Solitary Marriage by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonI’ve been married for most of my life.  Marriage, along with all our institutions, is influenced by and therefore takes shape from the culture/society in which it exists.  When I got married, I had certain expectations that I’d absorbed from my environment.  Attaining “marital bliss” by achieving an indistinguishable oneness with my spouse was part and parcel of it all.  Popular thought tells us that marriage (especially heterosexual marriage) brings about the completion of two individuals.  How often do we hear about people searching for, and sometimes finding, a person they label as their soulmate?  People seem to long for that one human being they think will make them happy.

I recently picked up Rainer Maria Rilke’s (Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist, 1875-1926) short book, LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET, and found his thoughts about marriage liberating.  A few months after he married Clara Westhoff he wrote, “I am of opinion that ‘marriage’ as such does not deserve so much emphasis as has fallen to it through the conventional development of its nature.  It never enters anyone’s mind to demand of an individual that he be ‘happy’,–but when a man marries, people are much astonished if he is not!”

Today, we consider it aberrant for anybody to be unhappy.  We expend great effort trying to discover and then apprehend whatever makes us happy.  I recently heard Dr. Phil (of TV fame) say, “You’re only as happy as your saddest child,” reflecting not just the assumption that of course we should be happy, but also reflecting the belief that our happiness is dependent on others.

Conventional wisdom tells us that one way to achieve that elusive goal–happiness–is through marriage.  We celebrate marriage with engagement luncheons/dinners, bridesmaids’ teas, bachelor/bachelorette parties, wedding rehearsal events, and lavish receptions.  Well-wishers often tell newly-engaged or newly-married couples, “Be happy.”  We give marriage the power to provide for us what it cannot.  And yet, we persist in the belief that it can deliver.

The following paragraph succinctly sums up Rilke’s understanding of marriage:

The aim of marriage, as I feel it, is not by means of demolition and overthrowing of all boundaries to create a hasty communion…a togetherness of two human beings is an impossibility and, where it does seem to exist, a limitation, a mutual compromise which robs one side or both sides of their fullest freedom and development.

But granted the consciousness that even between the closest people there persist infinite distances, a wonderful living side by side can arise for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of seeing one another in whole shape and before a great sky (Letters to a Young Poet, 63).

This “overthrowing of all boundaries” in order “to create a hasty communion” seems to be what so many yearn for as they search and search (in vain, I would say) for their soulmate.  I recently overheard a man proclaim the following sentiment about his marriage: “Since we’ve been together, we no longer talk about ‘I’.  It’s always ‘us’.”  It’s as though marriage demands there be a blending of one being into another, and our inability to differentiate between the beings becomes something to be lauded and celebrated.  How different is Rilke’s idea that each individual love “the expanse between them.”  Only by “guard[ing] the other’s solitude” is one able to marvel at the other’s uniqueness and enjoy one‘s “fullest freedom and development.”

I feel the need to insert some commentary here about the ever-popular Myers-Briggs Psychological Type test based on the work of Carl Jung–specifically regarding introversion and extraversion.

Myers-Briggs distinguishes between introversion and extraversion depending on how one becomes energized–through solitude or by interacting with people.  I’m convinced Rilke is talking about something more fundamental and essential than an individual’s psychological preference for being alone or in communion with people.  In one of his letters (1899-1902) he writes, “…love and friendship exists to give continually opportunity for solitude. The only real communions are those which interrupt rhythmically profound solitude.” (Italics mine.)  I believe he is saying that important and meaningful work gets accomplished through our interaction with the landscape of our deep self.  Only through that experience does our communion with other people become fruitful.

Rilke’s linguistic expression is appropriate for his epoch of history.  I’m often astonished when I read work that has been written a century (or more) ago containing ideas we believe to be modern and forward-thinking.  Even though one can easily stumble at the stilted (at times) translation of his work as well as his patriarchal grammatical constructions, I find that his liberating message comes through clearly.

Rilke writes,  “…perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversion [conventional gender constructions], will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbours, and will unite as human beings….”

He continues, “…one day…the woman…will no longer signify merely the opposite of masculinity, but something in itself, something which makes us think of no complement or limitation, but only of life and existence….”  I think this lofty assertion can readily flower by practicing Rilke’s idea to be guardians of each others’ solitude.  No pining for and running after your illusory soulmate.  No intertwining with another to the degree that the individual becomes obliterated.  Just whole in yourself, engaged with the world on your own terms.

