The most torturous aspect of marriage might also be the mechanism for its success. It’s the tension that must be sustained, at all times, between competing extremes: closeness and distance, mystery and knowledge, affection and frustration, happiness and sadness.
As the novelist Hanif Kureishi writes, “I know love is dark work; you have to get your hands dirty. If you hold back, nothing interesting happens. At the same time, you have to find the right distance between people. Too close, and they overwhelm you. How to hold them in the right relation” (1999, p. 71)?
What’s dark about this work is partially just the fact that it’s work, when we had hoped (dreamily, impossibly) that it would be easy. Marriage requires the ability to tolerate distress, to endure endless cycles of connectedness and disconnection, to continuously make micro and macro corrections. Even those of us with “happy” marriages are familiar with the days or weeks here and there when this tension slips just a touch to the darker side. Sometimes the effort to shift it back into balance feels massive.
The quote above is drawn from Kureishi’s novel Intimacy, in which the protagonist Jay spends one agonizing night grappling with his decision to walk out on his wife (and children). His marriage has become definedly unhappy, anchored to the darkness in a way that forcloses note only light but air. “‘I am discouraged,” states Jay. “An unhappy relationship can’t be a sealed compartment. It seeps into everything else, like a punctured oil can’” (Kureishi, 1999, p. 99).
Jay’s friend, though, offers a vision of intimacy which is composed of a comparable sense of pattern repetition, but which, on the whole, looks very different. Defending his sense of contentment with his own marriage, he explains that he treasures his married life because: “Every day something is built upon. There is increase. Without it I would be just a man walking down the street with nowhere to go.” Addressing Jay’s sense of a lack of movement in his relationship, his friend counsels that in a good marriage there is little movement. “You are going round and round, but further and further’” (Kureishi, 1999, p. 100).
Wherever we place ourselves on the spectrum of marital functioning, we know something about these circles. We know the days when we shift, ever so slightly, to the connectedness extreme, and the subsequent days that feel a little more lonely. We may also know that black-and-white views of marriage do us no good. Happiness is an emotion, not an existence. And marriage is most definitely an existence. In its qualities, it is just like a life. It is always perched between a beginning and an end. It is an inherently anxious thing, sometimes happy, sometimes sad. At its best, it is, ever so gradually, building and increasing.
Kureishi, H. (1999). Intimacy. London: Faber & Faber.