A marriage, or a marriage partner, may be compared to a great tree growing right up through the center of one’s living room. It is just there, and it is huge, and everything has been built around it, and wherever one happens to be going––to the fridge, to bed, to the bathroom, or out the front door––the tree has to be taken into account. It cannot be gone through; it must respectfully be gone around. It is somehow bigger and stronger than oneself. True, it could be chopped down, but not without tearing the house apart. And certainly it is beautiful, unique, exotic; but also, let’s face it, it is at times an enormous inconvenience.
Not everyone is as fond of solitude as I have been. And certainly not everyone has seriously entertained the notion of entering the cloister, only to find himself falling in love and getting married instead. But that is how marriage came to me. And marriage comes to everyone, I think, with something of the same surprise, the same reversal of fortunes, the same searching exposure of deep-seated conflict. Not only that, but whatever a person’s temperament or circumstances might be, the conflict which marriage uncovers is always essentially the same one: it is always some version of this tension between the needs for dependence and for independence, between the urge toward loving cooperation and the opposite urge toward detachment, privacy, self-sufficiency. Even to people who have dreamed for years of getting married and who think of themselves as hating to be alone, marriage still cannot help but come as an invasion of privacy. No one has ever been married without being surprised, and usually alarmed, at the sheer intensity of this invasion.
So I was alarmed. From the moment I met my wife I sensed that a process of interior disintegration was beginning to work in me, systematically, insidiously. In other ways, of course, I was being rejuvenated, tremendously built up. But a thirty-year-old man is like a densely populated city: nothing new can be built in its heart without something else being torn down. So I began to be demolished. There were many times when I felt quite seriously that everything my life had stood for was being challenged, or that somehow I had been tricked into selling my very soul for the sake of a woman’s love! In short, there was a lot at stake as the wedding day approached; in fact there was everything at stake. Never before had I felt that so much was riding upon one single decision. Later I would discover, very gradually, that this is one of the chief characteristics of love: it asks for everything. Not just for a little bit, or a whole lot, but for everything. And unless one is challenged to give everything, one is not really in love.
But how hard it is to give everything! Indeed it is impossible. One can make a symbolic gesture of giving all, accompanied by a grand dramatic public statement to that effect (which is what happens at the wedding ceremony). But this is just a start. The wedding is merely the beginning of a lifelong process of handing over absolutely everything, and not simply everything that one owns but everything that one is.
There is no one who is not broken by this process. It is excruciating and inexorable and no one can stand up to it. Everyone gets broken on the wheel of love, and the breaking that takes place is like nothing else under the sun. It is not like the breaking that happens in bankruptcy or in a crop failure or in the loss of a job or the collapse of a lifetime’s work. It is not even like the breaking of a body wracked by a painful disease. For in marriage the breaking that happens is done by the very heel of love itself. It is not physical pain or natural disaster or the terrible evil world “out there” that is to blame, but rather it is love, love itself that breaks us. And that is the hardest thing of all to take. For in the wrestling ring of life, love is our solar plexus. This is where things really hurt. No hurt is like the hurt that happens in the place where we love. And when anything at all goes wrong in a marriage, this is the place to be affected. This is the vulnerable spot, of course, in all human relationships; what is on the line, always, with every person we meet, is our capacity to love and to be loved. But whereas in most other relationships our vulnerability can be hidden, more or less (and how expert we are at hiding it!), in the relationship of marriage it is this very quality that is exposed, exalted, exploited. This is what makes marriage so arduous, so overwhelming that many give up and run away, their entire lives collapsing in ruins. But those who hang on also face inevitable ruin, for they too must be broken.
There is an important difference, however, between those who hang on and those who run away, between the marriages that last and are good, and the ones that either break up or else drag on in a state of unresolved tension and neurosis. Both must endure ruin, but the difference lies in the place in which ruin is experienced. For in those who run away from the intense fire of marriage, the ruin happens in the place in them which is love, and this place, this glorious and mysterious and delicate capacity, really does receive a terrible wound, often enough to impair the person for life. But in the case of those who hang on to love and who see it through to its mortal finish, the ruin that occurs, the internal debacle, is not in the place of love (though it may often seem to be happening there), but rather in the place, in the palace, of the ego. And that makes all the difference in the world. It is one thing to wreck the ego, but it is quite another, and indeed the very opposite, to make shipwreck of the soul.