catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 4 :: 2012.02.17 — 2012.03.01


Real relationships

The question is frequently posed to newlyweds, “So, how is married life?!” Then there is a little pause followed either by a glib, “Great!” or a longer, less enthusiastic, but no more meaningful response. The question isn’t meant to be answered from the heart — it’s asked casually on purpose. Asking, or telling, about the inner workings of intimate partnerships — particularly marriages and dating dyads — is socially unacceptable.

I often find myself wishing to know what really goes on in the confines of individual relationships. This is partly sociological curiosity, but it also stems from the human need to know what’s real. I’m hoping what’s real isn’t televised human drama, but I need living examples to replace false information. However, partnerships in our culture exist, in essence, behind closed doors.  While couples need various kinds of privacy, communities could benefit from a less tight-lipped posture. So much good can come when caring people can respectfully ask, “What is going on between you?” or when healthy couples can give not-yet-paired folks realistic visions of partnership. Some folks need testimonies of just how good and right marriage can be - and what it’s like day to day - because they’ve never seen it done well before.

Relational phenomena is observable, but sometimes perplexing.  For example, several years ago I attended the wedding of two friends, and now I hear they’re divorcing.  Inside I beg to know why? What happened? But they are only former friends, perhaps acquaintances now, and one just doesn’t ask those questions. Or if one does, the answers are terse and dismissive.  We are welcome to witness vows, but are not allowed to ask why they are abandoned. Current sociological or theological commentary is happy to explain the statistics of divorce, but their conjectures are not satisfactory — we need the true story if we are to understand.

Happier relationship content is also rather taboo. A cousin tells me he’s engaged; it’s a little sudden, and I’m surprised. I’m curious to know what’s special about their relationship, why he believes the connection deserves a life-long promise. But they’ve announced their intention, and there is pressure just to take the couple at their word. It’s not polite to dig too deeply into what’s “personal.” And the content of partnerships, it seems, is increasingly personal.

I’ve experience this taboo being broken a few times.  As a 12-year-old at summer camp, my college-aged counselor tastefully and appropriately related to us some information about the dynamics of relationships she’d been in, and ones she’d avoided. The realistic account of what a girl might expect from a guy/girl dynamic was so refreshing! No one except the TV would give us preteens any straight talk — and that wise young woman’s account seemed far more trustworthy than television.

Another time, while I was visiting a church, a woman approached the microphone during the service and sadly informed the congregation that she and her husband would be seeking a divorce. She acknowledged the awkward nature of such situations, but encouraged church members to feel free to send her a card or speak with her about the divorce. She would need their comfort and embrace, and didn’t want the taboo to prevent that. What a relief to know that in that church, it was okay to be real!

The most significant taboo-breaking I’ve witnessed was by a couple in my small group. A few years after the public confession of adultery, these two shared aloud what exactly was going on in their marriage prior to the affair. They described the deteriorated conditions that made infidelity possible. They shared what it felt like after everyone in the church knew and what they did in therapy to begin to reconcile. This sharing was a great gift. Personally, it helped give me the confidence to make a marriage commitment of my own. I’d already known that darkness abounded in partnerships, but I hadn’t understood it and was terrified of the possibility. Through them, I’d been given an honest look at the darkest days of a union, and with an honest look, my fear shrank — it was no longer simply “the unknown.” We all need examples to show us that healing is possible even in excruciating pain.

Certainly banishing the taboo around talking about the internal workings of partnerships has the potential to lead to gossip and humiliation. But handled well, maybe the woman with a mildly emotionally abusive boyfriend would realize that his behavior isn’t normal or acceptable. Perhaps my commitment-phobic generation could be infused with courage to make vows. But if no one will tell us what it’s actually like inside particular flesh-and-blood relationships, how can we know what’s real or what’s possible?

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