The Truth (and the Surprisingly Good News) About Who We Really Marry

The truth is, no two adults have ever gotten married. When you get married, you don’t marry a grownup, you marry a time capsule in grownup clothes. This is what I mean by that…

marriage

Photo Credit: Shutterstock (Shelbourne Photography)

I’ve developed a new intervention as a marital therapist.

At some point in the therapy, I walk over to my book shelf, I pick up a framed picture of my son and a framed picture of my daughter, and I set them down next to the couple. And I say, “This is who is married here—on the outside you are grown, but on the inside you are, like the rest of us, still little ones looking to be loved. You are free to quit pretending you are adults with reasonable requests, rational arguments, and selfless love.”

We marry time capsules—aging skin and bones harboring a much younger self.

Sure, on our wedding day, we appear very adult-like on the outside. We rent tuxedos made for men, and we buy wedding dresses in women’s sizes. But the truth is, when we’re standing on the wedding altar, on the inside of us, we may not be much older than the ring bearer or the flower girl.

For instance, I was twenty-four years old the day I stood at the wedding altar, but the little boy inside of me was about six years old. The twenty-something guy at the altar was a time capsule for a longing and lonely little kid. He was still looking for someone to watch him and to listen to him. He was scared of the world and hoping for someone to walk through the badlands with him. He was betting he could borrow some of this woman’s bravery.

Similarly, my wife had celebrated twenty-four birthdays by the time she walked down that long aisle, radiating as if the sun had put on a white dress. But that twenty-something woman was a time capsule for a tweenage girl whose father had died when she was three. She was still searching for a man who could see her with father’s eyes—someone who could cherish her heart instead of her body and raise her up instead of keeping her down. She hoped I would be that guy.

We think we’re looking for the best partner, but really the little one in us is looking for a better parent.

This might sound like a problem. But it’s not. The problem is our lack of awareness of it. Because if we don’t know that emotionally we are really two children looking for the kind of love we’ve always wanted, none of what ensues makes any sense.

The requests seem dysfunctional.

The fights seem irrational.

The love seems conditional.

Which is why I pick up the pictures of my kids and place them next to the couples in my office. It is essential that, in those photos, they see a reflection of the little one that still resides in each of them. If they are to truly embrace each other, it is important for them to truly embrace one of the best kept secrets about marriage:

Marriage isn’t just about growing old together; it’s also about growing up together.

It’s about unearthing the time capsule you are, opening yourself up, and letting your younger self be known. And it’s about learning to love the little one inside the time capsule you chose to marry. It’s about giving each other a safe place to grow up.

This autumn, my wife and I will celebrate fifteen years of marriage. The truth is, I still act like a six-year-old sometimes, and my wife still has her tweenage moments. But they’re getting fewer and farther between. And maybe that’s what it means for two committed souls to age gracefully together.

It means aging on the outside and the inside.

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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.

  • Guest

    Sooooo true. I have just said to my daughter when she asked why her dad (54) still have pimples: because he is still 13. I have a question though: inside, do we EVER grow up?
    Thank you

    • Ha! That’s a good line. I think we can grow up, in the sense that the wounded parts of us can truly heal and our needs can quiet down. Ironically, I think when that happens, the little one in us helps us to see that growing up is really about growing young again, being playful and a little less serious. 🙂

  • Shannon

    My husband and I have just been hit with the reality of all of this, 20 years of marriage and still growing up. Thank you!!!!

    • Better late than never, Shannon, and awareness is a HUGE step, especially if you are both aware of it. Best of luck to you in this next chapter of your relationship!

  • Kathy Jack

    The child parts in us really do show up! I feel the tug of that and to bring the adult self to the conversation is an act of bravery at times! Thanks for this! It brings me back to my original training in imago therapy. I can’t wait to hear more from you on this!

    • Hi Kathy! I hear there are strong echoes of imago therapy in this. I refuse to read about imago therapy, because then I’d probably feel like I was ripping it off. 🙂

      • Kathy Jack

        Yes but you bring a fresh look at the child within! I can’t wait for your book!

