Updated: Oct 8, 2021
What has been on my mind the last week or so is marriage.
A couple of weeks ago the actor Will Smith made headlines when he made a comment about his marriage in an interview with GQ. In that much-publicised interview, Smith talked about how he and his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith define their relationship their own way regardless of how unconventional it may seem to others. Telling GQ, “We have given each other trust and freedom, with the belief that everybody has to find their own way. And marriage for us can’t be a prison. And I don’t suggest this road for anybody. But the experiences that the freedoms we’ve given one another... and the unconditional support, to me, is the highest definition of love.”
If you know me, you know that I don't give much thought about someone's personal relationships, especially those involving celebrities. Not in a gossipy way anyway. I'm interested in how we grow within them and the impact they have. Even during my time as a journalist when I had my own talk show, I was never interested in a cheap soundbite or headline because frankly, relationships are complicated, being human is complicated, and it is so easy to take a headline or even a behaviour out of context. Even a conversation with a friend can't always put into context what goes on between two people.
Relationships, especially marriages, are multi-layered entities. They require a lot of attention, care, and understanding. They are difficult to define and no one outside of that entity can dictate how it should be or what it should look like. Films such as Marriage Story and the upcoming remake of Scenes from a Marriage (the original being the 1973 Ingmar Bergman film) show just how fragile those relationships can be, as described by Agnes Callard in The New Yorker.
As we see in those dramas, it doesn't necessarily take an emotional earthquake for a marriage to implode. Sometimes it's much more subtle. In her first interview in five years, singer Adele tells British Vogue about her decision to divorce her husband (and father to her son) saying, "It just wasn’t right for me any more. I didn’t want to end up like a lot of other people I knew. I wasn’t miserable miserable, but I would have been miserable had I not put myself first. But, yeah, nothing bad happened or anything like that.”
There is not always a straightforward formula as to why some marriages work and some don't. How to be married isn't something we are taught when we're young. Our earliest education on marriage is watching our parents and (sometimes) despite what we see we are urged to enter into this union because that is considered to be the "normal" next stage of adulthood. No matter how intelligent we are, we enter into this contract with fairytale expectations. And unless we understand ourselves deeply, that committed relationship can feel like an intense upheaval because no matter how happy we are, shit happens. Life happens. Emotional patterns emerge. It is at this point where we may see our spouse as a stranger and not the soulmate we thought we had.
I know for me, marriage has been the greatest teacher of patience, understanding, as well as a vehicle for personal growth while balancing that with my husband's growth too. The challenge is always to ensure that how we grow doesn't distance us from each other, rather we are, as the poet Khalil Gibrand describes it, two pillars holding up the temple.
It hasn't always been easy---far from it. While my husband and I have the same vision for our life together, the way we approach it at times, is different. There have been some difficult times in our marriage where frustration and loneliness have been our intrusive neighbours constantly knocking on our door. Marriage is a place where not only does your partner become your solace and shelter but they can also be the person who has the innate ability to pick at scars exposing vulnerabilities and insecurities, throwing you out into an emotional storm. As Callard writes, "Marriages are enclosed by an opaque shell; we don’t tend to talk, publicly, about how they reverberate with the buzz of disconnection." But that, marriage therapists would say, can be part of the process of understanding who we are individually and as a couple. After all, we choose our partners for the reasons that go beyond suitability as seen by social standards.
Sometimes disagreements never get a resolution, they remain drifting in the ether or swept under that heavy rug. And as time goes by, we see those specks of dust peaking out threatening to scatter over our carefully laid life. I grew up surrounded by the mess, that dust clouding over my innocence and I vowed that I never wanted to repeat that existence if I was ever lucky enough to have a family of my own. It was the same for my husband. In fact that was what we promised each other when we got engaged. That our home would be a sanctuary. It doesn't always feel that way but for the most part it is. And it is so because we are hyper conscious of giving our son a home where he never feels the earth fall away from him.
We want our son to learn how to relate to another person by what he sees in how we relate to each other. It's as Rachel Cusk writes in Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, “One is formed by what one’s parents say and do; and one is formed by what one’s parents are." We show our boy that it is normal to disagree, even have an argument, but the key is how we argue and how we resolve those disagreements. Not easy for someone who can be passive aggressive (that would be me). Sometimes we get it wrong, after all, we're human--fallible and still learning to unpack our own baggage.
Everything we do is with our son in mind. We want our son to have a solid foundation as a person so that when life's challenges come his way, and they will, he will have a sense of security from within to navigate his way through them. It becomes part of his story from which other threads will emerge; he will have a freedom to explore what else this life wants to teach him without being weighted by all that weighed us down whether it was familial tensions, cultural angst and even societal expectations. He will be able to carve out his own way without being led by generational pains.
Adele is acutely aware of how decisions made can affect her son. She describes how her upcoming album is the culmination of emotions poured into music, emotions that are, what she would describe, as her explanation to her son as to why she divorced his father saying, "I just felt like I wanted to explain to him, through this record, when he’s in his twenties or thirties, who I am and why I voluntarily chose to dismantle his entire life in the pursuit of my own happiness. It made him really unhappy sometimes. And that’s a real wound for me that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to heal.”
We often forget that marriage, relationships, are (usually) about two individuals, each one having their own backstory, their own baggage, brought together with a desire to build a safe space together, a space where that baggage is protected and unpacked in a healthy way. For me, what was most compelling in that interview with Will Smith was a story about man whose deepest desire is to grow, to continually grow and learn. He acknowledges that he is the product of his parents and his environment--for better or worse, but has developed a compassion for his parents and his past because he has taken the time to understand the origins of their pain. He tells GQ, “My father tormented me. And he was also one of the greatest men I’ve ever known...He was one of the greatest blessings of my life and also one of my greatest sources of pain.”
One thing I do feel is that marriage for me means I belong to a team whereas before I was a party of one. On a deeper level, for me marriage is also an exploration into the human condition in all its complicated and courageous glory.
“To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow - this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage