After spending the better part of my life studying relationships, including a good amount of time trying to salvage them, I have reached the following conclusion: All marriages must fail.
It’s not that I have become jaded or cynical. Quite the contrary. Now, more than ever, I maintain hope that people everywhere can discover the kind of soulful love they’ve always craved.
How can I maintain my optimism in the face of such a bold claim?
The failure to which I refer is not that of our unions, but of our illusions of them.
James Framo, the father of couples therapy, once quipped: “The day you wake up, turn to your spouse, and realize that you have been had. That the person you fell in love with is not the person you are in bed with, that this is all some dreadful mistake. That is the first day of your marriage.”
Framo paints a rather terrifying picture of what appears to be an inevitable end end of a relationship. Yet he also offers hope that out of the ashes something more meaningful can arise.
The term for a relationship’s mortality is disillusionment, and although it has taken on quite the negative connotation, the word literally means “freedom from illusion.” Far from being a symptom of a dying relationship, disillusionment is often an invitation into something more meaningful.
We all enter into relationships with ideas of what they ought to be. This innocent hope is a blessing in and of itself, one Thomas Moore calls “the gift of naivete.” But this naivete cannot last. It can only “get us in the door.” Ultimately, we must be willing to relinquish the love of our dreams in order to discover the love of our lives.
The marriage that must fail is the one between the two personas, the false selves each partner creates and, for a time anyway, mutually reinforces. Persona literally means “stage mask,” and it is only by removing our protective disguises that we are able to be known and, therefore, loved. (When we say we want to be “loved for who we are,” we must be clear as to what version we are referring.)
To be certain, this is not a romantic notion of “being ourselves,” it is a spiritual journey of becoming ourselves. Although we might prefer to view the process in terms of growth and development it is as much about the destruction of falsity as it is about the discovery of truth. It is as much about death as it is about life.
Speaking on the inevitable death of personas, Richard Rohr says “Your stage mask is not bad, evil, or necessarily egocentric; it is just not ‘true.’ It is manufactured and sustained unconsciously by your mind; but it can and will die, as all fictions must die.”
Rohr goes on to warn us about overidentifying in a particular idealized role, “like that of minister, doctor, mother, nice person…” or, presumably, relationship expert. “These are huge personas to live up to, and they trap many people into lifelong delusion.” I can personally attest to the latter, and experience has confirmed that the bigger they are, the harder they fall!
The removal of the stage mask is not the great reveal we hope it will be. I, myself, remember dreaming as a young man of going off somewhere, alone, and returning wholly reinvented. What I failed to see at that time is that we cannot remove our masks alone. We need assistance through the painful extrication.
Intimacy is particularly lethal to personal fictions.
Our personas are what most people want from us. They are rewarded and reinforced by the world-at-large, and for this reason we prefer to identify with them. At the same time, there are some who find our personas so off-putting as to want nothing to do with us. One set of people will get close but never know us. The other sees us, but won’t come close.
Our partners hold a unique position as those who are equally enthralled with our personas and tormented by them. They have the difficult message we need to hear about ourselves, but are able to deliver it with love. When we become frustrated with the message, we must recall that in the course of our lives we must have passed countless people who did not hold challenging truths for us, and we didn’t even give them a second look. This is what Terry Real calls the mysticism of marriage.
It is what makes life with our partners so challenging.
And it is exactly why we need them.