Marriage: From slavery to freedom

Can you feel free in your marriage?

Illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
WITH PASSOVER coming up, it’s time to think about freedom; as in what freedom can mean for a marriage. Yes, we are talking about freedom in marriage. And, it’s not an oxymoron.
Freedom is dear – and without it you’re trapped.
It is fair to say that you married freely and stay freely. You entered wanting to be free to be yourself and loved for being you. Yet, over time, something has changed, and you may feel lost, or trapped.
Oh, did I miss something?
Yes, your husband, wife or partner needs to feel free and loved as well. The marriage must take care of both of you.
So, if you’ve lost your way, how did you get there?
Our traditions tell us a lot about freedom and second chances. They tell us an ancient truth. We can find our way, even when we feel lost.
Let’s see how this works in the natural course of a marriage.
The Passover story
Passover is the story of the Children of Israel being released from slavery by the Almighty Himself. As the Book of Exodus tells us, the Israelites were oppressed and left with great drama (like the splitting of the Red Sea), and yet, despite leaving Egypt (the symbolic word for slavery), it took forty years of wandering to get Egypt out of them. It may interest you to know that the Hebrew word for Egypt has the same root as “constriction” or “narrowing.”
Anyone in an unsatisfactory marriage can relate to the sense of constriction one can feel. And when a marriage is failing, that narrowing can turn into a feeling of choking, which is what it’s like to live in a house without love.
The Passover story of liberation is instructive because we’re told that it’s not OK to be constricted – and there’s place for wanting a “promised land.”
This archetypal story of hope and renewal has been written many times and in many ways; examples include, the phoenix rising from the ashes, the classic third act when the Hero overcomes unthinkable odds, the saying that it’s always darkest before the dawn and the Ne’ila service on Yom Kippur, when heaven’s doors open for forgiveness and renewal. This dynamic speaks to us because it’s connected to the nature of the human spirit. Oppression and hardship need not be the end game – there’s also redemption.
So, let’s get back to marriage.
Love, marriage & hope
Consider the idealization of new love. You look at him and believe that he’ll make you happy, take care of you, and complete you (and the children will be so incredible). You look in her inviting eyes and see a universe of promise. Indeed, all you’ll ever need is right next to you.
Consider the intensely loving marriages in the Bible: Jacob longing for Rachel, Isaac discovering Rebecca at the well, and Abraham’s powerful partnership with Sarah. Or, think of the happily ever after stories of childhood, like Disney’s “Snow White,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Mermaid” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
Indeed every era has its heroes and heroines of love.
Young people internalize these stories and the dreams they provide – and in some ways, it’s beautiful. If your family of origin is happy, it fits nicely into your dreams for the future. If your family of origin is less than happy, these stories give you a sense that good things may be coming. The notion of romantic love (the beshert , your soulmate...the “one”), with its idealized future, is so deep in Western culture that it’s hard to think about dating without its magical influence.
When marriage stalls
Weddings are grand events. The bride, the groom, the music, the heartfelt joy and promise for the future, all mixed together into a huge offering of hope. That this precious couple will have a happy, healthy marriage filled with blessing, and a deep partnership to 120 years of age. Weddings are tearful, sweet, and joyous and a statement of what society really believes – that marriage is our greatest institution and deserves to be celebrated again and again.
But with divorce so common, and many more marriages struggling along, this celebration is as much a reaction formation as anything else. What is reaction formation? It is a defensive style that denies what you are frightened of, in this case, that in reality, a marriage can be a precursor to a divorce. Reaction formation asserts the positive with extra vigor so you can avoid negative thoughts. To understand this better, just imagine a person who has a fear of heights, so he becomes a mountain climber!
Who doesn’t love a wedding? We should. It is not a time to think about the underbelly of a marriage. But that doesn’t mean a marriage is without risk. No sir. It’s probably one of the riskiest ventures around. This is because the idealization inherent in romantic love leads to a trap that can feel like being a slave in the land of ancient Egypt.
Marriage – learning by doing
James Hollis, the prolific Jungian scholar, believes that every marriage is really a starter marriage. We learn a lot from that starter home and then, many of us move up and buy a place to settle down. By then, we know what it takes to deal with the project of home ownership because we also know ourselves better.
Some people love to fix things around the house, others farm it out. Where do you fit in? Who will take care of the lawn or the endless cleanups? What do you want to have the place look like? Will it be messy or neat, modern or antique, bright or muted? What can you live with and what needs to be changed? You learn a lot about yourself from a starter home. What’s the connection?
Inevitably, you get to know marriage like one gets to know home ownership. Everyday living brings you closer to your wife, for better and for worse (no gender is faultless, so imagine husband, if it makes sense). You get to know her family, how she spends money (too much), and how easily annoyed she gets with your habits. And you’re not crazy about her parenting choices either; does she really need to yell so much?
With the shoe on the other foot, you look at your husband and feel judged, not only for what you say but how you say it. You can’t be chill all the time, and deal with his intense wish for validation when you’re dead tired taking care of the children (and often working as well). Intimacy may have been great, but who has the energy? Plus, it’s hard to feel close when you were just criticized for no reason at all.
Idealization hits a wall. Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming, or you name your fantasy no longer works. What you are left with is a partnership.
The trick is to let real adult love into this space, into the partnership.
