I know what you are thinking — that wacky therapist has gone too far this time in his effort to come up with a catchy little title to his article. Marriage is purgatory??? That doesn’t exactly sound very romantic, does it? Well, let me explain. Although my particular theological persuasion does not in any way embrace the concept of an actual spiritual destination called purgatory, my understanding of this belief is that it is basically an unhappy place where flawed souls go to pay for their sins and to work towards perhaps someday getting through the pearly gates where joy, intimacy, acceptance and love abide. There you have it; that is exactly what marriage is. Let me break this down for you piece by piece.
#1 “It is basically an unhappy place.” Building a truly happy and mature marriage is difficult and painstaking work. Most couples experience a blissful, love-filled initial stage of their relationship that I call the “enmeshment” stage. There are few fights, if any, the sexual chemistry is hot and is very easy to maintain, and even people who were never previously given to deep emotional sharing sessions all of a sudden are intimacy all-pros with their newfound soul mates. The problem with the enmeshment stage is that it never, I mean never, ever lasts. Time, professional demands, mortgage payments, diapers that need changing, grass that needs cutting, homework that needs monitoring, aging, bald heads and expanded waist or hip sizes have a way of eating away at love’s zealous first bloom. My wife and I often say the following words as we exhaustedly face task after family task, “It sure takes a lot of work to maintain a family.” More damaging to a marriage’s romantic lifeblood even than all the many pressures of life is the inability to have good, clean, intense, and robust and sometimes ugly fights which eventually result in adjusted attitudes, improved communication and warm fuzzy reconnections followed by spirited lovemaking sessions. At my recent 25th high school reunion I was sitting at a table where several of the men were lamenting our downtrodden economy’s effect on their businesses. To that I responded, not intending to sound grandiose, that the business of marital therapy was absolutely booming and was, as far as I could tell, completely recession proof. The bliss just does not last. After anywhere from 1 to 4 years of marriage, the majority of couples are struggling with unmet expectations, major unresolved conflicts, hurt feelings and an ominous, growing sense of distance in the relationship.
#2 “Purgatory is a place where flawed souls go to pay for their sins.” Our theoretical approach here at Family Tree is based on an Old Testament scripture that reads, “The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children, and the children’s children, even to the third and fourth generation.” Very few people grow up in exceptionally healthy families. People have issues! Anyone who has ever been in a relationship has been in therapy, even if they have never considered darkening the door of a therapist’s office. Marriage is a place that we all go to work on our issues-to fight our demons, to face the combined effect of the sins of our forefathers on our imperfect personalities. By far, Family Tree’s most central and most important tenant is that marriage has been designed by God to give us an opportunity to heal the wounds that came as a result of our childhood experiences. God designed us to be strongly attracted only to individuals who, unbeknownst to us, basically represent the best and very worst qualities of our parents. Marriage is the best and most common battlefield in which most people have an opportunity to finally come to grips with their issues with their parents. A woman who grew up with a distant workaholic father will struggle to have a voice with her now workaholic husband. A man with disconnected, distant and under-nurturing parents will naturally be highly attracted to the mysterious, quiet and intriguingly distant new woman at work. Then he will work hard at attempting to connect with her — at finally gaining attention, praise, acceptance and nurturing from an individual who is supposed to love him, as his parents were supposed to love him. Marriage is the perfect place for flawed souls to pay for their sins, or to work at resolving the emotional baggage that comes with being a product of their particular normal American dysfunctional family.
#3 “Marriage is the natural place to work towards perhaps someday getting through the pearly gates (of relational heaven) where joy, intimacy, acceptance and love abide.” That is what marriage is; it is an opportunity to resolve past issues, forge a new and healthier self and then finally consistently taste the fruits of a solid interdependent marriage-deep intimacy, true acceptance even with the damning evidence of all of your many imperfections, a deep and lifelong love and a quiet and sustaining joy over the richness and many blessings that life offers us all. Unfortunately, for most people, marriage also represents a very real opportunity to sink into relationship hell, which is filled with bitterness, hate, divorce, lawyers, broken hearts, rage, addiction, betrayal and the like. A marriage is an opportunity to go either way-either through hard work, proactivity, insight, therapy, faith and forbearance to scale the heights of a true and mature lifelong partnership and love affair or through a lack of insight into one’s own issues, a victim mentality, a lack of commitment, an avoidance of therapy, and a lack of faith, descending into the pits of bitter, cold, emotionally cut off relational hell. The choice is yours. Most people can’t do this work without an expert guide to help them along the journey.
Mark E. Smith, LCSW