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

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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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.