The Promise of "Us"
Although I've worked with families and couples for the better part of 15 years, I have often found myself befuddled when asked the most fundamental question of marriage counseling: "What makes it work?" I began to realize that I had been defining marriage as two individuals trying to get along for their mutual happiness. It was this individuality that was the problem. No matter how I sliced it, when the two individuals differed in the marriage, they came into competition with one another. One's happiness would often mean that he or she won while the other's sacrifice meant that he or she lost. I found myself in an endless morass of trying to either 1) balance out the winning and losing of the individual spouses or; 2) get them to cooperate together.
But this raises an interesting question, "why was I trying to get them to cooperate?" "Cooperate for what purpose?" Slowly over the years I have evolved to the understanding that eliminating the competition between the individuals in the marriage is a fruitless exercise if not ultimately harmful to the marriage. Eliminating the competition lured me away from the marriage itself and what the marriage is supposed to do.
What makes a marriage good? Is it that our spouses make us happy? Is it that the relationship fulfills us personally? Is it because of good communication and intimacy? Yes, Yes, and Yes--sometimes. These are symptoms of a good marriage. But what about the times when your spouse doesn't make you happy? What about the times when your relationship taxes you personally? What about the times when your communication is burdened? These symptoms are also present in a good marriage.
The heart of the issue is that marriage is a relationship. A living, breathing relationship that is as real as the two individuals that form the bond. It is, if you will, a separate entity--a third person--that is created when two individuals give themselves in a bonding manner. It is not just that two individuals participate together in an exchange for each other's good; it is that they create a whole new being when they marry. I was first introduced to this concept by the leading Marriage and Family Therapist Terry Hargrave. One day while my graduate studies class in Marriage and Family was ending he spoke very eloquently about his beloved wife saying: "I will miss my wife Sharon when she passes on, but I will miss who we are together even more." He called what they were together a "we-ness" or an "us-ness."
What is exciting about this concept of "us-ness" is that it is not quite one spouse, and not quite the other. "Us" is what they are together. "Us" is created by two individuals in a committed relationship; it takes on a personality with characteristics of its own. It is not just two individuals who share, it is two individuals who give up part of themselves to create a oneness--an "us." I think this is what the Judeo-Christian scripture means when it talks about oneness. It is not that the two individuals share; it is not that they obliterate their individuality; it is that they create a new identity. In my marriage, there is Patti, there is Brent, and there is "us," which has its own personality, its own likes and dislikes. For instance, I don't like ballet, but "us" does like ballet. When I say this, I do not mean that I do not like ballet and I just give in to my wife because she likes it and I suffer through a performance. I mean that when I go with my wife, the activity becomes enjoyable because of how we dress up to go, where we go to eat, and how we interact about the performance. Our relationship really does like the activity of ballet, even though I would never choose to go by myself. But it is not only in the activities of "us," it also has personality characteristics that are predictable. For instance, I can tell when "us" is getting ready to have a fight.
"Us" may be invisible but it is a living, breathing relationship that is kept alive by spouses caring for it and giving to it in a trustworthy way. "Us-ness" is IN the relationship, much in the same way that children are a product of and IN the relationship. Genetically, children have both of their parents in them, but are clearly separate individuals. However, they depend on their parents to keep them alive. In the same way, "us-ness" transcends each person in the relationship, but depends on the individuals to keep it alive. It is the "us" that is the essential element in keeping marriages together, because, in fact, it is the only part of the spouses that is together.
The ability to be out of control physically, emotionally naked, and yet totally at peace in the presence of another person--this is what this trustworthy giving yields, whether in physical sex or emotional intimacy. We give of ourselves to bind ourselves with a spouse in relationship, but creating an "us" does not mean that we lose ourselves. The "us" becomes a nurturer to our individuality that works both to teach us and to fulfill our personal desires. This is one of life's paradoxes, that as we give up part of our individuality to create this relationship, we gain nurturance for our own personhood. When we give to "us" we actually receive the very happiness and satisfaction we desire.