Marriage Is The Real Problem

Several years ago, a couple sat down in my office and told me they’d been fighting viciously since their last appointment.* I asked what they’d been fighting about, and I silently flipped through my mental filing cabinet: in-laws, the kids, money, sex, or just fighting about fighting?

Not much surprises me anymore, but what they said next caught me completely off-guard.

“We fought about the color of your coffee mug.”

The color of my coffee mug.

He insisted it was purple. She insisted it was blue.

Actually, the mug is both, depending upon how the light hits it and your personal perceptions of color. And yet they had been embroiled in a week-long battle. Arguing a point that doesn’t have an answer. Seeking victory in a game that cannot yield a victor. Trying to solve a problem with no definitive solution.

We live our marriages in this way. We make this crazy-strange commitment to entwine our life with another’s life. Forever. And we quickly come to discover the insanity of this. We think and communicate differently than our partner. We celebrate holidays differently. We grieve differently. We vacation differently. We have differences of opinion about life and love and parenting and politics and faith.

And the color of a coffee mug.

But instead of deciding the problem lies outside both us, between us, we decide the problem exists within our partner. We blame them for the differences, and the struggle, and the pain, and the messiness of life. And our homes become a battlefield, as we try to fix the problem we are married to. At best, wives walk on eggshells trying not to wake the sleeping giant, and husbands sneak around like little boys trying not to get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

How do we rescue our marriages from this endless cycle of blame and conflict? How do we find sanity in the midst of this crazy commitment?

When I was in high school, “magic eye” posters were all the rage. They were posters of apparently random and chaotic color. Except. If you stared into them long enough, stared past them, the colors collided into coherence, and an image emerged from the randomness. Something meaningful emerged from the chaos.

I think we need to look at the marriage altar like we would a magic eye poster.

We need to stare past the glitz and glamour of the wedding day, stare past the false promise of life-long satisfaction and personal gratification, stare past the false hope of turning chaos into order with the exchange of two metal rings. And as we look more deeply into the marriage altar, we may glimpse a new image emerging from the randomness and chaos.

We may see the wedding altar for what it is.

An altar of sacrifice—a place our egos are meant to die.

If we can look long enough, and if we can embrace this image of the wedding alter, we may yet have a fighting chance of standing with our partner, rather than constantly facing off against them. As our egos die—and our need to be right and powerful and safe dies with them—we may become free to embrace a radical kind of acceptance. We may be free to accept…

Our spouse is another flawed creature, with whom we are trying to solve the real problem of life and living.

Our lives are stressful and chaotic and sometimes no one is to blame for it.

Our partner is not responsible for taking away all of our loneliness and inadequacy.

The redemption of this life is not found in being right, but rather in being together.

I wonder if this is the purpose of marriage:

That couples might transform marriage into an entirely different kind of ground zero. That armies of married people might stand side-by-side and march out into the world, armed with a sense of unity, a willingness to sacrifice themselves for something bigger, and a commitment to love others regardless of the cost to ourselves. That we might decide, finally, to find an enemy worth fighting against.

Enemies like hunger and homelessness and parentlessness, and conflict itself.

Tonight, one in seven people on this planet will go to bed hungry.

Tonight, in the wealthiest country in the world, more than a million people will be without shelter.

In the time it took you to read this post, approximately fifteen African children became AIDS orphans.

In 2012, a record-setting 275 Chicagoans have been murdered, primarily due to gang violence. Says one Chicago police officer, “Instead of a bullet with somebody’s name on it, we have a bullet that reads ‘To whom it may concern.’”**

For the most part, we can put these kinds of statistics out of our minds.

Until we go to a Batman premiere.

And then the denial crumbles, with the world around us.

And yet, tonight we will go to bed with our backs to each other, fighting about who started the fight, who is most responsible for the kids’ disrespect, or who left the toilet seat up.

Or the color of a coffee mug.

Let’s stop blaming each other, and let’s find an enemy worth fighting against. Let’s put our egos to death, and let’s stand with our spouses.

Somewhere right now, there is a person, not so different than you, with an empty stomach and empty pockets. Or, a family with no family, and no place to lay their heads. Or, a kid dying for a story to live and a set of parents who will narrate it for her. Or, a teenager with no authority figure except his gang and his gun.

The world is aching for people who have learned the freedom of unity and compassion, who are ready to wield them like weapons, firing salvos of love into dark and crumbling places. Your marriage is meant to be the training ground.

And in the midst of the training, may you learn that your partner is not an enemy combatant. You may come to know them as another freedom fighter, one who will always have your back, one who will never leave you alone in the trenches.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.