. It would be both the end and the means to the end. And so, like many people, I looked forward to the complete felicity of love. I saw love as the expatiation of my imagination. What I loved most about love was what it would do for me, how it would complete me, and free my soul. Love was like a children’s game—where I could feel free to imagine whatever I wanted, and my partner would affirm it.

While it seems joyful at first, to feel yourself expanding into the imaginations of others, there is also felt an approaching loneliness. The loneliness is straightforward. A child who has captured the imagination of other children soon seems to be playing a game with himself—his own imagination reflected back at him from the other children. Likewise, when the one I love becomes a means to fulfilling my own desires, they take on the image of a mirror. And there is loneliness: a lack of the other person—a lack of another’s will and desire that stands against my own.

Love, and not just romantic love, to me was an oceanic feeling. It was the expatiation of myself into everyone else. You have all probably felt this feeling. It is a beautiful and comfortable feeling because in it we see the whole world around us, and everyone in it, as a reflection of ourselves, and so other people no longer feel strange or foreign, but local, personal, familiar. This imagination is quite easy and perhaps little more than the love of Narcissus, which sees himself instead of seeing his lover. Whose lover can only speak through his echo.

Because my perception of love has been focused for so long on myself and my own imagination, learning to love Sarah has been uncomfortable. This may come as a surprise to many who know Sarah well and know just how loving and lovable she is. True love is not an echo. It is not as I had supposed. It is not that which affirms my desires and frees my imagination. As I have grown in love towards Sarah, I have often felt uncomfortable. I have become painfully aware of her otherness and her foreignness. Yet, I do not believe this is a tragedy. On the contrary, it is through the uncomfort of Sarah, through her separate will and desires that I have been made to feel the greatest companionship. The approaching loneliness I described before is forever destroyed in the face of Sarah. She is my very own stranger. Another imagination, another person, another love to accompany me, to withhold me and to embrace me.

Sarah is a revelation to me. I have realized that Sarah is desirous—she is full of desire and carries her own will that is bound to be uncomfortable because it is foreign, because it is not my own. And, yet, in her strangeness, I have felt companionship. I have come to know that I am not alone. In many ways the desires of Sarah have confined my own. She has been another player to regulate me, to withhold my imagination. But what can withhold can also hold. And she has held me.

And it is this wife, not the one of my imagination, that I strive to know.

I believe we will be very happy together. We will learn to dream and imagine together, not alone, but with each other and with God. I love you Sarah. I love you deeply and desirously. And I know you have your own desires, your own love. And, perhaps it is your desires, not my own, I am most grateful for. I am grateful for what I have learned about love and about you—you are my beautiful stranger.

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