  • Angie

    What an excellent perspective. My dad used used to say your love for each other grows more and more with every year. My husband and I have been married for thirty seven years and have been through some tough times. But, our love is deeper and beautiful today that it ever was on our wedding day when we were filled with immature expectations.
    I will share your comments with my adult sons, two are married and one engaged…all fabulous women!

    • Thank you for sharing some of your story, Angie, and thank you for sharing this post with those awesome kids!

  • Gale C Vance

    How very true.
    I love this sweet concept and plan to use with my clients. .
    Thanks.

  • Kevin

    Kelly, what a great way to look at it. With honesty (to oneself and the other), imagine how much more that relationship could be? What a goal.
    Thank you for sharing this. I’m going to do the same.

    • Your welcome, Kevin, and thank you for having the courage to delve into it.

  • disqus_9kGYNgt1ZR

    My wife has made comments about having to look after me like a child and it’s a struggle sometimes because I’ve realized that some aspects of my life I’ve been dependent on her like I would my own mother. I’m not quite there with my growth, but I’m working on it, so that I can also give her the support she needs from me and hoping it makes our marriage stronger as we grow old together.
    Thanks for the great read!

    • To be able to recognize this and confess this is really amazing. In my experience, anyone who can do those two things will eventually get where they want to be!

  • Ken, you are very right about people not being truly adult emotionally/mentally when getting married, at least when less than 50; and some not then or still in some respects. I married my first husband when 24 (he was 27) and we grew up but not in the same directions in all mental/emotional/intellectual aspects. He was in many respects a “good man” but we were “together” on far less than when we married 33 years before when we divorced almost 16 years ago. I’ve been married to Paul now for 15.5 yrs and we clearly started much more as adults than either of us had in our first marriages. (His had ended more than 30 years before we met.) But we’ve still had some “growing up” to do, together. We’ve actively produced intellectual ideas and an age-degeneration prevention regimen for ourselves (staying abreast of new findings) that has kept the typical chronic disorders at bay in our 8th decade, looking forward to more and healthy ones.

    • Love to hear your story, Kitty. It’s awesome to hear about how you are increasingly thriving as individuals and a couple. It would be interesting to run an experiment studying how the extent to which childhood needs are acknowledged as the result of a first marriage increases the chances of success in a second marriage.

  • Lynn

    Profound! From one who has been there and did hang on for 34 years until divorce. A 12 step group for those who grew up in dysfunctional families helped me sort through, after the fact, your salient concept.

    • Thanks for this, Lynn. Feel free to share the name of the group, as some readers may benefit!

  • mauricienne

    So very true! I was actually discussing something related to this with a close friend the other day- how our childhood influences our behavior in romantic relationships in adulthood. She shared that she is sometimes clingy/needy and sometimes aloof because of a lack of bonding with her dad. I myself, having been raised by an always busy or tired mother, recognize in my pleas to my husband for more of his time and attention the little girl who just wants to feel important enough to have some uninterrupted time and attention.

    How do we overcome these childhood insecurities and scars? Because, truth be told, our partner is not always able or willing to give us what the child in us needs or craves. How do we get to the point where we recognize and accept the way that THEY can love us, because of the way that they were brought up or want to be loved?

    • You are EXACTLY right, Mauricienne. I’d actually argue that our partner is less responsible for meeting those needs than we are. It’s a healing that we are responsible for, not them. They simply help to create a safe environment for that to happen.

      • Tiphaine

        But How do you do that? How do you grow being in a couple and without weighing on the other with the scars and the pains because I am trying so hard not to and I cannot seem to be able to change the paterns…

        • JC

          I was told once that I need to let my wife have her pain. I kept wanting to take on her anxieties and depression as if I could bear it with my own and that just wasn’t working. I don’t need to suffer with her to the level that she suffers. I just need to be there while she suffers and feel it from my own perspective with all my effort focused on being empathetic. Like the little child in all of us, we don’t want mommy or daddy to sit and ball their eyes out over a booboo that doesn’t hurt them. We just want them to hear us cry, acknowledge that we are hurting, and let us be upset about it until we are done expressing that. Then, a follow up with a little bandage and a kiss makes it seem all better, even though there is still a scar.

