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Us-ness: The Essential Humility of Marriage

I’ve been working on producing my own pre-marital counseling workbook. Here’s a gem I found in the process.

Dr. Terry Hargrave is a professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Fuller Seminary and a nationally recognized expert in marriage and family issues. In 2000 he was the plenary speaker at the fourth annual SmartMarriagesĀ® conference. His remarks, based on a book he wrote for marriage counselors, put words to a profound insight about good marriages. The full text of his presentation is available at the SmartMarriagesĀ® website. The book, The Essential Humility of Marriage is available at Amazon.

I believe any married couple will find this a worthwhile read:

Our field started serious marital work in the 1940s when people had the luxury of enough time to consider their own happiness in the context of marriage. Then, people sought marriage as a norm of socialization and stabilization. We did not even have to address the issue of why people married, everyone just married. So our training did not focus on the reason, but rather on how people needed to adapt to the spousal roles and “fit” together.

Then as time progressed, we began to see that just “fitting” together was not working out. Spouses had significant differences. As a result, we moved to the idea of facilitating communication and listening. We believed that if couples could just respect and hear one another, surely they would meld together and be happy. But many couples were not happy. They instead became more vested in the idea of individual happiness and could not understand why their spouses were not just as concerned as they were about making them happy. As therapists and educators, we have worked hard–in many cases, harder than the couples we were trying to help. We developed personality typologies and skill sets that would enable couples to get along–only if they would use the skills we provided.

In my own practice, I began to realize that I saw the 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 why was I trying to get them to cooperate? Cooperate for what purpose? I finally came to the conclusion that I was not in the business of trying to eliminate the competition between the individualism of the spouses, but my work was almost totally directed at trying to get the spouses to compete in a nicer way. Seldom, if ever, did I address the problems of the marriage through focusing on what marriage was or what it was suppose to do.

The severe gap in my knowledge about marriage surfaced hard when confronted by my young college students. I share openly about my marriage of 21 years to Sharon and will say that I believe I have a good marriage. They often ask, “What makes it Good?” To be honest, although at the time I made up some answers, I did not know. Was it that my wife made me happy? Was it that the relationship fulfilled me personally? Was it because we had good communication and intimacy? Yes, Yes, and Yes–sometimes. Other times, my wife would drive me crazy and we wouldn’t look much different from the couples we helped in therapy. Yet our relationship continued to work, [even though] . . . we had forgotten what marriage was really about.

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 pioneering family therapist, Carl Whitaker. One time during a conversation over breakfast, he was talking about his wife. Carl said that as much as he would miss his wife if she were to die, he would miss what they were together even more. He would call what they were together “we-ness” or “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 our language, this is not “the two shall become one” as much as it is the two shall become three.

In my marriage, there is Sharon, there is Terry, 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.

However, it is not that I sacrifice my individuality for my wife, but that I willingly give a part of who I am for the sake of the relationship. When I give, and Sharon gives, we bond parts of ourselves together to create a unique new entity. It is the mutual giving to the relationship that, in turn, creates the context for intimacy found in the relationship. . . . 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.

This, by the way, is why good marital relationships are so good for children. It is NOT only that in marriage they have more emotional and financial resources available, important as these things are. It is the fact that they are products of the relational “us.” When the “us-ness” of a couple is stable and secure, the emotional strength is transferred to the children. Children DO NOT come from individuals–they come from relationships and flourish best when those relationships are good.

George Will recently said that “Biologically, adults produce children. Spiritually, children produce adults. Most of us do not grow up until we have helped children to do so. Thus, the generations form a braided cord.” If you have children, you know this is true. You might have had children thinking that you would grow them up, but it didn’t take long before you realized that it was them who were growing you up! I agree with George Will, but the deeper fact is that children are the physical representations of the invisible “us-ness” that exists in marriage. It is not only children that help individual adults grow up emotionally, it is the marital relationship that grows adults up. As educators and therapists in the marriage movement, we are so focused on marriage producing good outcomes for children. This is good and correct. But the fact is, that marital “us-ness” and its’ physical representation through children produce equally good outcomes in adults by making them grow up emotionally.

It is not how the partners communicate or how often they encounter, and overcome, obstacles. Most couples have difficulty with communicating and have to face hard realities of life. It is the quality of “us” that either allows the spouses to hang together and hold each other close through good times and bad, or forces them to take destructive actions in the name of self-preservation.

Marriage is not about a piece of paper that proclaims a couple married. It is not even about marriage being an institution. Marriage is a third entity that is brought into being by the commitment and union of two people and kept alive by the sacrifice, nurture, love, and trustworthiness that the spouses provide to the relationship. You and I both know couples who remain married legally, but have long ago killed off their relationship. They function as roommates–separate individuals.

When couples starve off their relationships because they are not humble enough to sacrifice, love, and trust one another, they are committing a relational abuse. I use the term “relational abuse” intentionally. For too long, we have seen abuse as only being committed against families or individuals. From this individualistic perspective, we have seen infidelity, violence, stealing, manipulation, or substance abuse, only in the context of the competing interests or fairness to individuals. As therapists and educators, we must not only stand for the interests and well-being of individuals, we must also be protectors and advocates of the “us” relationship. When couples abuse or attempt to murder their relationships, we must vigorously act to protect this “us-ness”. It is not just two individuals, their actions impact their living “us” relationship and in turn their entire families.

This is what I believe to be the essence of what we have lost in marital education and therapy work. We have forgotten what marriage is and what the purpose of marriage is about. Marriage is a relational “us-ness” that is formed through the union of two people and kept alive by their loving and trustworthy actions. The purpose of forming this relational “us-ness” through marriage is to grow the individual spouses up–emotionally, physically, socially, and spiritually.