Despite our best efforts, life stays messy and uncertain and the final solutions always seem to remain just beyond the horizon. Yet we keep looking for solutions in every corner of life. And marriage is no exception. But I think our best efforts to solve marriage may destroy it…
I crave solutions.
By that, I mean I’ve run most of life’s race hoping for a finish line with a tidy ending. I want all questions answered and all uncertainty resolved. For instance, every graduation—high school, undergrad, graduate school—has held the promise of a final hurdle: after graduation, I was certain life would become more predictable, more certain, more resolved.
The day after graduation was always a serious disappointment.
In life, there is always another race to run.
I’m stubborn, though, so I continued to run and search for a finish line that would resolve all the mess of life. For a while, I tricked myself into believing my kids’ developmental milestones would deliver me into the restful life. But I swear, God must know exactly when my kids quit wearing diapers or quit wetting the bed. Because as soon we dismantle the changing table or fold up the plastic mattress pad, the pregnancy test comes back with an extra line on it.
My two-year-old, Caitlin, is close to being out of her diapers.
I know I’m looking for a finish line that doesn’t exist. I know life is messy and there’s no way around it, but, secretly, I still hope. Several weeks go, I arrived home for the weekend, silently hoping for a perfectly orderly couple of days with no problems and no hassles, and as I opened the door, the doorknob fell off in my hand. Literally.
And I’ve been noticing, when it comes to marriage, we are all craving a final solution—we think we are loving our spouses, when actually we are constantly trying to solve them:
We try to solve our spouses by believing we can fully comprehend their interior lives. We convince ourselves we know what they think and how they feel and why they are reacting in a certain way.
We look at our wife’s mother or our husband’s father, and we see the similarities, and we believe we know the end of our partner’s story before it is even written. And so we go about writing it for them.
We form expectations about what they will say during conflict, and we end up responding more to the little imaginary spouse in our head than to the life-size, wondrous, mysterious person front of us.
We even come to marital therapy and believe it is an event with a conclusion; we think it too is a process that resolves. We hope we will find the Promised Land of marital bliss.
But to approach marriage in this way is devastating to the people we love.
The dictionary defines the word “resolve” like this: to settle or find a solution to a problem; to break into component parts; to disintegrate.
When we try to make our partners less messy, when we seek a final understanding of who they are, we disintegrate them. We take the awesome, breathtaking complexity of a whole creature with an infinite interior world, and we fragment them into something less than they are.
Perhaps, if we could let go of trying to arrive in a place of knowing our spouse, we might become free to engage in the on-going event of coming to know our spouse.
We would realize that when our spouses say to us, “You don’t know me,” they aren’t actually asking for us to figure them out—they don’t want to be solved like a puzzle. They are hoping we will step into the complicated and messy process of connecting with them, and they are hoping we will make it the endless work of our lives.
Lately, I’ve been encouraging couples to stop looking for solutions to their marital problems. I’ve been encouraging them to quit trying to clean up the mess of marriage by organizing their spouse into known parts. Instead, I’ve been encouraging them to wade knee-deep into the glorious catastrophe of two souls pledged to each other for life.
If our marriages could become that kind of race—a race that forsakes the finish line and seeks only the messy joy of the marathon—I think we would transform our running partners: they would cease to be dis-integrated problems-to-be-solved, and they would become never-ending-mysteries with infinite value and dignity and freedom.
And the mess of marriage would remain a mess. But it would become a mysterious mess in which we can joyfully make our home.
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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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.