Why do people get married? Because we find someone who wants to be a student of us.
And why do people get unmarried? Because over time the students become teachers and everyone’s teaching but no one’s learning, and we forget how to attend to each other.
I don’t know how I learned anything in my first semester of graduate school.
The program was stellar and my professors were excellent, but I met my wife that autumn, and I quickly became a student of her first, and psychology second. I fell in love and it made every red-turning leaf radiant with the slanting sun and every dry-brown leaf crackle underfoot like a ballad.
In my graduate school, the classes were small and usually held at a round table, with students facing each other. I would spend hours of class time sneaking glances at her, noticing the way her jaw flexed when she was thinking and the constellation of freckles on her cheek. I listened to her laugh, and I felt like I found a home inside of it.
I became a student of her before all other things.
The years have piled up, though. Many autumns have come and gone. Time numbs and life distracts, doesn’t it? Kids and work and bills to pay and errands to run and television to watch and friends and pride and lingering hurt and unfinished fights.
We trade in attentive gazes for critical comments. We trade an available ear for a quick fix. We trade an open mind for close-ended questions.
As another autumn approaches, I have to wonder, “Have I ceased to be a student of my wife?”
The Hidden Simplicity of Marriage
Most couples arrive in my marital therapy office prepared for a complicated experience—they want a new arsenal of tools for solving conflict, insights into their partners’ neuroses, and answers to the intricate problems of married life. Yet, over the years, I’ve discovered:
Most couples don’t need an addition of ideas—they need a subtraction of distractions. Instead of learning new things to do, they must rediscover how to simply be. Because when you strip away all the fixing and doing and perfecting, you are left with only your partner and their messiness and their beauty, and your fragile ability to attend to them.
Most couples don’t need to become students of marriage—they need to become students of each other again. They need to learn to hold their partner in awareness, without fixing or changing or criticizing or commenting. They need to simply behold their partner—all the quiet beauty, the lovely vulnerability, the fears and the tears, the hurt and the frustration and all the desperate attempts to feel worthy.
Most couples don’t need to learn the science of communication—they need to learn the art of attention. Because, in the end, good communication is far less about implementing a new skill, and far more about the willingness to be still. It’s the art of gazing upon the person we love, and allowing them to teach us about who they are.
Marriage Like a Meditation
Last month, my wife and I flew to Hawaii for a conference. A nine-hour flight through the night. As we floated over the Pacific and my wife slept like she was staying in a five star Hilton, I slowly ran out of things to keep me occupied. Eventually, I put away all of my screens and distractions and I turned to look at her. Her curls gathered around her ears. Her shoulders rising and falling with each breath.
I just watched.
And I felt like a student again.
Jon Kabat-Zin writes, “Anything and everything can become our teacher of the moment, reminding us of the possibility of being fully present: the gentle caress of air on our skin, the play of light, the look on someone’s face, a passing contraction in the body, a fleeting thought in the mind. Anything. Everything. If it is met in awareness.”
He’s talking about mindfulness and meditation—the act of attending to one thing in such a way that our awareness of the thing expands and we become fully anchored in the present moment and fully available to the object of our attention.
What if we met our partners in awareness again? What if, once again, we became students of the ones we love? What if our lovers became the meditation of our lives?
Partners Becoming Students Again
Marriage can grow stale and stuck. Perhaps that’s just the way life goes and the way love ages.
But maybe, just maybe, we’re all dancing on the precipice of a deep, enduring love and we simply don’t know how to fall back into the chasm. Maybe we fall into love again by learning how to pay attention again—by giving up all of our judgment and assessment and critique and meeting our partners in the field of awareness, instead of upon the field of battle.
I think we find ourselves in love again when we choose to be in school again. When we choose to become students of the ones we love:
Ready to learn their every nuance.
Cherishing what they are, rather than what we would make them into.
Becoming more fully aware of the beautiful, rocky, and messy depths of the person to whom we have given our lives.
Maybe, in marriage, the fixing is in this kind joining: two lovers made students once again.
Comments: What keys have you discovered to listening well and attending deeply to your partner? You can share your thoughts or reactions at the bottom of this post.
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Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “What a Poopy Standoff Taught Me About True Contentedness.”
Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.