Marriage Is For Liars

We stand together on the marriage altar, and we begin the most important relationship of our lives with a terrible lie. We say, “For better or worse.” But we don’t really mean it. If we were to be honest with ourselves, if we were to begin the marriage authentically, most of us would say, “I have a bunch of needs which have never been satisfied in my relationships. Today, in front of our friends and family, I’m publicly gambling that you will be the person to finally meet those needs. If you do, I will be happy, and I will try to make you happy. If you don’t, well, God help us…”

Not so long ago, as my wife was ambushing me with her brilliance and her beauty and our kids were still beyond imagining, I was a young, eager, graduate student and researcher at Penn State University. And I was determined to unearth the secrets to marital bliss. More than one hundred couples participated in my dissertation research, and I watched hundreds of hours of videotaped arguments between spouses who had been married for less than a year.

And I was shocked by what I observed.

Although the marriages had just begun—the taste of wedding cake had barely faded from their tongues—the conversations revealed that every spouse was already blaming their partner for inflicting deep wounds upon them. I was confused and intrigued. These were newlywed couples—the lifespan of the marriage was too short to have already produced the depth of wounds these spouses were ascribing to each other. So what was going on?

As it turns out, we begin our marriages with a fundamental deception: although we outwardly claim to begin a new story on our wedding day, we are actually entering the marriage with the already-oozing wounds of a life lived amongst broken people. The wounds may be bandaged or disguised or anesthetized, and we may not even be aware of them ourselves. So, we begin our marriages with a lie of omission. Inevitably, though, when the honeymoon-tan has faded and the challenge of day-to-day loving has begun, the person to whom we have so recently pledged eternal allegiance begins to rub up against our wounds. Unknowingly, they poor salt on the wounds of a lifetime. And as the wounds are rubbed raw, they begin to scream with pain. And so do we. We begin to blame, and we unwittingly enter into another lie—we tell our partners they have caused our wound, and we lay the full responsibility for its healing at their feet.

But it simply isn’t true. Our life-stories don’t begin with the sliding-on of rings or that first dance or the mashing of cake in each other’s faces. Our stories begin in the vulnerable years of infancy and childhood and adolescence. By the time you utter your marriage vows, people have been writing the wounds of your story upon you for a very long time. And so we carry with us into marriage the wounds inflicted by the people we cherished the most—mothers and fathers, grandparents, brothers and sisters, best friends and high school sweethearts and lovers. Most of the wounds were unintentional—wounds inflicted by broken people doing the best they could. We may have been raised in peaceful families with little conflict, where the bills got paid and there was always food on the table, but no one ever expressed how they felt about you and no one ever seemed to see you—so you enter into marriage with a deep need for affirmation and attentiveness and a sense of belonging. Other wounds were carved deep, with malice and the desire to do violence. We may have had our stories told by the vicious voices of our peers, or by parents who subtly invaded every area of life, or by authority figures who left no room for freedom or choice—so you come to marriage with an aching need to be treated gently, or to have your worthiness affirmed, or to be granted ample freedom and space within your relationship.

But regardless of how the wounds got there, they hurt.

And the more a wound hurts, the more we protect it. We protect it because our wounds are our vulnerability. Our wounds expose us and reveal the painful fullness of the stories we have lived. Blaming our spouses is less painful than wading into the origins of the wound itself, and it is certainly less risky than explaining and exposing our vulnerability to our new life partner. So, we protect our wounds with blame and contempt and bitterness and angry demands for healing. But in the process, we become enslaved to the wound and to the cycle of blame.

And freedom from the wound and the blame can only be found in confession. Confession is the redemption of deception.

The couples who transform my psychotherapy office into a confession booth are the marriages that find healing.

They confess the lie, first to themselves and then to their partner. They do the gutsy, courageous thing, and they trade in blame for vulnerability. They become story-tellers, sharing the fullness of their own stories and the depth of their life-long wounds. They confess that the needs they brought into the marriage were born in a particular relationship at a particular stage of life, and they share the ache of a wound that may never be fully healed, because the people who originally inflicted the wound can’t (or won’t) be a part of healing it. They quit demanding for their partner to bestow a healing word or a corrective action. Instead, with fear and trembling, they enter into the vulnerability of a powerless request for a graceful love.

The power of this kind of confession is transformational, no matter where it happens.

