Three Metaphors for the Outdated Institution of Marriage

For better or worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health. Holy crap. In the age of iPhone distraction, pharmaceutical cornucopias, and purchased pleasure and luxury and contentment and comfort, why would anyone choose that?


Photo Credit: kylepost via Compfight cc

The world is drunk on comfort.

Chicago is emerging from one of the bitterest winters in recorded history. Even though the vast majority of people lived in heated homes, got into heated cars, and drove to heated destinations, we lamented every moment of it. Those in-between moments, in which we were forced into contact with the natural world, felt unbearable. We are, in this day and age, simply not accustomed to discomfort.

Yet, for most of human history—and in many corners of the modern world—discomfort was and is a given. An assumption. An unavoidable reality. Because much of life is uncomfortable. Discomfort from the outside: injury and toil and accidents and loss. And discomfort from the inside: illness and anger and anxiety and sadness and doubt and shame. Discomfort has always been expected.

Not anymore. Now we expect comfort, and we file lawsuits when it doesn’t happen.

And, yet, in the midst of it all, you have this ancient civil and religious institution, founded not upon comfort but upon commitment through every discomfort. In the midst of it all, you have this hallowed promise to abide. In the midst of it all, you have this relationship that rebelliously insists:

Love is not a feeling—rather, love is what gives us the strength to endure all feelings…

Marriage is Like a Van Full of Sick People

Several weeks ago, my wife and I tried to follow through on a twelve-hour spring break car trip from Chicago to Atlanta, even though we both had influenza. The virus finally got the best of us somewhere in Tennessee. So, we turned the car around and headed for home.

Which is when the ventilation system in our van failed.

We were running one hundred degree fevers. It was eighty-five degrees outside and the hot southern sun was beating down on winter-white Chicago skin. We rode that way for five hours. A minivan full of heat, sickness, and discomfort, transporting us home.

My wife and I snapped at each other a lot that day, and it was tempting to identify our entire marriage with that uncomfortable moment. But marriage is not defined by the uncomfortable moments that happen within it—marriage is defined by the whole committed journey.

Marriage is not an experience—it is the thing that carries us through every experience, like a minivan transporting us home, bearing all the conflict and grief and sorrow and pain of life.

Marriage is Like the Ghostbusters

The first movie I saw on a big screen was Ghostbusters at a drive-in theater. (Probably a parenting fail, but an awesome parenting fail.) And I still remember how the Ghostbusters captured ghosts. They lassoed them with harnessed energy and then deposited them in a central containment unit at Ghostbuster headquarters. The containment unit also used energy to contain the ghosts. The climactic scene happens when the power goes out and all the ghosts escape to wreak havoc.

We all have ghosts—our secrets, our fears, our vulnerabilities, our failures, our weaknesses. And the abiding love we bring to marriage may be the only energy strong enough to contain our ghosts.

To calm them.

To tame them.

To hold them and share them and exchange them.

I remember the moment I decided to marry my wife. I was going through a period of intense anxiety about a health issue. For months I had kept it to myself, not telling anyone. Finally, my ghosts overwhelmed me and, in the kitchen of her apartment, I told her of my fear. And I remember her response: “We’ll figure this out. Together.”

When our ghosts threaten havoc, love lassoes them and contains them.

Marriage is Like Water Running Through Our Hand(s)

The other day I was doing the dishes, and I held one cupped hand under the running water. When I removed it, a small puddle remained in the center of it. I then cupped both hands together and placed them under the faucet. This time, when I removed them, there was twenty times as much water pooled in my hands.

One additional hand.

Twenty times more water.

When life washes over us—when we lose the job or we lose a loved one or we lose our minds or when we just feel like we are losing at life—we can handle and hold so much more of it when two come together, like cupped hands beneath the rushing water of existence.

Better Than Comfort

When we arrange our lives around comfort, we experience only a fraction of life, and then we wonder why we feel bored and unchallenged and why our stories feel meaningless.  We need discomfort. We get defined and refined by it. We find our purpose and our direction in relation to it, by approaching it and figuring out how we want to redeem it.

In the end, what we really need in life is not more comfort, but an unshakeable belief in our ability to handle discomfort. And marriage is the commitment to carry each other, contain each other, and hold each other through any discomfort.

For better or worse,

for richer, for poorer,

in sickness and in health,

to love and to cherish,

from this day forward,

until death do us part.

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Next Post: “You Shouldn’t Read This Post Because It Will Break Your Heart”

Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me 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. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

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+.

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36 thoughts on “Three Metaphors for the Outdated Institution of Marriage

  1. Thank you! My husband and I are going through a tough time and this is so inspirational and makes me feel more hopeful. Sometimes we need to look at things from a different angle to really appreciate the point of it all.

