A Post About Marriage and What We’ve All Longed for Since the Crib

I’m in the garage working, when my daughter runs in breathless.

“Come, Daddy, fast!” she exclaims. I ask her what’s wrong, and she looks at me quizzically. “Just come, Daddy!”

Okay.

We walk around the garage to the backyard, where she climbs onto the trampoline and starts bouncing. I wait. She bounces. And bounces. Finally, I ask her what she wants me to see. To which she replies,

“Me, Daddy. I just want you to see me.”

I know, Sweetie, it’s what we all want.

In fact, it’s probably the reason so many of us get married…

marriage

I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge fan of marriage books.

Most authors mean well, but, oftentimes, the subtle or not-so-subtle message is that if you find a good marriage, then you will finally find the good life. If you get your marriage right, then you will finally feel right. If you are satisfied with your marriage, you will finally be satisfied with your self.

And no marriage can deliver on such promises.

However, I just read an early version of a marriage book that may have restored my hope for the genre. It’s entitled, Very Married, by Katherine Willis Pershey. The only problem was, after finishing it, I couldn’t quite get my head around what had touched me so deeply.

Then my daughter bounced.

And another little girl squealed…

She’s sitting on the floor of my therapy office, still strapped into her car seat, where she had been sleeping only moments before. She’s the daughter of a client, and she’s along for the therapeutic ride. Now, she’s wide awake, and every couple of minutes, she looks up at her mother, her eyes get wide, and she lets loose a lovely, lilting squeal. Her mother looks at her and, as soon as they make eye contact, the little girl’s face breaks into a radiant smile.

She’s four months old and she just wants her momma to watch.

Beginning in the crib, all we really want is a witness.

In the film Shall We Dance?, Susan Sarandon’s character puts it this way:

We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet…I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things…all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying, “Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.”

I will be your witness.

It may be the only promise marriage can truly deliver upon. Marriage doesn’t guarantee we’ll find the good life, feel right, or finally find peace with ourselves. But it can satisfy the deepest desire every human being harbors: the longing for a witness.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a four-month-old little girl or a six-year-old slightly less little girl, you want to know someone is watching. Perhaps that’s what the patriarchal and, to some, offensive ritual of a father “giving his daughter away” in marriage is really meant to symbolize: I have been her witness, and from this day forward, you will be her witness.

The truth is, though, it has nothing to do with being a girl or being little. I’m a man who is tipping into the second half of life, and my longing for a witness is alive and well. It’s like hunger: if you’re alive, you’ll want to eat; and if you’re alive, you’ll want to be seen.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply marriage is the only place in life we can find a witness. We can find a witness in the many forms of true friendship and companionship. But marriage is unique in one way:

Marriage is the only place where we promise to be a lifelong witness.  

This is the great promise of marriage and, if we honor it, it is also the great pleasure of marriage. Two people who have committed to be each other’s witness, knowing the need will never dissipate, and gladly celebrating that it won’t.  Two people walking two paths that constantly intersect, always keeping each other in sight. Enjoying together the joys of the journey, and bearing witness to all the pitfalls and pain of being human. Someone to watch the whole aching thing with us.

In the end, it turns out that’s what we really need anyway.

We don’t need the good life; we simply need someone to watch this life with us.

And I can’t think of a better reason to be very married.

Question: Do you agree or disagree with this reason for getting married? What marriage books would you recommend? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook.

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.

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  • Cat

    Beautifully expressed post and so so true ….many marriages
    would be saved if they tried following these words…..

  • Supriya Patil

    Dear Kelly,

    Today I feel totally understood….

    I saw ‘Shall we dance’ few years ago & i keep going back to it often just to witness the scene you mentioned. I always felt ‘ thats the essence of marriage’…. and I have quoted this so many times to my near and dear ones(& to my therapist) whenever an authentic dialogue has happened about marriage…

    And today reading this post has made me feel acknowledged…. thank you so much…

  • Katie

    Stunningly articulate. Thank you for your words!

