Your Marriage Is A Mess

Marriage SolutionsLife doesn’t resolve, does it?* Despite our best efforts, life stays messy and uncertain and the final solutions always seem to remain just beyond the horizon. Yet we keep looking for solutions in every corner of life. And marriage is no exception. But I think our best efforts to solve marriage may destroy it…

I crave solutions.

By that, I mean I’ve run most of life’s race hoping for a finish line with a tidy ending. I want all questions answered and all uncertainty resolved. For instance, every graduation—high school, undergrad, graduate school—has held the promise of a final hurdle: after graduation, I was certain life would become more predictable, more certain, more resolved.

The day after graduation was always a serious disappointment.

In life, there is always another race to run.

I’m stubborn, though, so I continued to run and search for a finish line that would resolve all the mess of life. For a while, I tricked myself into believing my kids’ developmental milestones would deliver me into the restful life. But I swear, God must know exactly when my kids quit wearing diapers or quit wetting the bed. Because as soon we dismantle the changing table or fold up the plastic mattress pad, the pregnancy test comes back with an extra line on it.

My two-year-old, Caitlin, is close to being out of her diapers.

I’m terrified.

I know I’m looking for a finish line that doesn’t exist. I know life is messy and there’s no way around it, but, secretly, I still hope. Several weeks go, I arrived home for the weekend, silently hoping for a perfectly orderly couple of days with no problems and no hassles, and as I opened the door, the doorknob fell off in my hand. Literally.

And I’ve been noticing, when it comes to marriage, we are all craving a final solution—we think we are loving our spouses, when actually we are constantly trying to solve them:

We try to solve our spouses by believing we can fully comprehend their interior lives. We convince ourselves we know what they think and how they feel and why they are reacting in a certain way.

We look at our wife’s mother or our husband’s father, and we see the similarities, and we believe we know the end of our partner’s story before it is even written. And so we go about writing it for them.

We form expectations about what they will say during conflict, and we end up responding more to the little imaginary spouse in our head than to the life-size, wondrous, mysterious person front of us.

We even come to marital therapy and believe it is an event with a conclusion; we think it too is a process that resolves. We hope we will find the Promised Land of marital bliss.

But to approach marriage in this way is devastating to the people we love. 

The dictionary defines the word “resolve” like this: to settle or find a solution to a problem; to break into component parts; to disintegrate.

When we try to make our partners less messy, when we seek a final understanding of who they are, we disintegrate them. We take the awesome, breathtaking complexity of a whole creature with an infinite interior world, and we fragment them into something less than they are.

Perhaps, if we could let go of trying to arrive in a place of knowing our spouse, we might become free to engage in the on-going event of coming to know our spouse.

We would realize that when our spouses say to us, “You don’t know me,” they aren’t actually asking for us to figure them out—they don’t want to be solved like a puzzle. They are hoping we will step into the complicated and messy process of connecting with them, and they are hoping we will make it the endless work of our lives.

Lately, I’ve been encouraging couples to stop looking for solutions to their marital problems. I’ve been encouraging them to quit trying to clean up the mess of marriage by organizing their spouse into known parts. Instead, I’ve been encouraging them to wade knee-deep into the glorious catastrophe of two souls pledged to each other for life.

If our marriages could become that kind of race—a race that forsakes the finish line and seeks only the messy joy of the marathon—I think we would transform our running partners: they would cease to be dis-integrated problems-to-be-solved, and they would become never-ending-mysteries with infinite value and dignity and freedom.

And the mess of marriage would remain a mess. But it would become a mysterious mess in which we can joyfully make our home.

Shorter Posts, More Frequently: In response to reader feedback, I will be publishing shorter posts on a more frequent basis. I hope this allows the blog to better integrate with the busy lives we lead!

Next Post: I will follow up today’s post within the next several days. The post will expand on the idea of marriage as mystery—why we should learn to live in the mystery, rather than solve it.

 Reading by Feed or E-mail? Click here to go to the blog, where you can subscribe to receive future posts by e-mail, share the post at the bottom of each page, or share your comments.

Interested in more content? The UnTangled Facebook page is increasingly becoming the place where the author and readers are engaging. Click here to go to the Facebook page and “like” it. You can also click here to join Kelly on Twitter.  

 *In the film, Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller’s character says, “Life is a lot like jazz, because it never resolves.”

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at Alliance Clinical Associates in Wheaton, 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+.

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

  • hopeful

    I really appreciate your blog. Your words frequently resonate with me & come at just the right time. I’m sure this will be frustrating, but I disagree with the suggestion that your posts should be shorter and more frequent. The post should be as long as you craft it to be. People can always read it in pieces if they like. Your writing has a nice weight and rhythm to it that would be sacrificed with shorter posts. This one, for instance,feels abbreviated and “undercooked”. Good luck navigating the art of blogging!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for reading and thanks for your feedback! It’s not frustrating at all, I appreciate it. I can’t write about living in the mess and then expect to have a “final solution” to the blog, right? You give good advice, and I’ll keep searching for that sweetspot! Others’ feedback?

  • jlanewell

    My grandmother always said the best marriages are like a rolller coaster ride. You hang on to each other and enjoy the ride. If you did not have the ups and downs in marriage it would not as great a ride. The key was to hang on to the one you love.

  • Catharine Phillips

    Thank you again. And again, a helpful way of looking at my own marriage, and the way I work with couples. I tend to agree with Helpful. Your writing needs to be as long as it seems right to you to cover the subject. I believe it*s simply a human thing to look for the ultimate solution (to anything). Sometimes we get it right (or more right), only to find the next time, circumstances have changed, and there is a different *right.* That*s the mess we live in. Sometimes relaxing into the mess is what*s important. Your longer blog pieces feel fuller, better chewed and more connected with your life experience to me.

  • Laura

    Such true words. I have been married for 23 years and was presumptuous enough for the first 15 or so to think I knew my husband inside and out. It wasn’t until a significant life event made me realize I didn’t even know myself very well, so how could I possibly understand all the complexities of my spouse. I love the fact that after 25+ years together I find myself surprised with and even curious about his choices and behaviors, and that there’s still so much to learn about him and experiece with him. I agree with some of the above comments in regards to your writing. You have a gift for expressing yourself with words; when I read them they feel honest, real and authentic. I hope you’ll continue to write your blog in the way that feels right to you, regardless of the length. It’s one of the few blogs I read regularly and I value it.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I am grateful to all of you for your words of encouragement! And I think I hear you loud and clear: write what is in my heart, regardless of length. I think I will do just that. :) My plan is simply to write, and when a post feels ready, I will publish it. That may still happen to occur on Friday evenings, but it will likely at other times as well. Again, I covet your feedback; please keep it coming!

  • live100years

    Great post! I discovered through my personal study of yoga that life is best enjoyed as a messy journey, not a destination. I seem to have no trouble applying this principle to myself and my journey, but for some reason, it is a thousand times harder to see my marriage in the same light. Thanks for pointing out that the “mess” in marriage is normal and natural and to be cherished, not solved.

  • James

    I really like your blog. Any wisdom about dealing with differing expectations regarding parents (in-laws)?

    • drkellyflanagan

      James, are you trying to get me in trouble with my wife? :) Actually, I could imagine a post about in-laws somewhere down the road.

  • Pingback: Marriage Is The Real Problem « UnTangled()