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Marriage isn’t the only relationship for wholeness

I’ve been reading your columns and blogs. (You answered) a recent question about the work of Harville Hendrix. I picked up a copy of the book he authored, "Keeping the Love You Find," and while I find much of the material very useful in identifying the unconscious expectations that we have/or have had of our partners to fill the unmet needs and heal wounds inflicted from our childhood caretakers, I question his view that marriage is a precondition necessary "to feel whole, to feel fully alive, fully human, and to heal the wounds of childhood, we’ve gotta have it."

He further states that singles who embark on the process he outlines will be limited to "preparation" for committed relationships/marriage: "You can begin the process of becoming whole while you are single, but you cannot fully heal your wounds or fully recover your wholeness without a partner."

Is there an alternative view that incorporates his insights and exercises that allows for "self-validation?" Do you agree with his suggestion that people who are single or whose partners refuse to participate in the process are limited in their growth and healing potential? Do we all really need a committed partner in order to be "whole and complete?" Inquiring minds wish to know. — B.T., Chicago

It’s a reasonable criticism of Hendrix that he overstates his case. Surely it can’t be true or even logical that the only path to being a whole and complete human being is to be a married human being. Back Hendrix into a corner on this, and I’m betting he’d agree.

Marriage is a vocation. A calling. And not everyone is called to the work of marriage. Some people shouldn’t marry — not because something is wrong with them but because they aren’t called to marriage. Just not their path. Because of the accidents of life — disability, war, consuming vocation, etc. — some people never find a life partner. Other people fail in marriage, some more than once, and find themselves alone at the end of life. I would never say to any of these people that the status of being single must of necessity preclude the possibility of wholeness.

Yet …

I am even more suspicious of the modern idea of "self-validation," as you say, though the idea has immense popularity, even and especially in my industry. "You are fine alone," therapists often say to patients. Or, "You have to learn to be OK alone."

The ironic contradiction of this encouragement is that it is a message conveyed in relationship! That is, the therapeutic relationship. The patient’s decision to be in therapy was, in part, a decision not to be alone, to be connected to another human being in a relationship of regard, trust and faithfulness. Do you see the irony?

Here’s where I won’t budge: There is no legitimate curriculum for human wholeness that does not include throwing oneself headlong into committed relationships. None. If you think you can move to an isolated cabin on a high mountain for 30 years, validate yourself and come back "whole," I’d say you had another thing coming.

This is not to say that marriage is the only committed relationship that can facilitate human wholeness. A person called to the monastic life, for example, attaches himself in radical commitment to the community and its hierarchy. Here the monk/nun is confronted by relationship — God, his/her superior, peers, mission to the wider community — to the end that the individual is confronted and moved toward relatedness, and therefore toward wholeness.

Yes, I can and must be willing to grow my selfhood alone. And yes, I can make significant progress alone. But no one can complete the journey alone. One of the chief evidences that we are making progress will be our growing hunger to attach our newfound wholeness to committed relationships — be they friendships, family, community, mission, a spouse or my Maker.

I would say that marriage is a uniquely intense, rigorous petri dish for growing, promoting, even demanding movement to wholeness. If you take your marriage vows seriously, it’s certainly the fast track. Some days a sublime, tender invitation. Other days like being chunked back and forth in an industrial washing machine. But it would be wrong to say marriage is the only petri dish.

I am, in fact, not "fine" alone. I’m fine enough. But don’t ever confuse that with fine. I am just like you. Just like everyone. I was created for relationship.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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