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Marriage as a Vessel of Transformation

Eight years ago on our 22nd anniversary, Richard and I walked into Lake Washington. This was not our usual morning swim, an immersion in the elements of water and sky with our dog swimming figure eights between us.

On that day, I wore my wedding dress, a knee-length, aquamarine silk dress that I had designed. We held hands as we walked from our home to the water’s edge and into the lake. But when the water reached chest height, I began unbuttoning the sleeves of the dress. The process of unbuttoning twenty tiny, fabric-covered buttons took about ten minutes. When both sleeves were free, Richard unzipped the dress and slipped it over my head. Then, carefully and with utter gentleness, I laid the dress on the surface of the lake. With arms around each other, we wept as it caught the current and floated downstream towards the bay.

This ritual was an acknowledgement that our marriage, as we had known it, was over. The chills running through my body were partly from the cool water and partly from the uncertainty that lay ahead.

To love another in the context of an intimate relationship is the most vulnerable journey a human being can make. Consciously engaged, it can also be the most transformative.

When Richard and I vowed to be together ‘in good times and in bad,’ neither of us had any idea that marriage would have such a harsh need to change us. If we had, I doubt that either of us could have said, ‘I do.’ We were young, naïve, and embedded in the cultural ethos that has marriage be a place of safety, security, and unconditional love—a warm and cozy cocoon in which to rest. And for a while, our marriage was that. Until it wasn’t. Until intimacy itself drew the unconscious aspects of both of us to the surface. Intimacy inevitably does this, but we also didn’t know that at the time. So, as happens when any structure breaks down, we viewed this as a problem that needed to be solved rather than a new possibility trying to emerge.

We were not unlike most couples that marry: we came into the marriage shaped by our childhood experiences, with patterns that were adaptations to those experiences and unconscious of any of that. But unlike some couples who encounter these outdated structures and either divorce or enter into a quiet despair, we sought help. And unlike many therapists who don’t understand the need for deep structural change, we found ourselves in the hands of someone already living his marriage as a transformational path.

In the eight years since that walk to the lake, the vessel of our marriage has been broken and repaired several times. The outside of the vessel is worn, chipped, bruised from the breaking, but the inside has been burnished like pure gold.

This renewal would not have been possible if we had not allowed old structures to collapse; if we had not been willing to experience and endure the anxiety and uncertainty of not knowing what the future held; if we had not been willing to break and allow new, unfamiliar structures in ourselves and each other to emerge. Today, we stand on a new shore.

This relentless and repeated breaking apart, mending, and ultimate renewal of our marriage is not unlike what we face in the larger culture today. Something in that culture also ‘wants’ to happen; something is trying to break down in order that something may break out.

As at times in our marriage, there is widespread denial that anything is really wrong. We’re trying solutions largely based on doing more of the same thing. There’s a tightly held hope that real systemic change can be avoided if we just change a few behaviors, that we can keep the current identity (structure) safe if only we press hard enough on ‘the other’ to change.

Somehow, we feel that if we just hold on, we can make it through all this suffering without really having to let go of what we think we know. And yet, the increasing polarization, pessimism, and even cynicism are simply a defense against a more profound surrender. And so, the chaos increases.

As I write this, I call to mind that first wedding dress and wonder where it finally came to rest. In my heart, it is sunken now under a carpet of lily pads. Tangled in their deep roots, it is dissolving into the muck, becoming part of the very thing that both nourishes the flowers and securely anchors them in the depths.