Marriage Archives

Creating kingdoms out of complexes

The older I get, the more I wonder if we ever have direct encounters with other people, or if we only interact with each other’s complexes, projections and neuroses.

The idea of the complex is considered to be Jung’s greatest contribution to the field of psychology and most of what follows in this post is a synthesis of Jungian analyst James Hollis’s thoughts on complexes and projections.

A complex is an emotionally charged, internalized experience that has a splinter identity and a splinter script. When you get defensive and start justifying something, you are in the throes of a complex. When your reaction to something is disproportionate to the situation, that’s a complex. Bodily changes often accompany this.

An example of a complex is when you talk on the phone with one of your parents and find yourself reverting back to childhood in your feelings, behavior and what you say.

Some common complexes are the power complex (seeking sovereignty over environment and other people),  the fantasy of immortality complex, and the fantasy of the magical other (the notion that there is one person out there who is right for us). And, of course, the mother complex and father complex. “How many children are enlisted into the impossible, not to say unfair, project of making their parents feel good about themselves?” Eek.

Hollis says one can create an entire kingdom out of a complex.

Complexes are what bring people together. One might marry to find the good parent in the other, to find an abuser in order to confirm a wounded sense of self, or seeking what was missing in family of origin.

So what about projections?

Hollis says the central law of projection is that which is unconscious will be either repressed or projected. We are never free of projections. “It is truly frightening to realize how little one is conscious in the formation of intimate relationship.” Eek.

When we fall in love, what we fall in love with is some aspect of ourselves reflected back to us in the other. What we do not know about ourselves or will not face in ourselves will be projected onto the other. We project our childhood wounding, our infantile longing and our individuation imperative. Hollis said that when he was a college professor, his students could never grasp this, for they wanted desperately to believe that their romantic partners were the fulfillment of their dreams and couldn’t accept the huge role projection plays. “I’ll see you when you’re 40,” he would tell them.

Blaming our partner for stepping on mines we have laid is where most couples are when they walk into therapy, he says.

How to become more aware of and perhaps begin to outgrow some of our complexes and projections?

This requires that we ask ourselves of every impulse and behavior: “Where does this come from within me? Where have I been here before?”

If one can identify unquestioned, reflexive tendencies in one’s life, those for which rationalizations are immediately available, one might be able to walk backward to the formative experiences of which they are the ‘logical’ expression. Then one might be able to imagine alternative attitudes and behaviors as possibilities.

And as for projections in our relationships, he says we should ask that most difficult of questions: “What am I asking my partner to do for me that I should be able to do for myself?”


We’ve become a nation of Madame Bovarys

I don’t normally get too worked up by statements like these: “No other institution has been so brutally attacked by the Romantic imagination as marriage and the family, an assault that continues unabated in popular culture today.”

Sure, there are attacks against marriage and family, but I figure a lot of these “assaults” are more of an inside job than an outside job.

But the writer who said the above statement cited the book Madame Bovary, so that caught my eye and I couldn’t help but pay close attention to what he said (the essay is long and kind of a snooze except for the Madame Bovary part).

As you may know, Madame Bovary was written by Gustave Flaubert in 1856 and, like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, details the life of a happily married woman who gradually becomes unhappy, falls into adultery, and meets with a most unhappy end.

In this Touchstone magazine article, Nathan Schlueter says the five features of “Romantic Escapism” portrayed in Madame Bovary are reflected in modern marriage (both in the men and the women) all too often:

1. Disordered Imagination – Art and media have an impact on our imagination and Flaubert shows how the romantic novels of the day shaped Emma Bovary’s disordered imagination:
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And she tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

2. Itinerancy – Emma Bovary quickly became bored married to a country doctor and thought happiness awaited her in the city.

I love this line: “She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.”

Who hasn’t experienced some level of itinerancy, whether in making frequent moves for one’s work, or in smaller ways, by taking lots of vacations, switching schools, churches, neighborhoods, houses all in the pursuit of greater happiness.

3. Consumerism – Today advertisers and marketers lure us into new identities by giving us an endless array of goods and, until recently, sub prime mortgages and easy credit made it too easy for people to live above their pay grade. It was no different in Emma Bovary’s day:

Emma lived all absorbed in her passions and worried no more about money matters than an archduchess.
4. Adultery and promiscuity – Eventually Emma Bovary only felt alive when in the throes of an affair, but then came the inevitable: “She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.” Oops.

