Why does Marriage Counselling feel Paradoxical?

What is it about marriage counselling that feels paradoxical?

In an earlier musing I shared some thoughts about paradox, and sitting here now asking myself what it is I want to say about the difficult-to-delineate world of couple relationships, my mind keeps circling round that single word, paradox. So, what, specifically, is it I find paradoxical about a relationship formed by two people, two separate people, to make a single unit? I think what tantalizes my mind is that two opposite things both seem true. It’s summed up in the question I sometimes ask myself: “Can two, in some sense, become one, and if so, do they then stop being two?” To put that less abstractly: “What is this thing, that we can’t see, touch or measure, and that we call relationship; and do we stop being separate individuals when we enter into and get taken up into relationship”? My sense is that question is one of the most fundamental ones a couple will ask themselves during the life of their relationship. To what extent are they parts of a larger entity, a relationship, and to what extent are they separate individuals? The answer to that single question often determines the answer to countless other questions that arise within the day-to-day unfolding of a relationship, including the question of whether or not to continue it. With time and experience of relationship, we come to appreciate how complex and nuanced the question of One or Two actually is. We learn what of our individual self we are prepared to let go of or at least to compromise. Equally, we learn what parts of our being are categorically not up for negotiation. We learn something of the notions, feelings and language of our partner. We learn there are those aspects of their make-up that are different from our own. That discovery can often frustrate us, but, at certain moments, our response to that discovery may simply be “How amazing! Imagine that, this other human being, whom I am so close to, has as much certainty and passionate conviction about the way they see the world as I have–and, lo and behold, they see it differently!” Of the countless marvels of intimate relationship, there is probably none that so reliably supplies us with the experience of the earth moving under us than the one in which we suddenly recognize, without judgement, our partner’s separateness and difference. It is what I describe as an epiphany of the other’s sovereignty. The discovery of that seemingly obvious fact, that my partner is a world beyond my expectations and control, is crucial to the well-being of the relationship. It is the first and necessary step in being initiated into the mysteries of intimacy. The second step is to remember that I, too, am a sovereign world requiring unconditional respect and understanding. If those two steps are successfully taken and are repeated through the relationship, then something begins to emerge that is neither entirely I nor entirely You. There begins to be a sense of We.

While it appears to us that the I and the You precede the We, that relationships are born from the actions of individuals, it should be remembered that, at the most fundamental, biological level, both I and You were born out of a we, out of our parental couple coupling. The twentieth century philosopher, Martin Buber, claimed that “In the Beginning was Relationship.” It’s the “chicken and egg” story once again about which comes first, to which there’s no real answer because neither chicken nor egg has any meaning without the existence of the other. They are each part of a dynamic whole. More to the point, we might well ask what difference does it make which came first? I would answer that in the highly individualistic culture in which we Australians presently live, in which ‘I’ is often seen as a separate, self-sufficient entity, it becomes easy to forget the connectedness out of which we were all first born. And to forget our origins can lead to trouble. Remembering that we were born out of relationship may help us to recognize who we are–children, parents, friends, lovers, enemies, teachers, oppressors, helpers and disciples–in short, beings continuously in varied and ever-changing relationships. This is in addition and alongside being unique individuals. Keeping that paradox in mind and learning to live comfortably with it doesn’t always come naturally. It then requires patient work…and an abundant amount of playfulness.


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