I witnessed this kind of confession last week. In my living room. I stay home with my kids on Fridays and, invariably, while I’m grilling the cheese sandwiches for lunch, the playful, other-room noises of my four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter morph into a wail of injustice and hurt. After one particularly loud wail, I walked in to find Quinn standing over Caitlin, and he was holding something pink. You don’t have to watch CSI to dissect what had happened: There was a fight for something and the smaller kid got knocked down. I looked at Quinn, and his chin jutted out so far I was surprised he didn’t fall over. His eyes got hard and defiant and his protest began. I struggled to stay calm, I looked at him, and I asked for the truth.

And my broken, hurting, lovely son confessed.

The chin went from jutting to trembling, the eyes went from hard to wet, and the sadness welled up in his voice, a soft-choking confession—Daddy, I’m sorry, I pushed her because it isn’t fair that I have to share my stuff but you never make her share hers. Quinn confessed the wound of a middle child, living sandwiched in unfairness—Daddy, here’s my wound, and I’m sorry about the ways I try to heal it with demands and violence.

And do you know what happens when a confession like that takes place? Quinn tumbled into my arms, and Caitlin got up and hugged him, and we walked out of the room together.

When confession happens, the relationship explodes with honesty and authenticity and vulnerability and tenderness and connectedness. And the act of confession becomes an event of transformation. The shame of our wounds loses its power to bind us and isolate us. The walls we build around ourselves are torn down and our broken places become a place of connectedness, instead of places of wounded hiding. We become creatures set free to live and to love. We become fractured creatures sutured together into a beautiful new creation. It doesn’t look perfect, but it looks like the brilliant paradox of two remaining two, yet becoming one.

I think it’s time to turn the verbal boxing rings of our living rooms and bedrooms into confessional booths. It’s time to unleash the light of vulnerability and connectedness into a world that is dark with isolation and loneliness. If we entered into this kind of confessional way of life, what kind of stories would we tell a world mired in the narcissism of invincibility? I think we would tell stories of a selfless love, of a courageous vulnerability, and of a redemptive, healing connectedness.

Share a Comment: Confession and vulnerability can be healing, but they also include the risk of further hurt. Do you have thoughts about when it is wise or unwise to risk this kind of vulnerability with your spouse? Please feel free to share your thoughts about this, or any other comment, below. If you are reading this by e-mail or RSS feed, you can click here to comment directly on the blog.

Note: If you would like to be notified of future posts, you can subscribe by e-mail in the sidebar. You can also receive notification by joining me on Twitter or liking my page on Facebook, where I share the story behind the post. And, as always, thanks for reading. It’s a gift.

Note: For compelling insight about vulnerability and connectedness, check out Brene Brown’s TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability”

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Disclaimer: Kelly's writings represent a combination of his own personal opinions and his professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with him via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Kelly does not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accepts no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Authentic Bay

    Reblogged this on Authentic Bay and commented:
    Instead of writing my own post this week I thought I would share this thought provoking post on relationship by Dr. Kelly Flanagan

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  • Lisa

    This is a beautiful explanation of confession in the Catholic faith. The forgiveness and grace I feel after confession is remarkable.

  • sonja

    My church started a Celebrate Recovery program and it is their belief that everyone needs to be in recovery (not just those addicted to drugs or alcohol or those who have experienced terrible abuse) — but everyone. And we all need to be in recovery because we live in a fallen world where it is impossible to reach adulthood without wounds (as you call it) or “hurts, habits, hang-ups” (as they call it in CR). CR creates a safe place for the “confession” to which you are referring, and, ultimately, to healing. Great article!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for sharing, Lisa and Sonja. Sonja, it’s an interesting observation. I’ve noticed that a hallmark of recovery from addiction is the sentiment of gratitude for the addiction itself, because it made it impossible for the addicted person to deny the need for restoration that we all have but often ignore. Thanks again!

  • Zalika

    I have never thought of it in that way….that Confession brings about healing to the wounds. Very thought provoking.

  • Charles

    What do you think the next logical step is when the spouse you are “confessing” to doesn’t respond. I have put myself out in the open before because i know we both have issues that we need to work through and she doesnt have anything to say when I attempt a “confession.” Its tough when your working with a one way street.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Charles, Your question is, I think, the most common and most heartfelt question I receive on the blog. Unfortunately, it is also the toughest for me to answer on the blog, because there are so many unknown variables. My greatest encouragement is to find a good marital therapist and if your spouse won’t accompany you, at least find a good individual therapist for yourself to work through this very important question. Best to you and your wife.

      • Charles

        Thanks for the advise doc!