You must give up some of the fantasy, because, whether you like it or not, you are in love with a flesh and blood person and not the fulfillment of a dream. For some this is experienced as a crash – and these marriages are in trouble. For others, the relationship can segue into the hum of a productive partnership, with the pleasure of being with each other mixing with the daily work of raising kids, supporting a family and dealing with all the problems – health, friends, family, business, schools, and more that will almost certainly come your way.
Resentment erodes
Some lose the special spark and find themselves in a business-like partnership. It works in a dry sort of way. In my experience, such souls may privately nurse resentment – like, this is not what I signed up for. You slowly but surely start withholding from each other. This negative feedback cycle of resentment is like poison, eroding goodwill. “Why should I do anything for him when he can’t give me what I need?”
These micro-moments of injury add up.
Generosity thins out and soon, no one talks about the marriage – it’s too dangerous. You do your jobs, get the kids to school, help with homework, go to work, and deal with money issues – with home life becoming increasingly unhappy.
We all come from somewhere, and couples often re-enact issues from their family of origin. Control, neediness, stonewalling, passive aggressiveness, rejection and self-righteousness all undermine love.
Murray Bowen, one of the founders of family therapy, teaches that each generation can bring this kind of pain forward into the next generation, or stop it right here, and build a better future. It’s a form of freedom – and wise advice.
Addictions can fill the void. Eating is No. 1; but drugs, alcohol, buying things, sex and pornography, and gambling (legal and illegal) can take over as well. While addictions have a life of their own, an unhappy marriage is a medium for unhappy behavior.
Love is that important.
And, no one can hurt you like someone you love.
Rupture & repair
The critical thing about conflict is the capacity to repair. The rupture/repair experience can actually bring people closer. But it takes trust and the capacity for both partners to own their part. Good marriages can do this.
And, yes, there is such a thing as makeup sex.
Some couples fight with words that cut deep; for others with more serious psychological problems, fights can get violent. This is often a turning point. Too much damage can thwart any attempt to repair. Get help if you think you are about to become violent or if you are in the midst of such a situation.
Some people come from a background where arguing is off limits, with resentment poisoning things from the inside out. There is no repair. It is an unspoken unhappiness.
Yet, the human spirit wants to be free, and many fantasize about emancipation. Some may have an affair. Some secretly hope their spouse leaves. Some harbor the most terrible of thoughts; “maybe he will pass on? Then I won’t have to do anything to be free.” Some decide that a divorce will be necessary and plan for it – either now or when the kids grow up.
Human beings require freedom – it’s in our genes, and so is the idea of redemption.
One plus one equals three
There’s a third option, and it’s the way many marriages truly flourish. You accept some disillusionment with the marriage you wanted; the one that carried fantasy. You then replace your old marriage with a new project – love between two adults.
Some marriages don’t recover. The couple suffers through for the sake of the kids, or divorce with the thought to possibly try again.
But a stale marriage can start over. It’s what real freedom is all about. James Hollis is onto something here, inviting us to consider that renewal from a bad place is the natural course of many successful marriages.
Kindness enters the room, and you love him as the very person he is, no more and no less. You accept your wife because she’s yours to love. You forgive your partner as well as yourself. This is a form of radical acceptance and requires conscious change for both parties, maybe even renewed vows.
Over time, one plus one equals three; something bigger than each of you alone. What was a negative feedback loop becomes a positive feedback loop. Your world is expanded by her and not constricted. You see her loving your children and you love her for loving them. You see him taking care of your father and love him for loving Dad. You learn about a baseball team or become a dog person, despite yourself. These micro-moments count as well. Your house becomes a home again. You want to spend time together.
There’s rupture – and repair. Intimacy wakes up.
Some marriages are too damaged to continue. If so, learn from your failed starter experience and avoid repeating the same mistakes again and again. Don’t fall into the statistics of failed second and third marriages – because no one can really save you – but you.
With my Intelligent Divorce Project, I often write about the dynamics of divorce, but a sweet story emerges from this study; it teaches us about love. You see, divorce shows us how love dies, slowly, quickly, passively or violently. This knowledge tells us that marriage is a living entity. Just because it’s hurting does not mean it will need to die.
The fact is that the life of a marriage is some predictability. It has its joyful beginning, it has its disappointments and hurts – but it carries an opportunity that is deeper and more wondrous than poetry. Our traditions teach us that the birth of something special can require a moment of hopelessness.
I have seen renewed love work. It requires grieving over what’s been done to you and what you never got; and yes, good therapy can make a difference. It requires an embrace of one’s life and wanting the best it has to offer (and, if possible, giving up victimhood and anger). You must understand that not everything is fair – and invest in being happier from the inside. And, while there are many exceptions, going through the dark night of a marriage’s soul can force open a door to a renewed partnership that works.
We all wish life was easy. You grow up and are told exactly how to proceed. Deal productively with school, advance in grades, be religious or secular, graduate high school, go to college or more, get a job, find a mate....on and on. What they don’t tell you is that as you move along, each person’s journey becomes more nuanced and confusing.
We all want love and stability. Here’s the take-home message.
Perhaps it’s time.
Marriages can die – and be reborn.
We can be stuck in slavery – and find our way to freedom.
And, things may not be as simple – or as stuck – as you may think.
Enjoy this season of hope!
Mark Banschick, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, with a practice in Katonah, New York. He is the author of ‘The Intelligent Divorce’ book series and is a cofounder of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a StandWithUs nonprofit initiative that mobilizes alumni to improve campus life for the pro- Israel community.