We’ve a long way to go.  There’s a lot of pep-talk these days encouraging us to “be your own person.”  We struggle with how to effectively live out the meaning of that phrase given the particular constraints of our individual histories.  I do believe, though, that Rilke was onto something when he wrote, “…the good marriage is…one in which each appoints the other as guardian of his solitude.”  I also think this principle–giving each other space to develop and express one’s unique self–is applicable not just to marriage, but to any other relationship human beings can (and do) encounter.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Feminism, General, Literature, Marriage, Relationships

Tags: , , , , , ,

29 replies

  1. Just beautiful and so important.

    How many of us have spent years hoping and believing that the perfect marriage or partner will make us happy. siggghhhh.

    The next step is to begin celebrate our solitude (unique gifts) with or without a partner–because for those of us who are straight and feminist–there don’t seem to be enough “men like Rilke” to go around!


    • Thanks, Carol, for your reply. I agree with you that “men like Rilke” are rare. I would even go further and say that PEOPLE like Rilke are hard to come by. Enmeshment, I believe, is the term that many psychologists today use to describe families (especially) that seem unable to respect one’s personal boundaries, often leading to stunted autonomous development. Here’s to celebrating our solitude!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Enmeshment. That’s it. Now I’ll be doing some research. Thank you for this clarifying comment.. Wow. I may have just stumbled across the definition of my spouses family and the source of this style of marriage. I struggled greatly in the family for 30 years not quite sure why I didn’t want the “closeness” of the inlaws. Turned out there was nothing wrong with me. It was dysfunctional but because I met spouse so young I was included in the circle and didn’t recognize the issue until many years later when I saw it playing out on my own children… and then it had to be stopped. Thank you for this.


  2. Trust me, I couldn’t agree more.


  3. I read this recently, quoted from Virginia Woolf’s diary, and burst out laughing. Leonard of course refers to her husband —

    “I caused some slight argument with Leonard this morning by trying to cook my breakfast in bed. I believe, however, that the good sense of the proceeding will make it prevail; that is, if I can dispose of the eggshells.” (January 13, 1915)


    • Quite humorous! Thank you for your post. I wonder if Virginia Woolf was familiar with Rilke’s work.


      • Interesting question, on WooIf and Rilke, thanks Esther. Rilke was born in 1875 and Woolf in 1882, so they were certainly contemporaries. I put in a search for anything online where both names might come together, and I came up with this interesting quote on “Cezanne’s Apples.”

        “Rainer Maria Rilke and Virginia Woolf both expressed astonishment, the excitement of discovery, and a shock of recognition, upon first seeing the paintings of Paul Cézanne. While Rilke sought a poet’s language that would be the equivalent of Cézanne’s language of color, Woolf went in search of a fluidity of words to match the flowing intensity of the painter’s strokes.”


  4. I agree that this is very beautiful and very meaningful. I will take this idea of being a “guardian of each other’s solitude” with me for a long time. Thank you.


  5. Thank you for this beautiful post, Esther. I also have been married most of my life. (Got married at the age of 26, nascentwings!) The Rilke quote is the most beautiful and true thing I have ever read about marriage, what purpose it might serve, if it endures: “a wonderful living side by side can arise for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of seeing one another in whole shape and before a great sky.” Thank you!


  6. Rilke’s quote “…the good marriage is…one in which each appoints the other as guardian of his solitude” makes good sense to me! Having never been happily married and making the choice to spend the last twenty plus years alone has allowed me to develop a relationship with myself, one that I can now not do without – but this quote – though never personally experienced seems like such a profound truth. Thanks!


  7. I liked this a lot. I think the idea of finding one “soul mate” is MUCH too limiting. I want each and every thing I encounter in this world to be my soul mate, in the single, fleeting instance that I encounter it. To live from the deepest depths of love, wonder and beauty, is, to me, to encounter nothing that is not my soul mate. :)


  8. Thanks for this insightful post Ester. It awakes things in me


  9. I like that you closed out your post, thanks Esther, by saying: “I also think this principle–giving each other space to develop and express one’s unique self–is applicable not just to marriage, but to any other relationship human beings can (and do) encounter.”

    In 2012, one-in-five adults ages 25 and older (about 42 million people) had never been married, and that number is apparently rising.


  10. Touchingly true and a feast for further contemplation. Brava!


  11. I have often tried to give Rilke’s wise advice to young people about to be married, but the quotes fall flat..Perhaps one is not ready to receive this wisdom until one has been mired in the swamp a few times.



  1. Couldn’t Agree More! – nascentwings
  2. Solitary Marriage by Esther Nelson — – Welcome to the World of Ekasringa Avatar!

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