I call this the mysticism of marriage. There may be super placid couples who aren’t terribly intimate, and they don’t bug each other. But usually there are three phases of love: harmony, disharmony and repair. Those phases can occur 20 times during one dinner conversation or span over decades of your marriage or long-term relationship. The harmony phase is love without knowledge. You may have a soul recognition that this is your guy. But you don’t know what he does with his socks in the morning.
The disillusionment phase is critical. It’s the stuff of intimacy. It’s the collision of your imperfections and how we handle it. Our culture doesn’t equip people to deal with that disillusionment. It’s rough. It’s dark. I’ve run around the country for 20 years, talking about what I call “normal marital hatred” and not one person has ever come backstage to ask what I meant by that.
As for repair, you write a lot about what that can look like, including with some lines that would be good refrigerator magnets for couples: “I’m sorry you felt bad. I didn’t mean to make you feel that way. Is there anything I can do now that would help you feel better?” That word “now” feels key.
Right. You can’t do anything about the past. The question is, What can I do right now to bring you back into harmony with me? And it’s in my interest to bring you back into harmony with me because I’m here — I live with you. I don’t talk about altruism. I talk about enlightened self-interest.
How do we fail at repairing?
When your partner is in state of disrepair, it’s a one-way street. Everybody gets this wrong. It’s not supposed to be, “Well, these are your issues, here are mine.” When your partner is in disrepair, it’s like you are working at the customer-service window. Your partner says, “I want a new microwave.” They don’t want to hear that your toaster doesn’t work. They want you to fix their microwave. Later on, we can hear about your issue, but not then. The question of who’s right and who’s wrong is irrelevant. What matters is how we, as a team, are going to make this work for both of us. That’s thinking relationally.
You note that it can take two to five years of work for couples to develop a healthier, more intimate relationship. What does that look like?
It looks like damn hard work. It’s moment to moment. When my automatic reactivity is flooding over me, am I going to act it out, or am I going to take a break, take a walk, splash some water on my face, talk to my little boy inside me, do some meditation, get centered in that part of you that wants to make repair? And, in that moment, we can literally change the legacy. People talk about the American dream, in which your kids have a better life than you do. And we always think about it materialistically. But I think about it psychologically and spiritually — changing the legacy of how you were raised and handing your kids a new default that is kinder and more humane and wiser.