THE CONVENTIONAL INSIGHT our society shares about marriage.
1) THE PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE
The common wisdom about the purpose of marriage today is that it is to take one’s place in society and fulfill the American Dream which is to raise children and develop a style of life that will bring a particular kind of fulfillment. Marriage is not considered necessary since today one can raise children and develop a life-style while single, but this is not quite the real thing.
2) WHY WE CHOOSE A PARTNER
We commonly believe that we are aware of the basic reasons for choosing a partner. One chooses a partner whom one loves and who shares one’s own values, interests and goals. By each one sharing, honestly and openly, the partners develop intimacy with each other. It is when you find the right person that sharing and intimacy becomes possible.
3) THE ADEQUACY OF LOVE
We do recognize that to have a successful marriage we must love and cherish each other as we vow to do at the wedding. Being in love, the commitment to care for the other even in adversity is easily made. Serious adversity is not expected and one knows that the love we feel will solve all problems. One expects minor disagreements.
No special knowledge or skills beyond what one already has are required. And if one has to work at making the marriage successful, then one has probably chosen the wrong person.
4) INCOMPATIBILITY THE GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE
If you have serious on-going conflicts, then you have clearly chosen the wrong person. Irresolvable conflicts are usually the results of an immature partner behaving in neurotic ways. Such conflict destroys the love and it places undue stress on the one trying to hold the relationship together to make it work. Although one ought to try to resolve such conflict, it is usually irresolvable because people do not really change, especially such neurotic behavior patterns. Such a situation is mostly hopeless.
Given that the love has been destroyed in the relationship and the undue stress and suffering involved in such a one-sided effort to correct a hopeless situation, it is unfair to expect one to continue in it. When this is the situation, it makes sense to end it. Such clear incompatibility is the grounds for divorce.
THE UNCONVENTIONAL INSIGHT that our society does not share.
IMAGO RELATIONSHIP THERAPY developed by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., challenges such common wisdom regarding marriage at each point: 1) The purpose of marriage; 2) Why we choose a partner; 3) That the love we feel is adequate to deal with difficulties; 4) That unsolvable conflict is grounds for divorce.
1) THE PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE
Although taking one’s place in society and reaping the benefits of family life play an important role in becoming married, the over-riding purpose or tendency comes from the unconscious drive to seek healing for childhood wounds and to find that sense of security we had in our mother’s wombs. Although we are unaware of this agenda, marriage is the coming together of two people to finish childhood. And we have no choice about this agenda.
This is in part due to our social development as it pertains to mate selection. Romantic love is a recent phenomenon in mate selection historically. As romance evolved in mate selection, it brought with it a whole new set of issues and problems. Marriage was based on feelings now, not on the fact that you marry this person in an arrangement from your parents or heads of government such as nobles or religious figures. Marriage is also what God has given us as covenant on this earth to satisfy the mandate of being connected until we are connected with Him for eternity.
2) WHY WE CHOOSE A PARTNER
Although we choose someone who is attractive with many positive traits, and with whom we fall in love, the basic reason or tendency for choosing remains unconscious. The partner we choose will usually have, in particular and in some degree, the negative traits of our caretakers by whom we felt injured or wounded in childhood. Romantic love is the excitement of the unconscious about having found the one who will trigger childhood wounds and can serve as the healer of them if they will change.
Perhaps, instead of trying to find the right person, we need to work at becoming the right person. The person that God would want us to become as a romantic partner, a Godly spouse, and a Godly parent.
4) THE ADEQUACY OF LOVE
Once romantic love has served its purpose of bonding the couple, it fades and is not available for dealing with the conflicts that inevitably arise as a normal and necessary part of the healing process. True to the negative traits each shares with the other’s caretakers, both partners begin to trigger the other’s childhood wounds and each reacts defensively out of hurt and fear. It is then that they become locked in the unresolvable conflict of the power struggle. When the power struggle begins, it seems impossible that one ever felt love for the other, and such love does not solve the problems. What is essential for resolving the conflict at that point is not only an understanding of what is taking place, but also communication skills and the commitment to use them to save the relationship.
This commitment involves a willingness to deepen one’s understanding of oneself and one’s partner, to experience and explore the leftover pain of childhood and the nature of one’s defensive reactions, and to transcend such reactivity by stretching to heal the wounds which one triggers in one’s partner. Commitment also involves an understanding of God’s will for our lives and obedience to His Word. When partners make such a mutual and reciprocal commitment, the relationship becomes the scene of healing and wholeness. Such conscious and intentional behavior is the mark of true love that is the task of the couple to create in the relationship.
4) INCOMPATIBILITY, THE GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE
To be paired with someone who triggers one’s childhood wounds and defensive reaction is to experience incompatibility with them, but that is part of the healing process. Incompatibility is the grounds for marriage, not divorce. The experience of incompatibility is essential for re-experiencing the wounds of childhood, which make possible the healing. Rather than being a hopeless situation whose cure is divorce, the power struggle in which the couple becomes locked is the crucible and chemistry for change.
“CONFLICT IS GROWTH TRYING TO HAPPEN”
Change is required. In order to cooperate with that change, defensive reactions must be replaced with conscious and intentional behavior. This means that when conflict strikes, one must go against one’s instinctual reaction to defend one, and behave instead in ways that keeps the partner safe and heals their wounds. It is that counter instinctual stretching that heals one’s partner and promotes one’s own growth.
It is an ingenious and beautiful plan to match partners who not only have the potential to heal each other, but who in doing so, grow to actualize their own potential. Giving up one’s defensive reactions in order to heal one’s partner is to change the negative traits one shares with the partner’s caretakers and actually changes one’s deforming character structure so that one can become whole. Cooperating with this process makes marriage the structure for healing and growth. Marriage in its essence is therapy, and your partner’s needs chart your path to psychological and Godly wholeness. Rather than leaving it to find yourself, you find yourself and who you are in Christ through marriage. This is in essence what Ephesians speaks of as the “mystery of marriage”.
This is in essence the idea of “unconditional love” which God gives to us. It is impossible for the “natural man” to comprehend His Love for us. Only our spirit man can grasp this type of love that transcends our own needs for the needs of our partner through knowing, valuing, accepting, and respecting our partner. We literally grow beyond our own dysfunctional ideas of love and relationship to a greater level while we are here on earth. This is true “agape” love.
John Wagner, M.S., L.M.H.C., N.C.C.
Certified Imago Relationship Therapist