Your Other Marriage Vows
The dark alley handshake present in every marriage and how to get out of it
“Couples choose each other with an unerring instinct for finding the very person who will exactly match their own level of unconscious anxieties and mirror their own dysfunctions and who will trigger for them all their unresolved emotional pain.” Gabor Mate
Behind every church is a dark alley where the bride and groom sneak to before their wedding ceremony. If you’re married you went there too, but you probably don’t remember it. No, it’s not to sneak a kiss. There, under duress you shook hands, the kind that signals a hasty and shady deal. Sure, it looks like a drug deal or organized crime, but it’s nothing of the sort. The bride and groom are here to perform their unholy vows.
Author Robert Bly thinks it happens in the basement.
“While the bride and groom stand in front of the minister exchanging rings, another important exchange takes place in the basement… but it will take awhile for it to show up, because neither the bride… nor the groom is aware of the second ceremony.” Robert Bly
Where I grew up, the church basement was a place for potlucks or pancake breakfasts or kids choir, not illicit deals (as far as I know). Bastement…alley… whatever. This is all just a metaphor anyway. But the truth is not.
Every marriage has them, these unholy vows—the unknowing agreement you make to enable each other to stay stuck and not grow up. Again, you didn’t know you were doing this. It’s all subconscious or “instinct” as Gabor Mate says. Bly calls it projection, a fancy word for how we see in others what we haven’t faced within ourselves. Others just call it codependency which never quite works as a word for how it makes depending on each other sound bad. I’d call it enmeshment, merger, entanglement, or simply the act of getting lost in each other.
Call it what you want. Couples have a way of relating to each other that both draws out each others’ core wounds and the immature ways we handled those wounds. To be clear, abuse in marriage is a real thing. Sometimes you are not just projecting and your spouse is the villain you think they are. But I dare say, more often than not, it's something in you that needs to be faced down first.
Evan hates being accountable to the budget. He feels it keeps him from being spontaneous, which in reality means he actually just fears money. Well actually, he fears his wife’s opinion of how much money he makes, convinced she looks down on him for not matching the success of his father. He’s always lived in the shadow of his father—not the love, but the absent shadow.
Sara gets so angry at Evan’s spontaneous budget crushing purchases. And of course she does. His actions are immature and literally costly. A new set of tools today, an iPad just because, even once a new fishing boat without her consent. But she is terrified of not being enough to move him to change. Maybe he won’t care and ignore her, like her parents who always seemed bored with her. So instead of really confronting him, she just blows up in a rage, insults him, and then ices him out for a few days.
Hear the spit shake? Evan stood in that proverbial alley way and said, “Okay, here’s the deal. How about I blow it with money and you treat me like a kid? That way I never have to really find out if I’m a better man than my dad” And Sara stuck out her hand and said, “Okay, fine, as long as I get to blow up in anger and never find out if my parents were wrong and I’m worth respect.” It’s an awful cycle where no one really gets honored and no one grows. And its all designed to avoid risk and exposure. Like Adam and Eve crouching in the bushes, they agreed to keep each other covered.
In other words, deeper than he may know, Evan is saying, “Don’t ever really believe in me or expect much from me. Treat me like a boy who needs a scolding instead of a man that is capable of caring for your heart. Roll your eyes instead of shedding your tears. And I never have to face my inadequacy and my father wound.”
And Sara’s heart is battling, “Keep slinking away like a scolded boy when I’m the tyrant, because I don’t know what I’d do if you actually cared about my anger or stayed tender with me or apologized to me like I mattered to you. I don’t know what I would do if you wanted my heart.”
No one knows they're making these handshake agreements. No one enters marriage hoping to keep their heart guarded. We come hoping to love and be loved—every part of us from tippy toes on up. And our sacred vows, done at the center of the church, reflect this beautiful story of love. We want all of us loved, especially the unloved places within us. And that’s not a bad hope. True love seeks to love more and more. It seeks out the unknown or lost places. Marriage is meant to heal us, yes. But the way we invite our partner to love you matters a whole lot.
So how do you get out of the handshake vows that keep you both from growing? I’ll warn you, it’s messy and may feel like things get worse at first. But it is entirely doable.
And it starts with confronting yourself with curiosity. We have to ask ourselves where does my story show up in my marriage fights? Where does it feel like my spouse is wounding me like my past? Where do I bring wounds unaware to my partner? What nerves keep getting poked? Your story will show up in your marriage. You cannot stop this. Every part of us wants in on the chance for love.
Once you recognize where your story might be showing up, pour yourself a stiff cup of coffee and then ask this: Where do you act like a child—or teenager or even infant—in your marriage? How do you cope when you don’t feel loved by your partner? Be very curious about the age because it’s probably accurate to the age you learned that way of coping, a further clue into your story. But it’s time to outgrow that young way of handling pain. You have more power and more options now than you did as a kid. So it's time to grow braver coping strategies.
Try to name your handshakes together as a couple. Sounds like a great date night, right? What’s the fight you have over and over and always seem stuck in? It’s a dance you hate but keep spinning one more time. It took a lot of years for my wife and I to get really brave with our desire for each other. We danced the dark alley tango for far too long. And then I started to notice my withdrawal was that of a petulant teenager. And my wife started to get more direct about her pain from it (because she began to own her passive aggression). We both broke the unholy vow.
Your partners actions are not personal. Yes, they have personal impact on you. But they aren’t because of you. It may cause you pain, but it is not your shame. You need to let your partner rise or fall on their own actions. We must find a way to honor the impact of how our spouse treats us without letting it become a statement about us. That will help us do the next part.
We outgrow our handshakes by getting more honest and more brave with desire. In the words of KJ Ramsey, “Courage belongs not to the brave but to those whose desire for love outweighs their wish to avoid being wounded.” When it comes to confronting your partner, I think it's always best to confront them with your vulnerable desire (a form of “speaking the truth in love”). If you bring defense, you only hear defense. But the more you bring desire, the more you’ll hear your partner’s desires too. Sharing things as “I want” versus “You are” turns confrontation into invitation. It invites growth for both of you.
Marriage is a wild path to helping each other grow up. We can avoid our inner insecurities and wounds and try to keep love shallow or we can lean into love’s risk and find marriage to be a beautiful place to grow up.
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