|Posted by Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. on August 3, 2017 at 4:15 AM|
A few weeks ago my husband and I were walking through a park in Prague and I noticed a couple taking a selfie. This in and of itself was nothing out of the ordinary (summer in Prague = an abundance of selfie sticks). However, as we got closer, I could hear the couple arguing. With a look of total exasperation the woman said to the man, “No, don’t look over THERE, look over HERE! And could you at least TRY to smile for god’s sake?” The man shifted his gaze, smiled, and she snapped the photo. Then they went on their way, obviously annoyed with each other and barely taking in the view.
As we passed the couple I thought about the future of that photo. I thought about how she would probably post it on Facebook, and how her friends and family would be excited to see the happy couple surrounded by a gorgeous European vista. Some friends might even get jealous - wishing that they had a relationship like hers or that they could get some time off work to travel. I felt like I’d been let in on a little secret. I was the only person, aside from the couple themselves, who knew that they were actually bickering moments before they captured the perfect shot.
The experience made me think of the many ways that we tell white lies to the world. For all I know, that couple probably has a great relationship and love each other deeply - but in that moment they presented a slightly false image to the world. Most of us do this on a regular basis, and I’m no exception. I’m a photo-holic and there are over 1,000 photos that I’m tagged in on my personal Facebook profile. Probably at least half of these photos are pictures of my husband and I smiling our big smiles, arms around each other, having a good time. We've traveled to over 20 countries together, and I try to capture perfect shots in every single one. In most of the photos we actually are having a good time. But sometimes we’re not.
Sometimes we’re jet lagged or arguing or exhausted. Like the time on our honeymoon when we got into an argument and then walked the entire length of the city walls around Dubrovnik, Croatia without saying a word to each other. Or the time in Santorini, Greece when we got annoyed with each other during our morning coffee - but we still managed to capture perfect shots like this one:
I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar. I’m not saying we’re all terrible liars who should never post happy pictures on Facebook. Instead, I’m trying to draw our attention to a subtle layer of non-truth that many of us perpetuate online. This behaviour is so insidious that we don’t realize we’re doing it. And I think it underlies a bigger problem.
The bigger problem is that many of us are ashamed to admit that our relationships aren’t perfect. We plaster our social media profiles with perfectly positioned, expertly filtered photos of our relationships and families in an effort to say to the world, “Look at us! We made it! We’re doing awesome things together and we’re so happy.” It’s almost as if we feel the need to put our relationships on display so that people on the other side of our screen can validate our worth.
I’ve always been fascinated by relationships (I even studied dating and married couples for my PhD), and this “online perfection” phenomenon is no exception. I’m curious why so many of us feel the need to portray our relationships in such a positive light, when the truth is often much murkier and more complex.
I’ve never given a speech at a wedding, and perhaps that’s a good thing, because I would probably say some version of what I’m about to write below. So let’s get real about relationships, shall we?
Marriage As a Paradox
I once heard someone say, “Sex is easy. Love is hard.” And if you think about it, you’ll realize it’s true. Of course, mind-blowing sex isn’t necessarily easy to accomplish, and sex is perhaps more of an art than a science, but once you get the basic mechanics down, you can choose to have sex without much effort, thoughtfulness, or presence. Love, on the other hand, is a tricky beast. It doesn’t have “mechanics” or a basic operating manual. Sometimes it creeps up slowly, other times it hits you out of the blue. Once you feel it, it’s hard to let it go. Love is easy when you’re inspired, feeling good about your partner, and having a nice time together. The true test is being able to remember your love when you’re pissed off, or when something tragic happens, or during the mundane routines of daily life.
I got married on July 17th, 2009 in the Stratford Ontario city hall, with 35 friends and family in attendance. The ceremony lasted 15 minutes and in truth I don’t remember much of it, but I do know that the words “for better or worse” were included in our vows. At the time, I knew what this meant intellectually. It meant that I would stand by my husband during all of the wonderful and challenging experiences that we would have in our life together. What I’ve learned over the past 14 years of our relationship, however, is that having an intellectual understanding of “for better or worse” is completely different from actually living it.
My life with my husband has been extremely blessed, but we’ve also seen our fair share of challenges. He stood by me for two years while I tried to get off antidepressants. He supported me while I worked to get my Masters and then my PhD. We’ve each lost one parent - my stepfather to an oxycontin overdose and his mom to cancer. We’ve seen each other through financial difficulties, existential crises, unemployment, career transitions, entrepreneurship, creative struggles, home ownership, scary medical results, cross-continent moves, wrinkles, age spots, grey hair and all the other lovely things that come along with aging.