  • Mike Gates

    Wow.
    Hmmmm I wouldn’t recommend any marriage books. I’m suspicious of the whole concept: someone else trying to fit their experience upon mine. Or more likely I lack confidence in myself so I’m looking to a book to validate. That might not be the intent of such books, but that is often the result.
    I’ve never thought of marriage as witnessing. What a great way to look at it.

    • The consensus with the people who have read advance copies of Very Married is that they are all surprised they like it – it seems to be a marriage book for people who hate marriage books. 😉

      • Yes! Can you change the subtitle this late in the game, Katherine: “The Marriage Book for People Who Hate Marriage Books.” Ha! 🙂

        • Ha! Yes, that would be a compelling hook. I do worry that people will assume it’s more of the same – well-meaning but myopic advice – which is why I’m especially grateful when the people who’ve read it recommend it!

    • I always love your willingness to digest stuff, Mike. The magic of Katherine’s book is that by talking about now, it somehow transported me 40 years into the future, and there, I’m so grateful for the person who witnessed it all with me, so much so that it has changed my experience of her now.

      • Mike Gates

        I just re-read the movie quote and it sparked something. The idea that we promise to witness…Well, I KNOW I didn’t promise that. I couldn’t envision that type of commitment/ intimacy. I brought what I was capable of at that time.

        The idea of “…you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad
        things, the terrible things, the mundane things…all of it, all of the
        time, every day…”? I can claim that today, but at the start? No way. I had to grow into that and it took awhile.
        More significantly, I don’t think it is necessary, nor should it be expected. My partner shouldn’t expect that and I shouldn’t expect it of myself. To operate at 19 years of competency and intimacy takes…well…19 years of practice.

  • JS

    I’ve never been very good at saying what I’m feeling in a way that would let other people feel it in the same, profound way that I feel it. What I love about your blog, and the reason I look forward to it each week is that I feel like your words are conveying what I’m feeling but have not been able to articulate. It’s so wonderful to be able to share your message each week. Thank-you for that…

    • Thank you for your kind words, JS. I’m thankful, too, because when I share them, I get to find out I’m not so alone, either!

  • MS

    I’m in tears. You have said it so clearly, simply, that this is what we all want, that it’s pierced my heart this morning. Thank you.

    • MS, I’m so glad I could put into words what you knew you wanted but couldn’t articulate.

  • I am so grateful for this post. It’s beautiful and wise. And, you’ve given me insight that helps me understand my own book better! Thanks for mentioning Very Married. I hope your readers check it out. 🙂 http://amzn.to/23O794G

    • I hope everyone checks it out, too, Katherine! I don’t think I’ve ever been so aware of the sacredness of the small things and all things in a family as I’ve been after reading Very Married. It took guts to write it, thanks again for being courageous!

  • Some very nice thoughts I’ve not seen expressed before but helpful for the difficult times that do happen. Thanks. 🙂

  • AV

    I’ve enjoyed several marriage books. Getting the love you want, seven principles for making marriage work, wired for love. They’ve helped me in so many ways because I come from a (chaotically) divorced home where feelings and being ‘you’ were not honoured. I felt as though i was in survival mode well up to my mid twenties because of my upbringing. Thesee books provided me with a road map for a healthy, functional marriage, and helped me see that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the feeling person that I am, helped me understand my attachment style, core childhood beliefs…..so many things! Of course I have also had a marvelous therapist to help me along the way. She was the ultimate book for me.

    I love the view that marriage is seeing your partner. Both my husband and I definitely just want to be seen for who we really are.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, and for sharing so many good recommendations. To be seen for who we really are, and to have some abide with us in it, that is a true gift.

  • isa

    reframing the sometimes boring day after day life, and assuming a witness role, gives me a very rich, interesting and refreshing view of our life time of in common … gracias… thank you, blessings

    • That’s how I feel, too, Isa. It transforms the daily. Gives it all purpose, one that can only be truly appreciated in the rearview mirror.