5. Existential escapism – Such escapism sometimes ends in suicide, as in the case of Emma Bovary. As Schlueter said:

Like the Romantic heroines who have gone before her (Dido, Iseult, Juliet), Emma finds in her death by suicide both the liberation from and the consummation of her Romantic desire. Yet her dying words suggest that this end is anything but Romantic: “God it’s horrible!”
The presence of any one of the above in a relationship is a red flag. When there are 4-5, well, the relationship is pretty much toast, I suppose.

So what’s the antidote to this Romanticism?

It’s not realism, says Schlueter, which is just as bad as Romanticism. “What is required is a truly realist imagination, one that captures and reveals the extraordinary quality of ordinary life.”

In other words, the capacity to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

What is wanted… is a poetry rooted in the romance of domesticity, which reveals the real beauty of ordinary life within limits and shows the dignity of what it means to be what Wendell Berry calls a “placed person.”

I do take issue with Schlueter on one point, near the end of his essay, where he disagrees with a father who advised his newly-married daughter to keep her job, “just in case.”

Schlueter seems to think this implies a lack of trust in her spouse but apparently he’s oblivious to the economy and the need for most people to have two incomes. There are times in most marriages when one person is underemployed, unemployed, going through a midlife crisis, etc. and the other has to pick up the financial slack. That point reminded me why I don’t read Touchstone magazine much. :D

But I am going to reread Madame Bovary again soon, as those quotes reminded me how wonderfully pithy Flaubert can be. I’ll also try to be more grateful that I’m a “placed person” and remind myself and my girls more often to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.


Walking like an Egyptian on Bascom Hill

It’s interesting how a stroll up and down a hill can take one’s thoughts on a quick journey from Bascom Hill, to Canterbury, to rural Illinois and back again.

I taught a mini course on blogging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison the past two Wednesday evenings. This took me to a building in the very heart of campus (the Education building on Bascom Hill).

UW-Madison is my alma mater and even though I now only live about 7 miles away from campus, I rarely have opportunities to stroll up Bascom Hill and walk on campus.

I felt a sense of rootedness and relief as I strolled up the hill. The past several months I’ve visited several college campuses with my oldest daughter and it was nice to be back on a campus that felt like home.

As I approached the Education building I recalled one of the English classes I took in that building 24 or so years ago. English 215. This was the class where you had to memorize the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and recite it before the class – in Middle English. “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…”

This is a rite of passage for English majors. Whenever I meet someone who also majored in English the Prologue is inevitably mentioned at some point. Quite often the other person can still recite it. I remember the time a friend drove us to Logan Airport in Boston and he recited the Prologue with much delight while navigating through rush hour traffic.

I, however, can only remember small snatches of the Prologue, which is something of a relief to me. :-)

Don’t misunderstand. If I was doing it all over again, I’d still major in English, even with the dreaded recitation of the Prologue, although this time I would choose the Creative Writing track rather than the Literature track.

This would mean a few less literature courses and a few more writing courses. To graduate college knowing how to tell a story in addition to knowing how to analyze one would be a pretty awesome thing, I think.

Anyway, back when I took that class, the Education building was stuffy and old, old, old. Creaky wood floors. Dusty staircases. It no doubt looked much like it did when it was built in 1900.

When I stepped foot inside it last Wednesday evening, I was taken aback at how thoroughly it has been remodeled.

The wood floors look new and no longer creak. There’s a huge lounge and a cafe. All the classrooms are modern with state of the art projectors and, of course, WiFi. The woodwork along the staircases is jaw-dropping and I’m so glad to see it restored in that way.

After class it was dark as I walked down Bascom Hill. The capitol building was lit up in the distance and it took me by surprise and looked spectacular. The capitol wasn’t lit up like this at night back in my day:

I then recalled how I have a photo of me and 3 other friends on Bascom Hill, taken in May 1987, and I wondered if this was the first time I had been on Bascom Hill at night since that evening 23 years ago.

A statue of Abraham Lincoln is at the top of Bascom Hill. Sitting on Abe’s lap is something of a rite of passage on campus. I’m the one in the white sweatshirt on Abe’s lap. I note with alarm that I’m wearing electric blue shorts but, hey, it was the 1980s, so I’ll cut myself some slack:

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The way the two young ladies at the foot of the statue are posing will, of course, immediately bring to mind the #1 hit song in 1986, Walk Like An Egyptian, even if you had thought you had long forgotten that song.

Many memories come to mind when looking at this photo, but perhaps the most vivid one occurred a little more than a year after this photo was taken.

