Friday, 26 October 2012

Myself on the couch - what about marriage and me?

In the midst of a deliciously deep email conversation, I was asked the following:

But what are your own plans - do you intend to marry, or are you a bachelorette, or are you secretly living the consecrated life?

I had thought the response would be difficult, but it just flowed from my keyboard, giving me new clarity along the way. So, since I offered advice on marriage to a hypothetical couple on my couch, it seemed only fair that I put myself next to Winnie and his honey jar - and do that very rare thing for me - show my emotional cards:

I want to be married and (G-d willing) have children if possible more than anything else in the world - it has always felt like my vocation. But I always swore, up and down, that I wouldn't end up in the loveless, horrible marriage my parents had. Granted it was arranged, but I've seen arranged marriages that at least rub along tolerably well; my parents' marriage was a form of hell. I was...12? 13? before I realised that people marry because they're in love with each other - that you could actually LIKE YOUR SPOUSE. That...has had a long-lasting effect, and I am extremely relationship-shy for fear of being trapped as my parents were and as we were in what was a desperately unhappy home. The minute they mentioned arranged marriage, I moved out, leaving them a note on the fridge. It's hard to be with a guy without that immediate panic attack feeling of 'Oh my god, he's going to trap me forever and it will be horrible' cropping up. Having said that, I don't think I've turned anyone away who was right for me; I just wonder where he is. I really hope he didn't get run over by a bus crossing the road to find me!! :-P

For me, marriage is so deeply holy, such a binding of souls, a real sacrament, I wouldn't DARE approach it unless I knew G-d, and not my boyfriend and I, had put it together. Anything other than that certainty would be a mockery for me; I couldn't do it. Vocation is such a deep thing, it's beyond words - I just don't mess with it, and try to trust G-d knows what he's up to, hard as I have found it over time. I trust He'll let me know. I don't want to step into a marriage because I feel I should be married; I want to marry because it's what G-d wants of me. I want to say those vows before G-d and KNOW that's what He wants for me, KNOW that I mean them heart and soul to this person and to G-d. Nick had a wonderful line in a wedding sermon: May you become so entwined with G-d and each other that you have no idea where your marriage ends and G-d begins. That sums it up for me.

I rarely dare dream - I'm too aware of how easily they're ridiculed or snatched away, but some dreams run too deep, are too much a part of every fibre of our being to be submerged or ripped out - or even discussed except with those who can be trusted with one's heart - and even that is difficult. 

For me, this is that dream.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

To a couple on the occasion of their wedding

I know of several couples getting or recently married. This is what I'd say to them if they were on my couch sitting next to Winnie-the-Pooh and his honey jar.

Much love and many congratulations on your wedding day.

I am always in awe of those who take this immense leap of faith - what in many ways, to me, feels like the ultimate leap of faith: joining one's life to another's in order to sanctify each other and reflect G-d's love to each other and the world. One of my favourite images of marriage comes from the Jewish tradition: [A] spouse is like a mirror that exposes the weaknesses of the other in a way which leads to growth. Growth into the person that G-d meant us to be when He planted us in the soil of our families and watered us with the love of so many who come into our lives: friends, kindred spirits, and now, your beshert.

You are meant to be true mirrors to each other, not the funhouse mirrors that society, or even some that we call friends, so often offer us: those who offer us the lie of uncritical adoration; those who demonize us and play to our insecurities; those who would manipulate us for their own ends; those who shore up our comfortable worlds and expect us to do the same for them. Your vocation with your beloved entails being true with each other at all levels - from keeping your vows to telling them what's true - always - especially when everyone else is not.  

So finding your beshert is not the rom-com 'happily ever after' that Hollywood promises us - light, fluffy, always smiling. You DO need that intangible chemistry, that undefinable, deep connection, that cannot be created if it isn't there at first - Hollywood isn't wrong about that. Where Hollywood fails is in showing us that real intimacy and deep relationship entail challenge and difficulty as well as happiness and laughter. But here's the secret: coming through the hard times brings something far more beautiful, more nuanced, more mysterious - and real.  Something always underpinned by real joy, no matter what troubles the surface: happiness, sorrow, anger. Truth at the centre of all you are - individually and together - will ring G-d's love out clear as crystal to the surrounding world.

