‘I’ becomes ‘we’ after the marriage vows

Comment: My wife and I have been married 57 years. Of course, we have had our differences. My wife’s value of loyalty to relatives and friends is so strong that (she is without compromise), and she has expected me to be as loyal to her even if I believe she is absolutely wrong.

Recently, I realized I (cannot compromise) my value in personal freedom to follow dreams. When I realized I was just as unreasonable in giving up my value, I now accept the same for her. I began to believe that most people probably have at least one value that to them is sacrosanct. We may believe that the value is such a big part of our identity that giving it up would mean the death of our identity. — W.D., Las Vegas

Response: You write, sir, about the single greatest tightrope walk in marriage. A balancing act on a razor blade. The most paradoxical paradox. You write about the relationship between “I” and “we.”

On the one hand, emotionally committed relationships such as marriage are a decision to shape and nurture one’s primary identity out of the “we.” Of course, we are still individuals. But marriage vows can be thought of as the day I decided to more or less permanently subordinate the “I” to the “we.” It’s not about me anymore. It’s about us.

This is why, long about the second year of a marriage, a young husband in my office is likely to sound more like a petulant adolescent than a husband. “Why should I have to tell her what I’m doing and who I’m with and when I’m coming home?” he demands. I try to break it to him gently: “Uh, ’cause you’re married?”

To honor the “we” means accountability. Our spouse does have a claim on our lives, our whereabouts, our circle of friends, our activities. It doesn’t mean you have to share or agree on all those friends and activities necessarily. It’s just that trying to maintain a concealed or private life within the context of a marriage commitment is mostly a contradiction in terms.

W.D, you give me two examples: your wife’s uncompromising loyalty to friends and family, and your single-minded need to be supported in following your dreams. If I read you right, you two decided to honor the “we,” in this case, by mutually and reciprocally respecting the “I.” May I take this to mean that she at minimum no longer impedes your dreams and you at minimum stay out from between her filial relationships, even if you think she’s walking the plank?

Well, that is one way to resolve the dilemma. Good for you … I guess.

But here’s why I’m uneasy: There is no way to practice an uncompromising loyalty to family and friends without at some point subordinating loyalty to the marriage. To be married is to decide that our loyalties are forever organized in a hierarchy at the top of which is a radical fiduciary commitment to the mate, yes? The Jews recognized this 2,500 years ago when they wrote regarding marriage and sex, “A man shall leave his mother, and a woman shall leave her home …”

When a spouse says to me, “Why should I have to choose between my mate and spending every other weekend and two nights a week at my mom’s?” I try to break it to her gently: “Uh, ’cause you’re married?”

There is no way to practice an uncompromising commitment to follow personal dreams without subordinating loyalty to the marriage. If you do, it would sooner or later reveal a fiduciary commitment first to dreams, and second to the marriage. Great marriages frequently interrupt, impede, even sometimes thwart our dreams precisely because great marriages demand our radical fiduciary commitment. Husbands and wives often have to take turns pursuing dreams.

There is no dilemma more painful than being asked to choose between a marriage and our integrity. However, the trick is to distinguish between what is really my integrity and what might be my ego-resistance to radical accountability. The latter might feel like a challenge to integrity. But it might just be a challenge to my egocentricity.

The human ego is a rebel without a cause.

Do all married people have at least one value that is sacrosanct? Yep. But marriage is sacrosanct, too. Therein lies the rub.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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