Although it’s popular to accuse couples of setting themselves up for disaster by expecting too much from marriage, for many of us, the problem is exactly the opposite: we don’t set our sights high enough. In keeping our expectations low we may hope to prevent disappointment, but this strategy holds some serious dangers. Limited expectations generate a modest vision of what is possible and they can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. The greater the possibilities that we envision, the higher we are likely to set our goals. Where we aim has less to do with what we are actually capable of achieving than what we believe to be attainable or realistic.
Prior to Roger Banister’s breaking of the four-minute mile in 1954, it was deemed impossible for a human being to achieve that feat. Almost immediately after his accomplishment, other runners joined the sub-four-minute mile club. Within a decade, several hundred runners had done what ten years previously had been seen as impossible. Such is the power of expectations.
When Linda and I got married in 1972, I deliberately set my sights low. All the better to avoid the disappointment that I expected if I hoped for anything more than a comfortable arrangement in which we got along reasonably well and didn’t fight too much. Talk about low expectations!
Having observed very few examples of thriving long-term relationships, I approached marriage somewhat unenthusiastically. Truth be told, from my perspective, the idea of a good marriage was an oxymoron. Yet for reasons that I couldn’t at the time quite fathom, despite my resistance to it, I seemed drawn to marriage like a moth to a flame.
My strategy for resolving this paradox was to develop a strategy of limited engagement. All the better to minimize the chances of disappointment and suffering. Unfortunately, not only did my strategy fail to prevent disappointment, but it left me frequently feeling resentful and frustrated. What I hadn’t factored in to the equation was the fact that my head wasn’t the only part of me that was engaged. As Blaise Pascal famously said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” and my heart had it’s own agenda. Ultimately, it insisted on having its say.
While the mind seeks a comfortable and easy relationship, the heart has other concerns. It could care less about risk management, control, safety, security, and avoidance. Its desires have to do with passion, connection, truthfulness, intimacy, aliveness and joyfulness, experiences that exist outside of the bounds of pragmatic considerations. Unless we marry for purely practical purposes (something that is relatively rare in contemporary Western culture) the desires of the heart need to be met and included in the equation. To the degree they are not, we will be unhappy and unfulfilled regardless of how much security, status, or economic success we achieve. As the saying goes, “you can’t ever get enough of what you really don’t need.”
In my case, the (inevitable) breakdown took the form of complaints that both Linda and I directed at each other with increasing frequency and intensity until things got to the edge of the breaking point. My way of dealing with the situation took the form of minimizing the amount of time that we spent together and maximizing the amount of time that I spent on other “more important” things. Namely work. In so doing, I reasoned that there would be minimal danger of conflict and we could maintain an adequate degree of connection. (Translation: Just enough to prevent a divorce).
Since my idea of minimalism flew directly in the face of Linda’s desire for whole-hearted intimacy as well as my own denied desire for the same thing, I not only had a conflict with her, but within myself as well. In trying to settle for what was inherently an unsatisfying relationship, I was both living a lie and trying to force it on Linda, who fortunately was unwilling to compromise her dream of a deeply loving marriage, regardless of the emotional risks that that might entail. The truth was that I was convinced that I was either unable or unfit for a truly fulfilling relationship and that it made no sense to even try for it. I believed that to hope for more would be naïve and unrealistic since it seemed that no one has that kind of marriage anyway, except in the movies. These beliefs were all basically rationalizations for avoiding the risk of genuine emotional intimacy.
When Linda and I finally did reach the edge that separates marriage from divorce my fear of losing her overrode my commitment to avoiding pain and disappointment. That was when things began to change. This transition which occurred over 25 years ago has been ongoing and has transformed our relationship in ways that have had lasting effects on us both. It was only because Linda refused to settle for the kind of mediocrity that I was willing to accept that I finally chose to jump in with both feet. Had she been unwilling to put our marriage on the line as she did, there is no question in my mind that we would not be together today.
Without Linda’s vision of what was possible for us, and her insistence that we owe it to ourselves and each other to go for the gold, rather than the tin medal, I would never have chosen to have anted up to what seemed to be such a high-stakes game. I learned from Linda that it takes a lot more to go for the gusto than it does to wallow in the resentment, self-pity, and dissatisfaction that are inevitable when we deny our heart’s desires. It takes vision, courage, commitment, determination, and patience, lots of patience. I didn’t have much of these when I opted out of my game and into hers. But with Linda’s help and support, I came to join her in what became our vision and eventually became an equal partner. What we have come to enjoy together is not only infinitely more than I had believed possible for us, but it has even exceeded Linda’s hopes as well. These days, life is about continually raising the bar (we take turns) to find out just how great things can become, not only for us, but also for the many people whom we touch and are touched by, both directly and indirectly.
In the words of Bob Dylan, “He who isn’t busy being born is busy dying”. This applies not only to individuals but to marriages as well. The notion that we can put things on cruise control and sail through life together with a minimum of consciousness and engagement and still experience a high quality of life exists in the domain of fantasy, not reality. To be busy being born requires the willingness to show up, to risk, to tell the truth to others and to our ourselves about what we truly desire, what we fear, what we long for, and what brings passion and juice into our lives.
“Marriage”, to quote Stephen Levine, ” is the ultimate danger sport”. It is not for the feint of heart. It is not for those who would chose the path of least resistance. It is the path that generally tends to provoke the most resistance, since we tend to attract and marry people who are our counterparts and complements. With Linda’s help, I have discovered that this path can also the path of greatest fulfillment, of greatest joy, and of greatest possibility. It is the path that insists that we awaken not only to our deepest desires and our deepest truths, but that we engage others in that same challenge: the pursuit of the fulfillment of what truly matters to us and the fulfillment of who we are as human beings.
I am and will continue to be grateful to Linda for hanging in there with me during those days in which I couldn’t hold the vision that she had come to trust. She no longer has to carry it alone and we have become partners in the truest sense of the word. I invite you to join us in the dance, whatever form that takes for you. You won’t regret it!