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Marriage for Grownups

It was a funny wedding. Several guests got locked in the bathroom. My brother-in-law picked a fight with the wedding manager. And while we were getting ready to leave, someone made off with the leftovers, including a whole 10 lb. salmon, roasted with dill sauce.

What I remember most, however, was the reading. When my wife, Barbara, and I were planning the wedding, the only thing I insisted on was that the minister read a passage from Rainer Maria Rilke's  "Letters to a Young Poet" in the ceremony. I was 35 years old at the time and something about Rilke's perspective on marriage as an act of self-discovery gave me solace as I prepared to leap into the unknown. For  Rilke, love was not about merging, giving over and uniting with another, but "a high inducement for individuals to ripen, to become something in themselves, to become world in themselves for another's sake."

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Here's the key passage: "Above all, marriage is a new task and a new seriousness-a new challenge to and questioning of the strength and generosity of each partner and a great new danger for both. It is a question in marriage not of creating quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his or her solitude."

Barbara, who had already been through one less-than-successful marriage, was far less sentimental about the institution than I was. But she went along. And though she loves to make fun of my obsession with Rilke, even she will admit, when pressed, that one of the main reasons our marriage has been so strong for the past 27 years is that--whether intentionally or not--we've followed the great poet's advice.

This idea resurfaced a few weeks ago when I was interviewing  Harville Hendrix for the "Five Weeks to a New Life" series. Hendrix is one of the nation's leading authorities on marriage. During our interview, he said that the key to eliminating negativity from your relationship is to cultivate genuine curiosity about your spouse-not your projection, but the real person.

That sounds like Rilke, I said, and that prompted him to tell the story of how he arrived at his theory. Several years ago, his marriage to his second wife, Helen, also an expert in the field, was in trouble. Rather than give up on each other, though, they decided to take one more stab at revitalizing their marriage by studying successful couples and applying what they learned to their own relationship.

The secret, they discovered, was looking at each other with new eyes. "When you realize that the other person is not your projection, it's an enormous relief," Harville said. "We were each plumbing the mind of a person that we'd made up. Once we let go of that idea, we found that we were actually living with a fascinating human being. It's a paradox: the more solitary we allow each other to be the better the connection between us."


This reminded me of a moment back in April when Barbara and I were watching the Bishop of London deliver  the sermon at Will and Kate's royal wedding. Given the circumstances, it was a remarkably engaging talk about the psychology of marriage.

"Faithful and committed relationships" he said, "offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this; the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life."

At which point, Barbara turned to me and said, with a wry smile, "Look out: Here comes Rilke."

What do you think? Join the conversation and share with us quotes on love and marriage that have inspired you.


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