I’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.