Paint Your Scars With Gold
Somebody need me too much
Somebody know me too well
Somebody pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive.
- Stephen Sondheim, “Being Alive”
The other day I was reading about an ancient Japanese art called Kintsugi, in which, if a ceramic object such as a bowl breaks, it’s repaired using a lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Once repaired, the fault lines are illuminated, making the object increasingly beautiful as it ages. The philosophy behind Kintsugi treats the process of fracture and repair as part of an object’s history, something to be celebrated rather than hidden or disguised.
This got me thinking about marriage.
I’ve been with my spouse for seventeen years now. And though it’s not easy to share this, I’m going to summon my wobbly courage and tell you: My marriage is not perfect. There have been deep fissures, gashes, cracks that are difficult to repair. In the complex soup of a shared life, the flavors of laughter, tenderness and delight are liberally seasoned with frustration and tears.
I’m sure this comes as no surprise. I mean, we’re grownups, right? We know that nothing in this world is perfect. But the thing is, when it comes to relationships, we know it and we don’t. No matter how often our brain tells us that there’s no such thing as a perfect union between two separate beings, we grew up on Romeo and Juliet and “happily ever after,” which we all know R and J would’ve achieved if they hadn’t made themselves dead.
See that Sondheim quote I posted above? The next line in the song is “Make me alive.” We grow up counting on others to fulfill us. And though most of us learn to pooh-pooh this notion some time in our twenties, when we read those Facebook posts that say “to the love of my life, my soul mate, my best friend, my morning comfort and my afternoon delight…” we, in our imperfect marriages or relationships or singlehood, feel a pang of envy the size of Mount Fuji. Someone, it seems, has found Couples’ Nirvana and is occupying a realm of complete fulfillment, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. And we want that someone to be us.
Well, maybe they have found it. I can’t speak for them. I can only speak for myself and for the not insignificant number of friends with whom I’ve spoken about the nature of a long-term marriage. And what I’ve gleaned from these conversations is this: Anyone who stays married has weathered difficulty within the relationship.
What is a marriage, anyway? Setting aside the practical aspects—taxes, finances, legal rights and responsibilities—what does being married mean in terms of the relationship between two humans?
Clearly it means different things to different individuals. I know couples in fully monogamous marriages; couples in open marriages with specified limits; and couples who are fully polyamorous, sustaining multiple meaningful partnerships the way others sustain multiple meaningful friendships. I know couples who spend nearly every moment of their days together and those who lead mostly separate lives. Couples who argue loudly and often and those who avoid confrontation. Couples who are fully aligned on the touchstones of politics and religion and those who diverge. The list goes on.
Other than a piece of paper, what makes all these people married?
My personal take is that marriage is a commitment to remain engaged, both with the other person and with the conversation about what’s between you. You can be on different sides of the world or in the same house, but when one partner reaches out, the other responds. You share your goals and desires for yourselves, for each other, and for the relationship. You keep the conversation dynamic, support each other as individuals, and invest energy in your partnership, whatever form it takes.
Apart from those obvious practical elements of finances, shared housing, and co-parenting, what keeps people in marriages when things become difficult?
You can probably tell by now that I’m one of those dorks who’s always thinking about Big Questions. Another one that goes through my head on a regular basis is: Why are we here? One of the answers that perpetually rises to the surface is: To learn how to love. If there were any truth in that notion, could there be a better practice ground than marriage?
I’ve talked with a friend of mine, who’s a couples’ counselor, about the patterns she sees in most long-term relationships. It seems there’s a fairly predictable cycle. You start with infatuation—that giddy, giggly, wildly erotic zone in which your melding feels absolute. This can last days, months, or years, but sooner or later it shifts, and cracks begin to show. You go from thinking you have everything in common to thinking you share nothing. This stage may be more or less intense and adversarial, depending on your personalities, but one way or another, it arrives.
If the first period lasted long enough that you built up a reservoir of shared experience and affection, if your core values are aligned, if you’re both fully committed to engaging with whatever issues arise, and if you have adequate tools to navigate the uncomfortable discussions that ensue, you may weather this second stage.
Only then, after the illusion of perfection has given way to disillusionment, can you open the door to stage three, which we might call Mature Love. That’s the stage at which you know the other person isn’t you, you know the other person isn’t perfect, as you yourself are not perfect, and you make the choice to see them as they are and love them anyway. There will be days when this is easy and days when it’s hard. But the key word here is choice. You choose reality over illusion because ultimately reality, in all its messiness and awkwardness, is what your heart truly craves.
This choice isn’t something you make once. If you’re going to stay married, you’re going to have to make it again and again as the years go by. Because you will hurt and disappoint each other. And when that happens, when the handle falls off the cup or a piece chips off the rim of the bowl and leaves a jagged edge, you have to choose: Do you keep this broken thing or do you throw it out?
Let’s say you glue the handle back on. What’s your attitude toward this new, repaired vessel that you call your marriage? Do you look at it in its patched-up state with an undercurrent of shame and resentment? Do you repeatedly run your fingers over the jagged places and re-inflame your own wounds?
Again, I believe you have a choice. You can avoid the cracks and perhaps allow them to reopen, or you can tend them with care and examine them, gently, for the opportunities they offer to expand the capacity of your vessel to safely hold everything that may come. If you believe, as I do, that this choice is possible, why not paint your scars with gold?
Then, if you’re lucky, the day may come when the marriage seems more beautiful for the mending, richer and more complex, each restored crack a vein that nourishes the whole. Oscar Wilde wrote in An Ideal Husband,“It is not the perfect, but the imperfect who have need of love. It is when we are wounded by our own hands, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us, else what use is love at all?”
When we make this powerful use of love—when we allow it to heal our own wounds and those of the other—even those wounds that were caused by the other—then we have a marriage. Then we are learning how to love.