  • Fred

    It is nice to know that there are others who do not like marriage books. I don’t like marriage books in general but sometimes there are nuggets within. The problem I see with marriage books (Christian books in particular) is that they generalize and stereotype (read that normalize) “women” and “men”, “husbands” and “wives”. This is a great disservice to people, especially those who do not fit so neatly into these categorical and behavioral definitions.

    However, I do disagree with the notion of a witness. I do not believe what we want is a witness in marriage (or life), we certainly do not pick out the bad things we do and say, “Come look at me! Come look at what I did.” I believe what is truly wanted in life, and especially in marriage, is acceptance. A place where we can exhale and be who we truly are in all of our messed up ways and still be accepted in love and grace. In a way I suppose this is something to witness but it isn’t for the sake of life validation; it is for the sake of being known.

    I recently read an article that expressed that what we are looking for when we get married is “familiarity.” The article held onto the notion that marriage is difficult, that we often don’t really know who we are until we live with someone. All the things we hide, all the facades we put forth crumble in the light of marriage where we can no longer hide. This makes marriage difficult as each partner discovers they are not who they thought they were.

    Later the article says the following, “Choosing whom we commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”

    • Fred, I actually agree with you 100%. We want someone to witness our becoming, growth, and transformation, just as much, if not more, than the ordinary parts of life. Ironically, I wonder if it this commitment to witnessing all of us, just the way we are, and to still abide, that gives us the space to change and grow.

  • MelodieD

    Wow, this connects powerfully in a way I’ve never thought about marriage–just celebrated 40 years! I remember one day when my youngest daughter was sitting in her high chair eating her cereal at about age 3 or 4 as I hurried through the kitchen getting all of us ready for work. On one of my passes through the kitchen, she said simply, “Sit there and watch me, Mommy.” That caught me too. And stopped me–at least for a few minutes, to just sit down and enjoy watching her eat her breakfast. 🙂

    • Right on, Melodie! It is humbling and liberating to know we’ve all still got a little kid in us somewhere.

  • Annie

    People need not only a witness, but an approving witness rather than a scowling, impatient witness. I’m ending a 30-year marriage with someone I still love who swung between smiles and outright disdain depending on his approval of my behavior. This gradually turned me into a person I didn’t like. After a while neither cared to witness the other. As we continued going through life “together”, we became strangers. It mattered more to me that I have an approving witness and to be an approving witness than it did to him (he grew up under an emotionally abusive father.). So very sad right now–divorce court is tomorrow.

  • Suzanne

    But I would change it from “witness” to “important”. The little girls want to feel important, not witnessed. They want to feel like their “witness” cares and therefore they matter. I think the term witness is way too impersonal. “I matter to someone who matters to me.” That is what I would say.

  • Leigh Ann

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Aside from God, our spouse is the only one who will truly witness our real self, triumphs – big and small, disappointments and levels of contentment. We can only hope that we, along with them, are close to the unconditional soulmate God is. One of my favorite marriage books is an oldie – ‘Solomon on Sex’, really expresses God’s commitment to the more physical side of marriage.

  • Claire

    Kelly, you definitely have a gift for getting to the heart of the matter!
    I have read and reread this post several times since it was written, and am amazed by how clearly it puts my own feelings (that I have struggled to explain to my husband for many years), into perspective. Unfortunately, I don’t think he shares my vision of marriage and partnership, so at the same time I feel validated by this post, I also face the possibility that I will not be lucky enough to have a partner who both “gets” it and lives it.

  • P

    I feel that being known holds a greater importance in relationships (could be spouse or something else). I have a spouse and therefore I think I am seen. But I am not known. It can be painful. Thankfully I have friends that truly know me.

  • Rachel Manzo

    I loved this. I’d say almost every struggle in a marriage..harsh words, infidelity, acting out…comes from one partner silently screaming “Look at me!”. I’m not a huge fan of marriage books either, but I’d highly recommend “Co-Creating a Brilliant Relationship” by David Yeats. http://www.davidayeats.com/