During this time I’ve realized that marriage is actually a perfect paradox. Why? Because marriage is both the easiest and the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. Easy in the sense that I love my husband, we’re compatible, and we hold a deep love and respect for each other that flows like an underground current beneath everything we go through. Easy in the sense that we can gauge each other’s wants, needs, and moods based on a microscopic eyebrow movement or barely discernible change in tone of voice. But marriage is hard because we push each other’s buttons in exactly the right ways. We force each other to grow and evolve even when it’s uncomfortable. We vote on opposite ends of the political spectrum and always need to find ways to be inclusive of each other’s points of view. We live with the mundane drudgery of daily life (dirty laundry, chores, bills) while also trying to maintain a sense of passion and excitement.
I realize that most of the challenges we’ve experienced have been existential life stressors that only privileged people have the luxury of enduring. But they’ve been struggles, nonetheless.
I’m not the first person to write or speak about the complexities of marriage. In fact, research suggests that you can love and hate your partner at the exact same time. How’s that for a paradox?
Here are a few more examples. I recently finished reading Dani Shapiro’s memoir “Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage” in which she candidly articulates the sometimes difficult journey of her 18-year marriage. She shares the beautiful, passionate moments of her partnership while also revealing her process of coming to terms with, and forgiving, her relationship for not being the idealized fairytale that she’d originally had in mind. In the documentary “Dancing in the Flames,” Marion Woodman describes her and her husband as having had 5 different marriages to each other during their 50-plus-year marriage, based on a number of “deaths and rebirths” that they’d gone through individually and as a couple. Esther Perel’s “Mating in Captivity” (which I highly recommend for all married or soon to be married people) sheds light on another paradox of the modern monogamous marriage, namely that the erotic and the domestic often don’t mix. Perel explains how our needs for security and our needs for freedom are often at odds with each other throughout our entire relationship.
Marriage is, in all honesty, the work of a lifetime.
We Seek What We Want To Cultivate
As a young single woman I remember belting out the lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s “21 Things I Want In A Lover.” I sang this song with devotion, like a prayer to the universe. It was my attempt to call in “the one” who would assuage all my relationship woes. This is what Alanis and I were after in a partner:
Do you derive joy when someone else succeeds?
Do you not play dirty when engaged in competition?
Do you have a big intellectual capacity, but know that it alone does not equate wisdom?
Do you see everything as an illusion, but enjoy it even though you are not of it?
Are you both masculine and feminine?
And don't believe in capital punishment?
Do you derive joy from diving in and seeing that loving someone can actually feel like freedom?
Are you funny?
And have many formed opinions?
Are you uninhibited in bed? More than three times a week? Up for being experimental?
Are you athletic?
Are you thriving in a job that helps your brother?
Are you not addicted?
Are you curious and communicative?
Today I can review this list and confirm that these are in fact many (though not all) of the qualities that I look for in a mate. More importantly, however, I now realize that these are actually qualities that I either like about myself or want to cultivate more of in myself. In other words, all of the things that you want your mate to be are usually characteristics that you wish you had more of yourself.
One of the primary tasks of marriage, then, is to focus on cleaning up your side of the street instead of lamenting about the faults of your partner. Anyone who’s been in a relationship for long enough knows that no matter how hard you try, you will not change your partner. Instead, you can focus on nourishing the qualities that you want to bring forth in yourself. Part of nourishing these qualities involves doing your best to show up in your relationship as the most authentic version of yourself that you can muster.
Embracing Authentic Partnership
None of my friends have been spared from challenges in their relationships - even though on the surface their relationships look great. In our most honest moments they tell me of doubts, infidelities, therapy, sexual dissatisfaction, addictions, fantasies, and annoyances. Make no mistake - you are surrounded by these people. They are the couple passionately making out in the park. They are the couple holding hands and looking blissful. They pass you on the street. They sit beside you at the office. And yes, they fill your Facebook feed.
Every single person who is involved in a relationship for any significant length of time has their fair share of problems. This isn’t a problem. The problem is that we pretend we don’t have problems. Not only do we pretend, but we feel ashamed of our issues. We feel inferior and wonder if we’re the only ones who don’t have a perfect partnership when in fact, our relationship issues might be one of the main things that we all have in common.