          • Tiphaine

            It took me all that time to understand what you meant. And then last week, my husband was really down and i was just there, really there, listening. I did not go down to where he was, but i was there just the way you described it. And i finally got it. I don;t know if i will be able to be “there” the next time. But i will try. Thank you for your words. They traveled into my mind all that long. But they were useful just at the right moment.

            • JC

              Amazing. Thank you for sharing that with me. I feel special knowing that I said something that someone thought about, for a month no less. It is the love that gives us purpose in relationships. Without love we have no reason to stay connected to anyone. It IS “the thing” so worth fighting for. The trick is knowing which way to face when fighting for love (inward or outward). It is easy for me to take care of a cold or a busy situation that needs some manual labor, but when there is hurt involved, internal hurt, it gets tough. I hope the best for you and your husband.

  • 5DRW5

    Thank you, Kelly. Another powerful gem that’s put tears of knowing in my eyes.

  • Caroline Kippenbrock Dixon

    As always, you are so on point! Brian & I celebrated 34 years of marriage in May. We were married at 19, (talk about babies!) and everyday we are each learning new ways to be the best “me” so we can the best “we”! Aging together is delightful, and growing up together has been a privilege.

  • Esther Bradley-DeTally

    I looked at my first marriage which ended when a friend said, Honey,you leaned on him, and he fell over. Basically i think what you have said is true but i look at patterns. First marriage i married my mother who had addiction issues or i was her as a victim and married a fussy scolding msn. Then in between marriages a big relationship was with someone who didn’t need me. I was the quintessential needy woman. I have had a lot of therapy and also the process of becoming my true self while traversing mystical paths with practical feet and putting service to others as a top priority, i shed a lot of that old identity. My last matriage was as equals. And sure we had our issues and core patterns that would creep out but it was a Fortress Of Wellbeing and after 29 years of love and encouragement and doing brave things like focusing on the needs of the day: racism etc we lived in Russia Ukraine and Minsk. I am now widowed slmost 78 and face my life with gratitude for everything. I think the tests and difficulties we experience are divinely calibrated. We become strong and can be part of addressing injustices in our world as ine humanity. I did go on

  • AV

    Thanks for this. Reading this was very grounding for me. Sometimes I feel as though my husband is a young child. I feel as though he wants me to congratulate and acknowledge his achievements as though he put on his t-shirt for the very first time in his life. I sometimes think to myself only: my goodness you are not 4…you did well on your certification….that’s great, congratulations; i am happy for you but i am not going to treat you like my 4 year old.

    But maybe in that moment he is 4 years old. His parents were harsh, unloving and everything is conditional upon ‘expected’ behaviours. Maybe he is just looking for that acknowledgement he never got.

    *palm to my head* oh man. Okay. More empathy needed on my part. But why am I finding it so hard in regards to this? I need to explore further…

  • Larry Harmon

    My wife and I have been 45 years in October, we both 22 when we married. I had gone to war and made the military a career, she was hospitalized with a mental illness which was many years later diagnosed as Bi-polar disorder. Now along with the Bi-polar she has Parkinson’s disease. We are still learning and growing with each other, though we both still act like children at times. At 67 years of age you would think that we had finally worked it out and grew up, not a chance, sometimes it is fun to act like children.

  • Wow. You have just aligned my planets. This makes it all seem so much easier to understand. We’ve made it 33 years and I’ve noticed it is much easier and more relaxed now, so we chose well, when it came to marrying someone who could be a better parent. Love this, Thank you!

  • foreveryoung

    The articles you write are so thought provoking. I have set up an Untangled Folder in my email just to save them in! One of my favorites was the aha moment that you clarified for me…”life is unfinished” so we all need to enjoy the journey, persistence with grace.

  • Melea

    I stumbled upon your blog a few years ago….at a crucial time in my marriage. Your blog has played a “best supporting role” during his recovery and my healing … our growing up together. Thank you for what you do. It makes a difference.

  • Sports Mom

    This makes a lot of sense, I met my husband when we were 18, we grew up together. In some ways, it makes it easier–we have always known the child/adolescent in each other so it’s not a surprise.

  • Shellie VanOrman

    Yes! Reminds me of this image I saved from social media a while back!