No relationship is immune to pain. But most of the time we don’t look at relationships as a separate, living entity. We have this idea that relationships are athereal, in existence but not enough so to have their own name, identity. I don’t think this is a helpful way of approaching relationships. Marriage is the name of a relationship between two people who have committed their lives to one another. The problem is that most of us don’t relate to marriage like it’s a living, breathing thing. We treat it like it’s an inanimate object there for our use, happiness, and for our good pleasures.
Much like the functions of our physical bodies, when we stop taking care of ourselves, we physically pay the price. Obesity is not the problem, pleasure and happiness are. We are a fat and obese nation because we don’t have to work for food, and we don’t really know how to wait (to suffer). It’s within 10 minutes for most of us to drive to a fast-food store and get something to eat. It burns very few calories to get in the car and drive to McDonalds. That big-Mac is a big check you’ve just written that will probably bounce in a few months.
Our relationships are not inanimate. They are not vending machines of good pleasures. They are not destination resorts promising to tend to our every need. They are not fast-food chains that spit out caloric bombs of momentary enjoyment. They are not microwave popcorn, or worse, fake-butter popcorn at the movies. They are not Netflix with the next suggested “want” that will play automatically without you having to ask or click anything. They are not easy.
They are animate, living and breathing creatures of the mysterious, unseen world. They need food, just like our bodies. They need rest, just like our bodies. They need vacation (better explained in the Sabbath, as I will explain later) from the toils of work. They need deliberate care, especially after experiencing a wound.
I imagine that all of our relationships, especially our marriages, would begin to shift in their purpose if we started treating them with more dignity and respect. There aren’t many people I know that would take a child, lock them in a room without food, drink, or any other form of care. Yet every day, millions of individuals choose to do this very act to the child-like nature of our immature, underdeveloped, and attention-starved relationships.
When we lock our relationships in an isolated room, where no light can get in, and no care can be given, they are not long to life. Mold and fungus thrive in the dark, and grow exponetionally as time goes on until there is no more organic material from which to consume.
Relationships, namely marriage, are in need of recovery. Every marriage has the choice to make: “We’re not that bad. We can do it on our own;” or, “we want to do whatever it takes to get the help that we so desperately want and need.”
The first step in AA is this: “We admit that we are powerless over alcohol — that our lives have become unmanageable.” Every AA group begins with this as the foundational principal for recovery. We cannot progress into any future step or growth if we fundamentally do not admit our powerlessness. In the Judeo Christian tradition, this admittance of powerlessness is understood to be that we are all sinners and there is nothing we can do that will keep us from sinning. Sin has made our lives unmanageable, and is threatening the very life we want to live.
Marriage recovery begins with a very similar step, admitting a very different problem. What is true of someone who cannot stop drinking is that, in some cases, their bodies have become dependent upon the alcohol itself. It’s why some people are so dependent upon alcohol (or any number of other substances), when they enter treatment, the facility will sometimes give alcohol to the addict because it might literally kill them to stop drinking/using.
What is true in marriage is that there is a substance that we cannot live without, and we will desperately do whatever we can to get substance. It’s called love. We cannot exist without love. Most all marriages start with the feelings of love that, for very few, develop into the actions of love. When a marriage does not make this transition from the feelings to the actions and commitment of love, the marriage dies. Recovery in marriage is built around the principal that I have the capacity to give and receive love, but that I am powerless to create the substance of love on my own. I need the help of others to give and receive love.
Many couples lack an authentic community of other couples that are on the road to healing and recovery in their relationships. Cancer patients are administered treatment in a room with other patients, not on their own. Isolation kills people, and it kills relationships. One of the most profound communities that exists today are “12-step groups” where individuals are on the road to healing and sober living. They work the steps, they show up to meetings and tell the truth about their lives. I think this can be a profound experience for couples as well.
It’s important to note that this process can be done individually and together. I believe that one person can change a marriage. Love does not return void. Just like one person can choose to have an affair and destroy trust in a marriage, one person can choose to depart from the unhealthy patterns of the relationship and love their spouse. This love (not the feeling of love, the existence of it), which will not return void, will change the marriage. Invite your spouse to participate with you in these steps, but if they chose not to, continue on alone until they decide to join you.
* Steps 4 & 8 are exercises to be completed alone, and then shared together (with guidance from a third party if necessary).