Reflections on Sane Spirituality

On Being Married or Not

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My daughter, thirty something, recently got married. Beautiful ceremony. Almost two hundred guests on our back yard. Luckily, we actually like the husband.

My friend David has a thirty something daughter too. She and her beau have been together for about as long as my own daughter has, and they are in a committed relationship. But they have decided not to get married. No ceremony. No guests. Not even a ceremony at the town office with some unnamed justice of the peace. A throwback to the sixties, it's something about the institution.

David has a lot in common with the young man. Really enjoys him. Yet, David said recently, in their not marrying, something has been lost. But what?

In a world in which love is celebrated and sung about endlessly, why shouldn't we just love each other? I grew up in the counter culture, where we could chant "down with the institution," or "make love not war" or that "love is enough." So ... just what does the ceremony contribute to a life? How does the fact of marriage contribute to growth of the soul or the development of a relationship?

Here's my motto about relationships: Every relationship is a spiritual opportunity. I don't mean just marriages. Every relationship.

A good relationship offers possibility and place to discover and stretch and explore in ways no one of us could know or could have articulated. A good friendship, a good colleagial relationship, a good coffee shop conversation in which you're discovering aloud with a stranger -- all provide the possibility for discovery, each in its appropriate way. I have learned from my students. My students have learned from me. I have learned from my auto mechanic, from bookstore owners, from long ago lovers. And of course from my marriage. A good relationship offers the possibility of growth, of newness, of discovery further and further, sometimes (hopefully often) to the very edge of the great mysteries.

We can learn alone. I have had many insights and breakthroughs on drives, on walks in the woods, in silent meditations. Introspection is a great teacher, held aright. But relationships with others who are growing, who surprise us, who themselves are expressions of the great mystery, offer a different kind of possibility than solitary contemplation.

The engagement with mystery and newness with another, however is not limitless. It takes time to build enough trust and mutual reliance to get to the real issues that every life sits astride. And both the setting and the covert agreements need to be in place strongly and clearly enough. It would be absurd to to try to engage the M-4 bus driver about my love relationships, and my biology teacher in thinking about my bus route (except in very rare circumstances).

Relationships offer space for discovery when the assumptions and yes the boundaries are reasonably clear. They work best when those limits are held in common; here's where teachers get into trouble thinking a student is a lover, not a student, or where bosses get accused of harassment. Boundaries, assumptions, expectations are not nothing.

I learned a very great deal from my Hinduism Professor, Joel Brereton. He taught me how to think about Hinduism, about how to approach religions, about how systems of thought work. It was in part because I was clear on what we were about, on the limits of our explorations or on the structure of our contact, that I could be so open to his thoughts and insights. I was not looking for anything else, and could happily explore, within limits, our mutual material.

If I had been looking for marital advice, if I had been looking for advice on how to fix my car, I think I would have both confused him and muddied the clarity of our relationship. In some subtle way, I would have been looking to him for something other than what he expected. Every time I sought other kinds of contact, he would have been confused about where we were going, what I was expecting. We would have had to clarify what our relationship was about, why I was looking for something new and different, and what were the boundaries of our contact now. Instead of the ripples of discovery flowing outward, we would be negotiating the limits and boundaries and expectations between us.

We can change the rules of our relationships, of course. Teachers can become friends, or occasionally lovers. But then we have changed the rules, the expectations.

To the extent the expectations between people are fuzzy, to that extent the people involved have to negotiate their assumptions, clarify what they are doing here together or who gets to say what kind of relationship they are having, what are its limits, and so on. When people are navigating such churning waters, they are not expanding into the unknown -- but rather working out the boundaries and rules between them.

So too with my friend David and his daughter's beau. It's not like the son / father in law relationship is clearly defined. Each pair has to navigate just how they will and won't relate. Yet there are some aspects of the connection that the mere definition of that relationship guarantees: Whether it is happy or sad, this relationship will be with us until death or divorce do us part. We both know that even though we would probably not have occasions to meet or become friends, the seriousness of this connection challenges us to discovery and learning to live together. He is my son in law, I the father in law; we will have to learn to deal with each other in a long term way. If we go for family Christmas presents, as my family does, we will likely buy him Christmas and birthday presents. If we have family vacations, we'll take him. And with luck we'll learn to love and be loved.

This is not much, admittedly. And David is certainly confident about these factors, on the whole. But nor are these assumptions nothing. David does not know if their relationship is one of son and father in law, young man and older guy, just friends, etc. He cannot quite rest, ever, in the structure that society provides him. And he will inevitably hold something back -- a slight bit of wariness perhaps, that this relationship is not quite clear, that he doesn't share expectations or the rules, such as they are. He can count on the permanence here, but to a slightly lesser degree than I can, I think. It is, alas, easier for unmarried young people to abandon each other than it is to abandon AND get a divorce.

He likes the guy, really, and has learned to live with and love the young man. What he cannot know, cannot count on, is not a lot. But, and this is the important part, nor is it nothing. There is a structure missing, like the magnetic poles of their connection have not been aligned quite solidly, and so they cannot count on the constancy of the magnetism of a joint life.

Mircea Eliade pointed out that in order for us to function, we have to know where we are, how our world is founded, as he put it. If we are not quite oriented, we are forever looking for that orientation to found, to orient, a life.

It is a paradox, but freedom requires something rock solid, a steadiness, at its core. Else we will forever look to fasten our world into the earth, to get oriented, to know who we are and where we stand. True openness requires not only room to play but a place to begin as well, a place to stand. You can go infinitely far away when you know where you start. Otherwise you go nowhere, looking forever for "Go."

Structure makes freedom possible. I am motivated to learn how to play with my son in law in part because I know that he will be, likely forever, my son in law. I will learn how to play with him, in the way that the two of us are inventing, because I must. It is out of the form that the formless can grow.

Updated 07-27-2010 at 10:54 PM by Bob-ji

Sane Spirituality , Spirituality & Relationships



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