“I feel like I don’t know you anymore.” Usually, we think this means the end of a relationship. But what if it means a relationship can finally get started?
We’ve been married fourteen years.
So I’m absolutely certain I know why she’s not returning my texts.
When I left her in the morning, she was quiet and sullen about something, so she must be retaliating for some unknown transgression—she’s withdrawing into herself to punish me.
Or, she’s giving my children the best of her and I’m getting the rest of her. The kids are home for winter break and she’s probably showing them the time of their lives; in the meantime, I have a couple of simple questions and she can’t take a moment to tap out a reply.
Or, she’s disorganized. She can’t find her phone or she can’t find her charger, or she can find her charger but hasn’t bothered to plug it in. She runs a mental health clinic impeccably, but she’s never been very interested in keeping her phone running.
In the end, I decide, it’s probably all three.
After all, we’ve been married fourteen years.
I know her.
It’s a hazard of any meaningful relationship.
You spend months and years and decades with someone, and you start to believe you know them. And, of course, in some ways, you do. You know how they take their coffee and if they sleep on their side or their stomach or both. You know their habits and their peccadillos.
Yet, as soon as we presume to know what’s going on inside of them, it’s all over.
Because we don’t. We can’t.
There is a universe alive within the people we love. At best, we know the little plot of land within them that we’ve mapped out. But there are entire lands and oceans and skies and galaxies we cannot even fathom. We have, at best, rumors of the mystery that exists within the people we spend our lives with.
And even the rumors change. Yes, at the core of us, we have a true self that is steady and sturdy. But on the whole, people aren’t static creatures. Human beings are dynamic, fluctuating, flowing, growing, and evolving. What we knew about each other yesterday may not be true tomorrow, and what was false yesterday may be tomorrow’s reality.
And then of course, sometimes—on a night fourteen years into marriage, for instance—what you are certain you know about someone else is really just a projection of your own fears and insecurities and doubts and loneliness…
I still haven’t heard from her as I’m pulling in the driveway, and I’m still grumpy about it.
But now I’m even grumpier about something else.
The day before, our big Christmas present was delivered: a set of three lockers for the children—a place to finally put their coats and shoes and schoolbags that isn’t the hallway floor. Tomorrow is my first day of Christmas vacation, and I’m expecting to spend most of it assembling them. I’m not very good at that kind of thing, and I’m dreading it.
As the garage door rises, my headlights illuminate the inside, and I look for the delivery boxes. But I see only empty space. And as I park the car, it begins to dawn on me.
I don’t know my wife as well as I think I do.
I open the door to the house and there, in the entryway, are three lockers, completely assembled. My wife hadn’t been replying to me because she was too busy surprising me. She wasn’t punishing me; she was loving me. And she wasn’t caring for the kids more than me; they were all caring for me together. Her phone was fully charged, but answering my texts would have drained the surprise.
I thought she was busy giving me grief, but she was busy giving me a gift.
Almost two months have passed since that night and another holiday is approaching. What if this Valentine’s Day, we gave the people we love the best gift of all—the gift of wonder? Maybe we could let them know we know we don’t really know them at all.
And then we could finally get started.
We could start trading in our certainty for curiosity, our knowing for asking, our accusations for questions. We could trade our biting words for biting our tongues. We could stop telling and start listening. We could wait upon the mystery that is another human heart.
Until maybe, just maybe, the garage door begins to rise.
The interior is illuminated.
And we get to be surprised by the good things we find there.
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Artisan Blog: My friend and colleague, David Clinton, has written his first post for the Artisan Clinical blog. It’s a meditation upon turning forty and aging, and it is grace for all of us who know: we’re making it up as we go. You can read it by clicking here.
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