Shelly, the young lady in the yellow shorts, was a bridesmaid in my wedding. She drove me and my other two bridesmaids to my wedding at a country church in rural Illinois. We had spent the night before at my grandmother’s house – one last slumber party. The next day we whizzed through the flat countryside in her blue Mercury Sable on the way to the wedding. Thanks to all our chatter we became hopelessly lost for a time.

Also, this was unfamiliar territory for me, as I had only visited this church one time before.

I selected it for the wedding because my great-great-grandfather was married in this church and served there as its pastor for the first five years of his career as a Lutheran minister.

He’s considered something of a saint in the family lore and has always been described as a quiet, gentle man who was pious and liked to read. Even though I had never met the man it seemed fitting, somehow, to be married at the same altar where he was married.

Such reflections were far from my mind as we panicked and tried to find our way to the church. Eventually we did and the first person to greet me was, of all people, the Australian boyfriend of my South African penpal. He had hitchhiked his way across part of the US to make it to the wedding. His presence was unexpected and it was fun to meet him.

A reporter from a Lutheran publication was there to take a photo of me and my grandmother and do a little write up of this “historic ceremony.”

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It’s just as well my face is hard to see in this photo, as I had been crying beforehand, due to some sentimental things my future brother-in-law told me that made me cry.

That’s my grandmother’s handwriting at the top of the article and it warms my heart to see it again. I still have the many letters we exchanged.

At any rate, as I walked down Bascom Hill last night after class, I made sure to do a little Walk Like An Egyptian move, as a nod to Abraham Lincoln’s lap, saintly great great grandfathers, forced recitations, rural weddings, and friends past and present.


Numb (part 6 of a U2 Primer on Marriage)

There’s nothing like marital conflict to focus the mind. Or, alternatively, to make one feel numb.

The song Numb by U2 is about the numbness caused by the bombardment of information in our society. It’s also about marital pain and the numbness that makes you shut down and unable to respond.

Bono (the singer and songwriter) says the song captures guitar player Edge’s state of mind after his divorce. Edge sings the vocals in this song and drummer Larry Mullen sings the first “I feel numb” chorus, as you see in the video. This is probably the closest U2 has ever come to a rap song.

Here are some of the lyrics (complete lyrics are here):

Don’t move
Don’t talk out of time
Don’t think
Don’t worry
Everything’s just fine
Just fine

Don’t grab
Don’t clutch
Don’t hope for too much
Don’t breathe
Don’t achieve

Don’t project
Don’t connect
Don’t expect
I feel numb
Don’t project
Don’t connect
Don’t expect
I feel numb

These lyrics remind me of the inner dialogue one can have in times of stress, in that numb state when you’re trying to remind yourself of what you think you’re allowed or not allowed to do. This song pops into my head whenever I hear someone say “I feel numb” or when I’m in the midst of that overwhelmed state.

More and more, it seems, things like a song, poem, a bird story, etc. will resonate with and encourage me far, far more than a lifetime of lectures and sermons would. Hence posts like these.


The ethical challenge of relationships (plus 4 questions)

I’ve been reading my way through the James Hollis books at the library but dragged my feet in getting around to Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves. It seemed like a good topic to avoid. Ahem.

I finally read it this weekend and am glad I did. To my surprise it contained a lot of material about relationships. He lists 4 questions to ask yourself as you ponder your relationship with your spouse/partner (or Other, to borrow his term, even though that makes me think of the show Lost ;) ).

I’ll list those questions below but first I’ll mention some of what he says about the ethical challenge of relationships, which he defines as keeping your own needs from dominating the other person.

As we mature we learn more that we are responsible for meeting our neeeds, not the Other. The more we take on this project, the more we can live with ambiguity -as individuals and as a society – the freer and more worthy of the name of love the relationship becomes…

I do not see that relationship in which people ‘take care of each other’ as worth of the name of relationship, at least not a loving, mature relationship.

Dependency is not love; it is dependency – it is an abrogation of the essential responsibility of each of us to grow up.

Here are the four questions he gives us to ponder. It occurs to me that some of  these questions could apply to parents or other relationships as well:

1.  Where do my dependencies show up in this relationship, and what must I address to cease being dependent?

2. What am I asking my partner to do for me that I should be able to do for myself, if I am going to be a self-respecting adult fully charged with the conduct of my life.

If neither one of those questions made you say, “oops,” perhaps one of these will:

3. How do I repeatedly constrict myself by reimporting my history, with all its charged reflexive responses, into this relationship?

