The median age of my fellow recruits at marriage boot camp (i.e. our church’s required premarital preparation retreat) met the threshold of Missouri’s legal drinking age—21–but not the minimum required age to run for Congress–25. At the late bloomer age of 34, I must have struck my fellow Plebes as something of an oddity…like maybe even older than the drill instructors that ran the camp. By the end of our thirty-two hours of training, Lisa and I had noticed a recurring pattern during the informal moments with the younger recruits. Somewhere in the midst of any given interchange, one or the other of the spouses-to-be would smile, or blush, or demurely observe, “We’re always doing that! We finish each other’s sentences! And even if we don’t say it out loud, we still both know that we’re reading each other’s minds!” “Does that happen to you guys?” At this point in each of our conversations, a parade of snarky responses tantalized my imagination before my gracious fiancé would pre-emptively observe, “You two are so much alike!” How was Lisa to know that one of the necessary skills she would develop from marriage boot camp was the automatic response of the subtle kick under the table, or the knowing glance that oh-so-charmingly communicated, “TOM! ZIP IT!”
Back in 1994, I had already had enough graduate school to know what projective identification was. In a nutshell, I understood it to mean that human beings are capable of an exquisite level of attunement to one another. In the experience of love, each of us sends subtle unconscious messages about who and what we want our beloved to be. Because human beings are exquisitely perceptive creatures, our partner unconsciously picks up on those projected images, and subtly begins to follow them like an actor following a script. Over time we can begin to mistake our projections of one another for the reality of one another.
Armed with this knowledge at my 1994 boot camp, I wasn’t about to admit that I could fall prey to the fantasies of infatuation that Lisa and I observed in our younger boot camp peers. I might have been willing to admit that Lisa and I could finish each other’s sandwiches, but not each other’s sentences. Then marriage happened. Despite having a Ph.D. in this stuff, I gradually came to learn that nothing can provide 100% immunity from constructing the world (including a spouse) in my own image and likeness according to my own wants and needs. Furthermore, what is true in romantic relationships appears to be true in all relationships…even with the Sacred.
As far back as the 14th century, John of the Cross noted the necessity of a periodic process of letting go of previous understandings and images of the Sacred to make space for more realistic reformulations of the Divine. This necessary experience of “The Dark Night of the Soul” is painful because letting go of who we once thought God to be (e.g. the guarantor of health, or financial prosperity, or good feelings, or certitude) can feel like the loss of God itself! The tendency is to want to reproduce the outdated images and threadbare experiences that used to be so warm and comforting. In marriage counseling I frequently hear couples going through a very similar process. Like the “Righteous Brother’s 1960’s song, they want to “Bring Back That Loving Feeling,” from their early relationship. A skilled therapist must let them know that a return to the familiar past feelings will short circuit the new creation that is trying desperately to emerge in this painful moment.
A twenty minute meditation-time may feel impossibly dry and even meaningless during a spiritual wayfarer’s times of disillusionment when the God she had been listening to appears to have split. Staying put with this discipline of meditation, according to spiritual masters like Theresa of Avila, or John of the Cross, allows one to stay available for the possibility of a more subtle, but more profound experience of Holy Mystery.
Many years ago, Lisa and I decided to put together a spiritual discipline for our marriage. Each weekend, we carve out a date on either Saturday, or Sunday morning. During this hour-and-a-half ritual, we try to reconnect with each other as we enjoy our morning coffee. It is such an undramatic no-frills discipline for us. But like the mystic’s meditation time, it provides a framework that can endure the necessary periods of disillusionment in our relationship. Rather than chasing some past feeling, or former construction of one another, we try to meet realistically in the current time zone, for the possibility of something new.
What is your equivalent of a monk’s meditation time, or a spouse’s weekly coffee? What is the invariant structure that you fold into your days and weeks that can allow for the creative destruction of your wishful projections? What is your framework that allow for the creative reformulation of a realistic relationship to what and whom you love?