Saturday, December 17, 2011

Through a Portal in Time

In my last post, I noted the suggestion made by some to have marriage licenses with certain terms, wherein couples would need to renew their marriage licenses periodically. While this is not yet the law anywhere as far as I know, it is functionally the type of committed romantic relationship many people have these days. Most people want to marry and most people will. But ever greater, large numbers of couples will not marry but will live together and raise a family together, before or without marriage. Perhaps unknown between the partners, each may be periodically be re-making their commitment to the other, internally. There are some people who believe this is the way it should be, even at an almost day-to-day level. To some, it’s a romantic ideal that means each partner is there again, each new day, because he or she chose to be. “I’m here with you and you with me, and we can both see from this that we love and live on together.”

That process, or something like it, is part of marriage as well other relationships. Periodically, people committed to any person, project, or thing will internally reset their sense of commitment—especially if the path taken has included challenging times. I mean, by that, gut check times where you may need to remind yourself that “I committed to this and I believe in this, and I’m going to give it my best.” Unless you have a perfectly blissful union (married or not), and you’ve had no significant challenges, you understand this dynamic. It’s part of what actually builds meaningful, lasting love in a world where relationships are made up of imperfect people.

What does the word “portal” means to you. Perhaps you think of a walking through a tunnel. Maybe you imagine walking through a field-level tunnel of a stadium, like you see in big football games sometimes, emerging into the light of the stadium, and to the cheers of the crowd. Perhaps you are a sci-fi fan, and you think about change-in-place portals (Beam me up, Scottie) or change-in-time portals (H. G. Wells’ time machine). I’m focusing here on change-in-me portals.

Whatever comes to your mind, portals have this characteristic: They are a way of transitioning from one place to another. In some instances, they are the actual pathway and in some instances they are, metaphorically, the pathway. A wedding is a metaphorical portal into a new life.

While we (our research team) do not have quantitative data on this, we have heard numerous cohabiters who are marrying comment that they are not quite sure what they are going to do to make the transition more of a, well, transition. Those that espouse this want the change from not-married to married to be really clear but it ends up feeling sort of blurry. I wish I could tell you how many people struggle with this and what most who do end up doing about it. Maybe I’ll have that data in the future. Of course, there are, I am sure, a great many others who do not worry about this.

I think many people, though, deeply desire for major life transitions to be actually transformative. They want what goes into the portal to come out the other end something different; something fuller and richer and more founded.

How does this concept apply to the renewable marriage license idea? The renewable marriage license idea fairly screams out that there is not anything like a permanent transition going on. I like to be very realistic, and I know that the transition into marriage is very much not a permanent transition for many. Many will be transitioning out of that marriage one day. Some, like Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, transition out in a matter of days. But, I’ll also say this. Because of the nature of commitment, the sense that it is intended to be permanent is really where a lot of the power lies in going through the portal into marriage.

Slowly but steadily, particularly among those who do not graduate from college, marriage is disappearing. Sometimes that is partly because of a diminished sense that marriage matters. Sometimes it’s because of a difficulty in achieving the conditions one feels are necessary to make a marriage work; for example, having a job.

Back to the main point. I believe that the reason why wedding rituals are common around the world (even if weakening today) is that they function as portals through which two people enter and two people exit, but different from when they entered. Two separate identities enter the portal and three identities come out the other side—you, me, and us. Psychologically, this transformation may have happened far earlier, or for some, it happens most powerfully because of the ritual of a wedding. For others, there is no big ritual to see but something happens inside, maybe along the way to the justice of the peace. Let me amplify that a moment. I’ve heard some people say their transition into marriage was more special and meaningful because of wedding with all the rituals. I’ve heard others, however, say that the very reason going to a justice of the peace was most meaningful was because they avoided all the stress and pomp of the wedding industry. And, just to be clear, I am sure there are couples where the inner transition happens and they never marry or do not marry for a long time to come. But I also think that the whole idea of marriage—and all the ways it happens—is really founded on making the inward change an outward act.

For some, there is no transformation with whatever transition is happening. (That’s close to one of the core applications of the principle of sliding versus deciding.) In some instances—maybe in a lot of instances these days—one or both partner avoid anything like a portal taking them from one place to another because one or both know that they are not interested in a life altering transition—at least not with this partner. Maybe the transitional object of their desire will come along in the future.

The nature of major commitments in life is to be transformative. I don’t mean magical, but I do mean symbolic of the inner process of becoming something more than two. So, in the case of love of this sort in life, the deepest desire many have is for transformation that adds something. In contrast, think about a meat grinder. It’s a transition alright, and things do change from going in one end to coming out the other. But what comes out is also nothing more and nothing less than what went in, albeit in a different looking form.

Next time, some more thoughts focused on the nature of rituals and transformation.