4. Am I truly supportive of my partner while not taking on his or her responsibility to grow up and be a free adult?


Original of the Species (part 5 of a U2 Primer on Marriage)

Because I have four daughters I have, of course, given thought to what it will be like for them when they start dating and having relationships that might eventually lead to marriage.

On the one hand, I don’t want them to “settle,” yet I don’t want them to be maximizers either.

I hope I haven’t infected them too much with my own anxieties, although I suppose that’s somewhat inevitable, given the anxious state we parents of Millenial kids seem to be in.

I’d like very much for them to be at ease with themselves and to know that they are the “original of the species,” which brings us (finally) to the U2 song with that same title.

Bono wrote this song for his goddaughter (who is the daughter of U2 guitarist Edge).

Edge cried when he first heard the lyrics and said the song has an element of Bono looking back on his own insecurities at age 20. In the song Bono identifies with the confusion over self and worth that girls in their teens and young adulthood often experience.

Bono says:

It’s about seeing some people who are ashamed about their bodies, in particular teenagers with eating disorders, not feeling comfortable with themselves and their sexuality.

I’m just saying to them, ‘you are one of a kind, you’re an original of the species.’ So it’s a ‘Be who you are’ song. I can’t wait to play it live.

This live version of the song from Milan is my favorite version of Original of the Species because it has cellos and violins.

Here are the lyrics in their entirety:

Baby slow down

The end is not as fun as the start
Please stay a child somewhere in your heart

I’ll give you everything you want
Except the thing that you want

You are the first one of your kind

And you feel like no one before
You steal right under my door
And I kneel ‘cos I want you some more

I want the lot of what you got
And I want nothing that you’re not

Everywhere you go you shout it
You don’t have to be shy about it

Some things you shouldn’t get too good at
Like smiling, crying and celebrity

Some people got way too much confidence baby

I’ll give you everything you want
Except the thing that you want
You are the first one of your kind

And you feel like no one before
You steal right under my door
And I kneel ‘cos I want you some more
I want the lot of what you got
And I want nothing that you’re not

Everywhere you go you shout it
You don’t have to be shy about it, no
And you’ll never be alone
Come on now show your soul
You’ve been keeping your love under control

Everywhere you go you shout it
You don’t have to be shy about it
Everywhere you go you shout it
Oh my my

And you feel like no one before
You steal right under my door
And I kneel ‘cos I want you some more
I want you some more, I want you some more…

As I read through those lyrics again I couldn’t help but think of my oldest daughter and am reminded that she graduates from high school next spring (sniff, sniff – but yay for new adventures). This would make for a cool graduation song.


Oh, you look so beautiful tonight (part 4 of a U2 Primer on Marriage)

The last post in this series talked about the cruelty that can occur within marriage.

The song Window in the Skies acknowledges that but then points us to the eternal love that transcends it.

In the first part of the song the chorus is “Oh can’t you see what *our* love has done.”

Part of what “our love” has done is this:

“I know I hurt you and I made you cry
I’ve done everything but murder you and I”

Then for the remainder of the song the chorus shifts to “Oh can’t you see what love has done.”

This, I think, speaks of the eternal love that is there to ease any broken heart:

But love left a window in the skies
And to love I rhapsodize

Oh can’t you see what love has done
to every broken heart
Oh can’t you see what love has done
for every heart that cries
Love left a window in the skies
And to love I rhapsodize

This song also has a reference to Easter near the beginning:

The shackles are undone
The bullet’s quit the gun
The heat that’s in the sun
Will keep us when it’s done
The rule has been disproved
The stone, it has been moved
The grave is now a groove
All debts are removed

The song City of Blinding Lights has a similar upbeat theme.

Although it’s about the city of New York when U2 performed live there shortly after 9/11, it’s also a love song about his wife Ali and a nod to the longevity of their relationship:

I’ve seen you walk unafraid
I’ve seen you in the clothes you made
Can you see the beauty inside of me
What happened to the beauty I had inside of me

And I miss you when you’re not around
I’m getting ready to leave the ground
Oh, you look so beautiful tonight
In the city of blinding lights

Time, time, time, time
Time won’t leave me as I am
But time won’t take the boy out of this man

I don’t think there’s any female U2 fan out there who doesn’t feel uplifted when hearing “Oh, you look so beautiful tonight.” :-)

Part 5 will be about girls and how they can emerge from the adolescent years in a way that prepares them better for adulthood, marriage and relationships. Stay tuned.


