Three Metaphors for the Outdated Institution of Marriage

The world is drunk on comfort.

Chicago is emerging from one of the bitterest winters in recorded history. Even though the vast majority of people lived in heated homes, got into heated cars, and drove to heated destinations, we lamented every moment of it. Those in-between moments, in which we were forced into contact with the natural world, felt unbearable. We are, in this day and age, simply not accustomed to discomfort.

Yet, for most of human history—and in many corners of the modern world—discomfort was and is a given. An assumption. An unavoidable reality. Because much of life is uncomfortable. Discomfort from the outside: injury and toil and accidents and loss. And discomfort from the inside: illness and anger and anxiety and sadness and doubt and shame. Discomfort has always been expected.

Not anymore. Now we expect comfort, and we file lawsuits when it doesn’t happen.

And, yet, in the midst of it all, you have this ancient civil and religious institution, founded not upon comfort but upon commitment through every discomfort. In the midst of it all, you have this hallowed promise to abide. In the midst of it all, you have this relationship that rebelliously insists:

Love is not a feeling—rather, love is what gives us the strength to endure all feelings…

Marriage is Like a Van Full of Sick People

Several weeks ago, my wife and I tried to follow through on a twelve-hour spring break car trip from Chicago to Atlanta, even though we both had influenza. The virus finally got the best of us somewhere in Tennessee. So, we turned the car around and headed for home.

Which is when the ventilation system in our van failed.

We were running one hundred degree fevers. It was eighty-five degrees outside and the hot southern sun was beating down on winter-white Chicago skin. We rode that way for five hours. A minivan full of heat, sickness, and discomfort, transporting us home.

My wife and I snapped at each other a lot that day, and it was tempting to identify our entire marriage with that uncomfortable moment. But marriage is not defined by the uncomfortable moments that happen within it—marriage is defined by the whole committed journey.

Marriage is not an experience—it is the thing that carries us through every experience, like a minivan transporting us home, bearing all the conflict and grief and sorrow and pain of life.

Marriage is Like the Ghostbusters

The first movie I saw on a big screen was Ghostbusters at a drive-in theater. (Probably a parenting fail, but an awesome parenting fail.) And I still remember how the Ghostbusters captured ghosts. They lassoed them with harnessed energy and then deposited them in a central containment unit at Ghostbuster headquarters. The containment unit also used energy to contain the ghosts. The climactic scene happens when the power goes out and all the ghosts escape to wreak havoc.

We all have ghosts—our secrets, our fears, our vulnerabilities, our failures, our weaknesses. And the abiding love we bring to marriage may be the only energy strong enough to contain our ghosts.

To calm them.

To tame them.

To hold them and share them and exchange them.

I remember the moment I decided to marry my wife. I was going through a period of intense anxiety about a health issue. For months I had kept it to myself, not telling anyone. Finally, my ghosts overwhelmed me and, in the kitchen of her apartment, I told her of my fear. And I remember her response: “We’ll figure this out. Together.”

When our ghosts threaten havoc, love lassoes them and contains them.

Marriage is Like Water Running Through Our Hand(s)

The other day I was doing the dishes, and I held one cupped hand under the running water. When I removed it, a small puddle remained in the center of it. I then cupped both hands together and placed them under the faucet. This time, when I removed them, there was twenty times as much water pooled in my hands.

One additional hand.

Twenty times more water.

When life washes over us—when we lose the job or we lose a loved one or we lose our minds or when we just feel like we are losing at life—we can handle and hold so much more of it when two come together, like cupped hands beneath the rushing water of existence.

Better Than Comfort

When we arrange our lives around comfort, we experience only a fraction of life, and then we wonder why we feel bored and unchallenged and why our stories feel meaningless.  We need discomfort. We get defined and refined by it. We find our purpose and our direction in relation to it, by approaching it and figuring out how we want to redeem it.

In the end, what we really need in life is not more comfort, but an unshakeable belief in our ability to handle discomfort. And marriage is the commitment to carry each other, contain each other, and hold each other through any discomfort.

For better or worse,

for richer, for poorer,

in sickness and in health,

to love and to cherish,

from this day forward,

until death do us part.

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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.