The solution to this situation isn’t going to be found in a new lover, or a weekend getaway, or some sexy lingerie. The solution comes from having the courage to stare your relationship issues in the face, with your partner, and walk through the flames together. This is what I mean by showing up as the most authentic version of yourself that you can muster. You might think you’re being super authentic and truthful in your relationship, but if you dig a little deeper you might notice otherwise. For example, what little white lies do you maintain in order to avoid revealing your real needs to your partner? What one thing are you most afraid to share with them? What part(s) of yourself are you hiding from them? Keep in mind that the things we’re scared or embarrassed to share with our partners are usually things we’re ashamed or judgemental of in ourselves.
Of all the personal development work I’ve done, this is by far the toughest task. Speaking from your soul - no holds barred - with the people you love puts you in an extremely vulnerable position. You open yourself to criticism, judgement and rejection. You expose the deepest, weakest, most fearful parts of yourself in the hope that your beloved will acknowledge those parts, take you into his or her arms, and love you anyway. Sometimes this happens, other times it doesn’t.
Your partner doesn’t necessarily need to agree with your authentic expression, but in order for the relationship to continue, he or she needs to come face to face with whatever hurts, fears, or insecurities your authenticity brings up in them. This takes a lot of emotional maturity, patience, wisdom, and understanding. Wisdom has, in fact, been defined as the ability to hold paradox. You and your partner need to fully acknowledge and embody the fact that you are a living paradox. You love and hate each other at the same time. You are perfectly matched and horribly incompatible. You are sexually attracted to each other and have fantasies about others. You adore your children and wish you had more time for yourselves. You are meant for each other and could have been meant for others if life had worked out differently. You want to be married and you long for freedom.
You are all of these things at the exact same time. You are a messy, living, breathing, human work of love.
My advice to you (and myself) is to get real about your relationship, both within the relationship itself and with how you present your relationship to the world. Let’s stop perpetuating the white lie of the perfectly happy couple. Post pictures on social media that come from a place of true joy, not a place of trying to prove how awesome your life is. The next time you feel inclined to share the perfect shot of you and your beloved, you could use the three gates of speech to assess your motivations. Ask yourself, is this picture true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? We can all feel the difference between photos that are coming from a place of inspiration, truth and joy versus photos that are forced. Let’s all start filling our feeds with Truth.
In addition to adding some integrity to your online persona, you can also start talking to your partner about your needs, your longings, your dreams, and your desires. Confide in your friends, family, partners and lovers about your doubts, insecurities, and fears. This is how authentic partnership happens.
Your Relationship As Your Teacher
The most important thing to remember is that unlike perfectly choreographed photos, authentic partnership doesn’t look pretty. There are arguments and tears. Your fears sometimes feel crippling. Your exposure, unbearable. You will wonder whether your relationship will make it. And you will need to come to terms with the fact that maybe it won’t. But the alternative would be to settle for a relationship that doesn’t acknowledge and embrace the authentic you. If your relationship can’t rise like a phoenix from the fires of Truth then you need to trust that it has run its course.
This poem by Michael Reid illustrates this point beautifully (note that I think gender is irrelevant in this poem - it could also be called “Dear Man” or be rewritten in a way that honors same-sex couples).
You’ll just be too much woman.
Too much of something
That makes a man feel like less of a man,
Which will start making you feel like you have to be less of a
The biggest mistake you can make
Is removing jewels from your crown
To make it easier for a man to carry.
When this happens, I need you to understand,
You do not need a smaller crown -
You need a man with bigger hands.
My new clarity wouldn’t allow me to lie anymore. I began to see my partner as a mirror of myself. A mirror so close, in fact, that I could no longer blame a single thing on her without seeing in that judgment an exact reflection of myself.
Oh, lover, my guru. You show me my deepest wound and brightest light. Your face appears wherever I look. If I should leave you and seek another, you will only change form but bring me always back again to the same unlearned lesson.
Oh, lover, my guru. Thank you for teaching me to love myself. Thank you for being a reflection of all that remains unresolved and asks for healing. I need not journey to far-off sacred places or beg for rice in saffron robes. Before me you stand with all the lessons I so dearly wish to avoid.
Oh, lover, my guru. I bless our moments of high bliss under star-woven skies. They remind me of a contract—made perhaps in some nonmaterial place—for us to meet and come together like this. Like this and also like all the other ways we rub and scratch and polish each other until the reflection is clear beyond words.