The perils of “active listening”

Are you familiar with the “active listening” concept?

It’s where you listen to what your spouse says, repeat back what your spouse said in your own words, and then try to show you understand why your spouse feels angry at you or whatever.


In the book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, which is a “myth-busting response to the self-help movement, with tips and tricks to improve your life that come straight from the scientific community,” author Richard Wiseman pretty much dismisses active listening as hooey.

In the 1990s John Gottman (a world renowned expert on marital stability) did an elaborate study on active listening at the University of Washington.

He took 100 newlywed couples and videotaped them as they chatted for 15 minutes about a topic of ongoing disagreement. He followed these couples for six years.

It turns out hardly anyone engaged in active listening and it’s too difficult for most people to perform the “emotional gynmastics” required for active listening. They were shocked to discover that active listening was unrelated to marital bliss.

They went on to study tapes from another study that tracked married couples for 13 years and reached the same conclusions about active listening.

So if active listening doesn’t work, what does?

The Gottman study reveals that people in long term, happy heterosexual relationships exhibit a very particular pattern in times of conflict:

The female usually raises a difficult issue, presents an analysis of the problem, and suggests some possible solutions.

Males who are able to accept some of these ideas, and therefore show a sense of power sharing with their partner, are far more likely to maintain a successful relationship.

In contrast, couples in which the males react by stonewalling, or even showing contempt, are especially likely to break up.

So the Vicki the Biker approach to conflict really is the right one! Woo hoo! :)


Have I ever mentioned how I hate conflict?

Because of that I’ve dragged my feet on writing this post. But no primer on marriage – and no discussion of U2’s music – can avoid that dreaded topic for very long.

I think most married people probably go through a divorce valley at some point in their marriage.

The valley being where the shadow of divorce looms and you dare to let yourself wonder if you made a fatal mistake in getting married to your spouse.

Maybe that valley only lasts for an afternoon or a week. For others it might last for several months or even years.

It’s a wonder anyone emerges from a divorce valley with an intact marriage.

Bono says:

People are desperately trying to hold onto each other in a time when that’s very difficult. Looking around, you see how unprepared for it all people are, and the deals they make. I think there’s very few people writing about this, really.

There are a number of U2 songs about conflict (With Or Without You, Love Is Blindness, Until the End of the World), but if I had to chose one, it would be So Cruel from the Achtung Baby album. It’s written from the perspective of a man who has been rejected by his lover but remains in love with, and tormented by, her.

The song is very dark and bitter and is about infidelity. U2’s guitarist The Edge was going through a divorce during this making of this album and some of that is in this song.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from divorce valleys, it’s that you have to, at some point, show your raw pain. This song does just that and makes for a perfect soundtrack for a divorce valley. Here are the lyrics:

We crossed the line
Who pushed who over?
It doesn’t matter to you
It matters to me
We’re cut adrift
We’re still floating
I’m only hanging on
To watch you go down
My love

I disappeared in you
You disappeared from me
I gave you everything you ever wanted
It wasn’t what you wanted

The men who love you, you hate the most
They pass right through you like a ghost
They look for you, but your spirit is in the air
Baby, you’re nowhere

You say in love there are no rules
You’re so cruel

Desperation is a tender trap
It gets you every time
You put your lips to her lips
To stop the lie

Her skin is pale like God’s only dove
Screams like an angel for your love
Then she makes you watch her from above
And you need her like a drug

You say in love there are no rules
You’re so cruel

She wears my love like a see-through dress
Her lips say one thing
Her movements something else
Oh love, like a screaming flower
Love…dying every hour…love

You don’t know if it’s fear or desire
Danger the drug that takes you higher
Head in heaven, fingers in the mire

Her heart is racing, you can’t keep up
The night is bleeding like a cut
Between the horses of love and lust
We are trampled underfoot

Oh…love… You say in love there are no rules
You’re so cruel

To stay with you I’d be a fool
You’re so cruel

To hear what this pain sounds like in the form of a guitar solo, go to the 3:15 mark in the song Love Is Blindness and listen until the end of the song. It’s as if The Edge is pouring out all his sadness about his divorce into that solo. Bono describes it as “a more eloquent prayer than anything I could say.”

It would be too depressing if this was always the final word, however. Sometimes love does leave “a window in the skies.” My next post will be about that.


Fun Friday: The Vicki the Biker Approach to Conflict

Vicki the Biker’s approach to conflict resolution and creating inciting incidents works for me. ;)

Rose Is Rose