How do you bring truth to the centre? Anchor yourself and the relationship in G-d. You pray for vision, that you are not seeing yourself or the other through a glass darkly, but clearly, with G-d's eyes. You love with everything you have. You speak what you know to be true with love. Communicate, communicate, communicate - nurture that precious G-d given connection by spending most of that time listening with an open heart: to G-d and to each other: listening with an eye to how you're going to respond is not listening. Be good friends, first and foremost. The genuine liking, respect, quality of attention and leeway we give our friends far too often goes AWOL in our intimate relationships. 

Whatever you do, stay in relationship. Is there an issue between you? Talk to each other, don't whinge to your friends or anyone who will tell you how right you are. Talk to each other, and don't ever stop. I mean, do breathe, take time for yourself, go out with your friends, pursue your interests and stuff. Being joined at the hip is unhealthy - you're individuals in relationship, not a mini-Borg. (Not to mention that doing things by yourselves keeps the mystery alive - there's always something new for you both to discover!) But always keep that channel of communication between each other open. 

Are you shaking with rage? Talk. Find out what's real, not what you think is real because your triggers have been pushed. Yes, you may need to step back and think, because there are things that should never be said, but let each other know you need that space. Saying 'I'm furious about this right now, I need some time to cool off, can I have [X amount of time] and then we'll talk?' and following through is the ultimate in healthy boundaries. Dropping out of relationship by cutting the other person off open-endedly, using what's popularly known as the 'silent treatment', is something else entirely. That says, "I am withdrawing my love, my presence and any opportunity for healing from you - from both of us." Don't go there. You will have broken your wedding vows - to be there 'for better or for worse', but even more foundationally, you will have broken the most basic vow of real relationship (genuine friendship, family, marriage, etc.): "I will be there and we will work through problems together." The silent treatment shatters those vows and removes emotional safety and sanctuary from the relationship - for both of you. 

The reasons it does for the recipient are obvious - their hands are tied; they cannot operate in the relationship to heal/correct their mistake; they are being punished for something they did/didn't do by having an important relationship suddenly stripped from them, with no voice - unable to put their side forward or set things right. How does it eliminate sanctuary for the instigator? By slamming the door, the instigator says, 'I don't trust myself when I'm angry. I don't trust myself in connection or in relationship. I don't trust love, because it hurt, so I will lock myself away.' You're imprisoning yourself, punishing yourself as much, if not more, than the other person - cutting yourself off from love, healing and depth of connection that the other wants to give you. You are freezing the person you care for into a whipping post for your rage (usually about so much more than the actual event - and the other person) based on a single incident, when you know they are so much more. You're cutting yourself off from emotional safety. Let yourself be touched, held, apologised to, by the other. Let them feel your pain and help you transform it. Let the reason you want to cut them off become the reason that your relationship becomes stronger and more true.

Even more destructive than silence is what is now fashionably termed 'snark'. We live in a city - a world - where snark is considered 'clever', where one's intellectual standing is exponentially increased by a smart putdown rather than thoughtful listening and argument; where clever snideness is more valued than compassion. 

But that is not what is true.

Sheathing your anger in humour so you don't have to own it doesn't make you clever, it makes you a coward and an asshole. Let's call a spade a spade: snark is not amused affection; it is not the affectionate teasing that is the mark of a good relationship. Snark is that death knell of all relationship: contempt. Let's not start with the British + Commonwealth/American divide, because I have never known anyone from any culture who was not being a passive-aggressive, cowardly asshole when they were being snarky to someone, constantly jabbing at them with edged comments, like the Chinese death by a thousand cuts - and that includes me. Irony is very different; it has a different emotional energy - it's about sharp human observation, something that moves us to see the world differently. Snark is about lashing out at another without consequences.