  • Susan Barnes

    It’s a mistake to believe that the people you meet in therapy are representative of all married people. It’s possible, even likely, that my husband and I are outliers, but you couldn’d have recorded and argument in our first year of marriage, because we didn’t have any. In the 9 and a half years we have been married, I don’t think we’ve had more than 3 or 4 things I’d call arguments, and none of them resulted in either of us accusing the other of being responsible for a wound of any kind. I guess it helps that I have the perfect husband, and that we knew each other for over 20 years before we married. Or maybe just the fact that we were older and wiser then we married is what made the difference.

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  • Elise Anderson

    The articles I have read so far, Marriage is for Losers, and this one, are so truly beautiful, that I am moved to thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you…. you have a great gift and I love and support it. Your words have helped me be more brave in helping to support my friends in their relationships, and I am floored by the ways the difficult and rewarding work my husband and I have done are mirrored in your words. It is validating and soothing and encouraging.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      You are most welcome, Elise! The work you have done in your marriage is a light to the rest of us. So, thank you!

  • Jessica

    I’ve really been enjoying this blog, and this post in particular helped me last week to have a conversation with my husband that went like, “Here is the real, true reason why I’ve been so tetchy the last two days.” It wasn’t perfect — I’m not sure what perfect would have even looked like — but it cleared an awful lot of tension during a stressful week for us. And I think saying out loud, “I’m hurt this way” helped me to find compassion for my younger self, if that makes any sense. Anyway, thanks for this. It’s a lovely read.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      It makes great sense, Jessica! When we think of compassion as “suffering with,” we have to be able to touch our pain in order to “suffer with” our younger self. I’m so glad it helped to defuse things at home.

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  • Iliana

    I was married for 7 years and I was in therapy for 2. I did so because I was having a hard time seeing my marriage crumble and seeing my partner’s indolence. The ink on the divorce papers had barely dried when he announced he had met the woman of his life and proposed to her just 4 months after meeting her.

    Since we were sharing custody or our little boy, I spent a lot of time alone. I wanted to go out and make new friends (I am originally from South America). I never expected to fall in love with my current partner.

    We were both divorced. We had so much in common. And we felt an undeniable and strong attraction. After 6 months dating, I found out I was pregnant (despite being on the pill).

    He said he would never consider marriage because “a piece of paper would not change how he felt about me”. He had a lavish ceremony and honeymoon. His marriage lasted less than a year. His ex wife was emotionally abusive.

    I had no choice but to get married at the courthouse with no friends or family (I had just arrived to the US 2 months prior), no gifts, no well wishes.

    I felt very rejected but agreed that marriage after such a short time would be a mistake. I agreed to continue the relationship. 5 months later, we had an ultrasound to find out the sex of the baby. It was a boy. He wanted to go out and “celebrate” and while at the restaurant, he proposed.

    I was surprised but very happy. We shared the news with people and everybody was really happy. “Congratulations! You both deserve so much happiness!” – was what everybody said to us. Not 2 weeks had passed when I brought a bridal magazine home and his initial excitement turned into something else.

    “Don’t tell me you want cake. My ex wanted one.” “A wedding? I just want to elope” “I don’t want family or friends to be there”. I can go on and on. After trying to “compromise” I realized his past was still haunting him so I called off the engagement.

    Now his family is mad at me and hopes I will “reconsider”. They tell me that he loves me and that he is a good guy. They excuse his behavior by saying that he was really hurt by his ex.

    My partner is now backpedaling on everything he said and he is now calling this words “a joke”. He says he wants to marry me and does not understand why I am making a big deal. He insists on calling me his “fiancee”, despite the fact we are no longer engaged and I am not wearing the engagement ring.

    Why is everybody ignoring my pain? I was hurt too, and I wanted to make this work but his attitude and words broke my heart. Now after reading this, I am not sure if I should stay with him or not.

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  • Regina Ford

    I love this. I like to think of my heart as a glass jar. It’s been chipped, broken, and destroyed; yet somehow it gets put back together. From a distance it’s normal in appearance-but upon closer inspection, the shape isn’t quite right, pieces are missing and there are fractures everywhere. It’s mine to fix and repair with forgiveness and understanding and it gets better all the time with help along the way, but I should never give it to my fiancé, friends or family with the expectation I’ll have it returned perfectly. It will never be. Thank you for this post, it helps to be reminded my glass jar should not be so easily shoved onto another.

    PS there is a error “Unknowingly, they poor salt on the wounds of a lifetime.” Should be pour.

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  • Ro

    Very thought provoking along a new line of thought!

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