For Valentine’s Day, Let’s All Admit We Love a Stranger

“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?


Photo Credit: nikozz via Compfight cc

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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Next UnTangled Post: Don’t Try to Make Your Life Better (Try to Make It Beautiful-er)

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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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+.

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

28 thoughts on “For Valentine’s Day, Let’s All Admit We Love a Stranger

  1. Awesome.
    Kris and I are going on 19 years now, and many, many times over the years I’ve had conversations with myself VERY similar to what you shared. The hysterical part for me is almost invariably I discover that after I eat something I think about the situation much differently.

    Sandwiches have saved my marriage on many an occasion.

  2. Kelly, I so appreciate the ways that you share the times that by not being your best self, you’ve found the inspiration to fully embrace your most Wonderful You— because we all have those moments and opportunities, but inspiration is a gift you spread so well by offering your own experiences in your writing.

    What a fantastic thing it is that we can continue to surprise each other, after years together. I like this even better than chocolates!

    • Thank you and thank you, Shel. Yes, usually when I realize to myself, “You’re such a doofus,” I know there’s probably a blog post about to happen. Which, of course, explains how I can come up with at least one post a week. 🙂

  3. Thanks Kelly for reminding me that despite 40 years together there is still wonder and awe to have in my husband! It’s been a roller coaster ride for sure but the best part has been getting to know the best of him.
    Another great post and well timed for Valentine’s Day.

    • Congratulations on 40 years, Patricia! And thank you for calling back to us from up ahead on the path to let us know the hard work is worth it. : )

  4. Thank you this is exactly where I am (was) as I am taking in your words and will apply them. Timing is PERFECT💜

  5. Your humility shines! Your invitation to share the whole of our infinite selves has made me smile and cry. Thank you.

  6. I think its a truely beautiful thought, and I do agree we can never truely know one another. but how do you generate the curiosity? Are there any insightful thoughts or questions to ponder in order that the illumination begins? I am sitting here thinking what an amazing idea for Valentines day to explore the interesting parts of my partner again. I know we both love it when the other is interested in “me”, but I am perplexed. All the first date and getting to know you stuff has long gone and with 3 kids running around simple questions can seem almost bothersome.

  7. This post struck a cord in me. I have known my husband for 16+ years, he was my best guy friend for years. We talked through our respective relationships, knew all the little secrets that you normally don’t share until you really trust your partner, we had nothing to lose, we were just friends. Then one day our relationship changed and we started dating and eventually married. Sometimes I think I know how he thinks, what he feels based on our past. This reminds me that each moment something can happen to change us. Thank you for this gift!

  8. Assuming that we KNOW what the other is thinking, even when s/he is a romantic partner of years’ standing, is recipe for a misunderstanding. I need to remind myself of this about my husband several times a day because we’re partners in everything & therefore have many opportunities for misunderstandings. Thanks for an outside reminder for more listening; not to start reply till he’s finished saying it all. 🙂

  9. Another beautiful post!

    This is synchronistic and timely, after I just read a few days ago an article about assumptions, and instead of always assuming the worst of someone – what if we assumed the best? (or even in neutrality – just don’t assume anything at all) Sometimes, even though the assumptions may even turn out invalid, we believe the stories we tell ourselves – our internal “truths” having been planted and taken hold for minutes, hours, days sometimes;or we end up apologizing over and over and living a life of “I’m sorry” – apologizing for all your wrongful assumptions. And if they do turn out to be valid – for this one time – it sets us up to drudge up the same story over and over… talk about self-suffering!

  10. “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?”

    Very beautiful if two people in long-term relationship/friendship/marriage could both agree in this… I think a lot of relationships worth saving would be saved.

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