Afraid of your anger? I get it. It's a powerful emotion. But anger is simply energy that brings the message that something is wrong; something needs to change. Anger is the heat of the forge, with creative energy that can be channelled and shaped into passion, connection, action. Contempt is the chill of the void, like the Dementors of Azkaban or the Spectres of Cittagazze, sucking the soul out of anything living. It is lack of empathy, isolation, remaining stuck. As a therapist, I can tell you: give me anger or rage, and I can help save a relationship. Give me contempt, and the best I can do is try to ensure a separation with as little pain and bitterness as possible on both sides. Tease away  - but if snark starts to creep in, nip it in the bud by facing what's real.

See, here's the deal - creating an honest, safe emotional space is hard work. Trust me, I'm a therapist - it's my job, I do this consciously when I sit in that chair. It's bloody hard enough when you're not emotionally involved. When you are, when it's the most intimate of your relationships, it takes lashings of grace to do it at all. But it's absolutely essential, because close friendships, family, intimate relationships - they're all crucibles; they're our refiner's fire. That's where we push each other at the deepest places consciously through holding up mirrors and challenging, unconsciously by creating drama. With our nearest and dearest, we're going to hit those triggers no matter what. The only way that being in that crucible will sanctify us is if it is held in the safest, most real and most loving of spaces. It is when we are challenged at the deepest level that we must know we are held in the deepest safety, love and truth.

Having created  a safe space of love and truth anchored in G-d, trusting in emotional risk and grace - HAVE FUN. Laugh together long and often - there are few things more intimate. Revel in each other's company, as you would with a treasured friend. Touch each other - every time you pass each other by the stove or fridge, hold hands, snuggle on the sofa, brush back that lock of hair. Treasure the ordinary days, which are the threads of the tapestry that you will weave together. Shelter each other through the storms, share the view from ecstatic heights, build the history that only you two will know, hinted at by the shared looks and little touches caught by others when you're together. (Yes, the same ones that will embarrass the HELL out of your teenage children.)

Be each other's sanctuary - a place that is safe and real in a world that is fear and illusion. Challenge each other to become what G-d dreamt you would be when He made you. Be that true mirror. Should children come to bless and widen the circle of your love, remember that your marriage is the trunk of the family tree - nurture it, fill it with love and G-d's grace that overflows onto your children, giving them that most precious gift of being loved and of knowing how to love in G-d and the world. Every morning, wake to another day where you love, share and forgive, whatever your day may be - ordinary, rapturous, or heart-wrenching. Keep your heart open - life will tempt you to close it so you'll 'never be hurt again', but closing it will ensure your entombment whilst still alive. Better to be dead. 

If you cannot look at each other and make your wedding vows with every fibre of your being, walk away now, even if it is at the moment you say, 'I don't.' Marriage is a sacrament - there's a reason we use the word 'communion' - it is a binding of souls. Butterflies, nervous excitement, 'OMG, this is HUGE, but IAMSOEXCITEDTOBEMARRYINGMYPARTNER!' is a good sign. Feeling trapped, freaking out, 'I can't do this', and numbness are not symptoms of cold feet - they are G-d's way of saying, 'I didn't call you to this. YOU did. Stop. Now.' Listen to that, even if you're an atheist, no matter what it cost, what the guests think, however much it hurts you both at the time - better it should be put asunder now than ripped apart later.

But if you can speak those vows to each other, heart and soul, then love and keep loving - and watch life open doors that you couldn't even have imagined. Let your wedding day be the day of your marriage that you loved each other least - and let it be the day that you were deeply present as you made those vows to each other and bound yourselves together in the deepest way possible - branches touching, roots entwined.  

As per this blessing from the Sheva Brachot, I ask G-d:

"Grant perfect joy to these loving companions, as you did your creations in the Garden of Eden. Blessed are You, LORD, who grants the joy of groom and bride."

In closing, allow me to borrow a line from an absolutely amazing wedding sermon given by a priest friend: I overheard this when I was on the Lodge one Saturday (I'm totally nicking :-) this from now on as a blessing for friends getting married - credit given, of course):

May you become so entwined with G-d and with each other that you cannot tell where your marriage ends and G-d begins.

That is my prayer for you - today and every day. May each year find you deeper in truth, richer in blessings and more in love than the last.

Now go forth to love and be loved - the world and the future await you.