A friend considering whether to propose marriage wrote to me in 1995 to request coaching. Here is my response.
In my first marriage, arguments with my wife followed a common format: I attacked and withdrew (what John Grey refers to as “the bear healing in his cave”). In my cave, I found myself stewing over imagined details of how we would divide the furniture, whether I would lose half of my library and the joys of returning to dating and seduction. Then we would cool off and gradually return to normal. But conflicts occur in close relationships, so I had lots of opportunity to consider in vivid detail the logistics of separation and divorce. I believe this habit of “cave painting” life after marriage was a major factor leading to the end of our relationship.
I proposed to my current (permanent!) wife when I gained new insight into the nature of commitment. While visiting Kripalu Yoga Ashram. I had listened to a video of the Guru speaking about the power, freedom, and creativity unleashed inside of a commitment to one’s spiritual practice (sadhana). I also recalled how poets lauded the expression and creativity made possible by working within the constraints a specific structure, for example, a sonnet or haiku. I came across the words of one of America’s founding fathers to the effect of, “No liberty without laws.” Up until that point, I had been pretty clear that the way to live life was to maximize my options, to be tied to no single course of action, to be a free person. I was also quite confronted by the place to which that approach had brought me: hurt, angry, worried, and isolated from most of the people I knew.
I dwelt for days in an inquiry on commitment, choice, freedom, and structure. I was very much in love with Kristine and saw many wonderful possibilities in a life with her. I had a lot of specific intentions and possibilities in mind for our marriage. One thing became very clear to me. All of the most appealing and important possibilities, I noticed, had a better chance of occurring–and lasting–if we were married than if we continued in a loosely defined, private relationship that either of us could terminate at any time. I chose to take the most important conversation in my life, my love for Kristine, and nurture it inside of a permanent commitment. Our essential promise was simply this: from now on, come what may, whatever happens around us or to us we will deal with it as a married couple.
It has only been three years [Much longer now. I wrote this in 1995. We’re still together and the article is still true.] since we agreed to make that promise but it has made a huge difference to my experience of marriage. It is not easy or automatic to immediately look for a way to “get off my position” instead imagining a way to get out of the marriage. But honoring my commitment involves a lot less suffering than would be caused by planning my exit.
Commitment is distinct from contract, promise, intention, and a thousand other words people use to constrain future behavior. Commitment is best used not as a restriction but as a navigational aid, a reminder to search for the “How” instead of resisting the “Must.” Not, “I have to stay married, so…” but rather, “Since I am committed to my marriage, what is the appropriate action?” Not stuck and suffering, but clear and creating.
The time and energy I previously put into planning my exit is thereby released to work at helping my marriage succeed.
Without respect for “commitment,” the richness of “marriage” is not available. Not in my experience, anyway.
© 2009 Tony Mayo
“My notion of marriage is that if marriage isn’t a first priority in your life you’re not married. It’s an extremely important decision, that of marriage, because it does amount to and require a yielding and the yielding has to be total to now being a member of a dyad and acting in relation to that twoness. As I’ve said to people who are worried about it, when you make what you call a sacrifice to the other person, that’s not what you’re sacrificing to. You’re sacrificing to the relationship. The relationship is the sacrificial field, where both of you are relating to the relationship and then you are, as it were, two together. Really like that yin-yang thing. (If you hang on to being the yin, or hang on to being the yang in this thing, as a separate unit, you don’t have a marriage.) Then everything in your life from then on relates to that relationship. And when judgments of actions and decisions at various times have to be taken in that sense, then you’re married.”
Joseph Campbell, “The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work” (Copyright © 1990 Joseph Campbell Foundation)