    • From a woman who has survived marriage troubles, can I also encourage you that it is possible to get through the tough times and come out better and stronger on the other side? It is and it’s worth it. Sometimes you’ll wonder and doubt. Keep hoping!

  2. Kelly, I absolutely love everything about this. Our church is talking about relationships all month, covering the gamut of singleness divorce, remarriage and the tough stuff of marriage. This fits right in!

    Our marriage can personally testify to your statement about the journey as a whole. And the figuring it out together. We’ve survived some low points and have come out better and with a deeper appreciation of how much we grow in the discomfort.

    Thank you!

    • Lisa, from what I understand, your marriage is a beautiful testimony to this metaphor. It actually means a lot to me that this resonated with you, because I know you’ve been through it and understand it. Thanks for your feedback!

  3. If anyone is struggling with the subject Dr.Flanagan posted today please read the book Why I Stayed by Gayle Haggard. Great article, Dr. Flanagan! It’s a pity that it seems that most of us westerners treat marriage as commodity.

  4. This is by far the blog that has touched me the most. I’m sending it to every one of my married children and closest married friends. I’m sending it to my sister and her husband (who really need it) and I’m sending it to my one unmarried daughter-she needs it just as much as the rest of us. Thank you for touching me in such a way this day.

    • Cheri, thank you for this. I hope the post starts, or adds to, a very good conversation amongst your family and friends!

    • Sorry, Jan. Sticking with a marriage is hard work. I’m sorry he didn’t choose to try.

  5. This beautiful and meaningful message came at exactly the time I needed to hear it. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

  6. Wow. What awesome insight. Thank you for the funny but true metaphors. You make the read interesting. You made me think deeper about my personal situation. I’m struggling with the concept of marrying my fiance who is much the opposite to my nature. Now what can be more discomforting than being incompatible?!

    • My wife and I are opposites, too, LaShawn. The old adage, “Opposites attract,” is so very true. We seem to have an instinct that we need someone to complement us. The challenge is continuing to appreciate it over the years and every day rediscovering why we married someone so different than us.

      • After 10 years together, years of individual therapy and couples therapy….. I final understood and embraced the very thing you mentioned. Am now living it, sloppily, but give me another 10 years and I just might master it. Thank u

  7. I daresay, if couples examined their marriage vows in detail, what ever form those take, before they made them, a lot of necessary information would see the light of day and save people the grief of going through a divorce later. My husband and I had different perceptions of what would happen during the sickness, worse and forsaking all others parts, which led to a lack of cherishing, honoring and loving. We didn’t talk in advance about how we planned to deal with the difficulties and discomforts of daily life and married life. I love your Ghostbusters analogy. I’m going to be thinking about that all day.

    • CJ, you’re right, really good premarital counseling is so important, and I like the idea of a premarital counseling being centered around a clear understanding of the traditional marriage vows. I’m glad you liked the Ghostbusters analogy. I wasn’t sure if I should throw in three different metaphors, so thanks for affirming the decision to do so!

  8. In my family, there have been many unhappy marriages and most of the women are against it. I’ve already been divorced once and am the loner that believes it can work if both people think of it as an exchange of strength depending on the situation. As the “man is the boss” days are no longer the norm and women have more say in all aspects of home life, I think it could very well work out more often. As long as you both remember, your supposed to be a team and be honest and respectful of that person that agreed to be your co-star.

    • Right on, Alexandra. This sense of teamwork and unity was very present as I was writing this post. It’s essential.

  9. I’ve learned to ask my wife, “what did you need from me this week that you didn’t get”. I hate the question because I can’t ask in while I’m comfortable. I have to ask it out of need and discomfort. I use to hate the question because I already knew, before I even asked the question, that she would reveal an opportunity when I missed the chance to speak to her heart. I knew I failed but what I learned from that was….she didn’t need me to solve anything, what she needed was for me to show up, be real and be vulnerable (uncomfortable in a good sort of way). She would lay her head down on the pillow that night and feel loved and secure because her husband was real. So….I’ve learned to ask the question I hate and it’s been the most “dangerous” way to live out our story.

    • Geez, Dave, that takes guts. Thanks for being such a good example for us all and for taking the time to share a fantastic idea with us.

  10. This is great. As a marriage coach I appreciate what you are saying. Thanks!
    Cathy Rogerson-DevotionsFromThe

  11. Kelly, as always, love what you wrote. What came to mind as I read through this was some insight my grandmother gave me early in my marriage. Marriage is like a roller coaster ride, there will be hills and valleys. Without the ups and downs, you would have a very boring life. It is during those highs and lows that you learn to grab a hold of each other and enjoy the ride. .

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