“My therapist and I have noticed something,” Jack said. It was Sunday morning, we were in bed. Somehow we had ended up in a lower-case t position, with me draped lengthwise across his chest. I would love to say that we collapsed into that after explosive sex, but it was probably more like, “My back hurts. Here, hold still, I need to use your massive rib cage to stretch.”
I am trying really hard these days not to bristle at the words “my therapist.” I wrote on our 7th anniversary about the upheaval Jack’s therapy has caused in our marriage. I’ve started reacting to the words “My therapist” like a lab rat expecting a jolt of electricity. Intellectually, I know our relationship is changing and that is necessary and good. But my heart, like cold silly putty, isn’t ready to stretch over all the new truths and paradoxes.
Relax your face, I told myself. Act as if you are open and curious and not terrified.
“Oh?” I responded, squeaking like a burst of air escaping a balloon. One syllable, and I couldn’t keep the strain out of my voice.
“Yes,” he said, ignoring my obvious tension. “She and I have both noticed that when I talk about you now, it’s with deep love and affection. I told her about how much I missed you when I was in Seattle last weekend, and how much I love and like you.”
This is the only thing I’ve been craving for months, these words. I love you. I missed you. I want you. Living without them has felt like running a marathon in the middle of a fast.
And Jack said them as soon as I stopped trying to elicit them. I hate paradoxes.
I couldn’t take his words in, at first. How you feel about me has nothing to do with me! I wanted to retort.
Of course, that’s not totally true. I’d estimate that I have influence over ten to thirteen percent of Jack’s feelings about me. Which leaves 87% of my husband’s ideas about me completely out of my control. Whether I act nice or mean, defensive or open, needy or secure, Jack’s internalized image of Christine has so, so little to do with Christine in the World.
It goes in reverse, too. For about six months my mental Jack was a harsh, rejecting figure, one that obliged me to meet his needs at my own expense. In reality, Jack was trying to grow empathy for his small inner-child-self for the first time in 30 years. And he had to work on this while living with a wife who wanted that empathy for herself.
It’s a terrible freedom, not being able to control how your spouse feels about you.
Five days after this conversation, I sat by the window and watched Jack walk down the hill towards Mission street, to catch a bus to the airport. He was flying to Boston to grieve the recent death of his Nana with the family that he met for the first time as an adult, eight years ago. He looked like a handsome and powerful man in his 30’s. But I know your younger self, too, I thought. Within that grown man is a very young child that still wants and needs so much from the family he is flying to see. Within that Banana Republic blazer is the 19-year-old who, when I met him, was wearing a Pop-Tarts T-shirt that he got free from collected UPC symbols.
I know that man, and the boy within him, so well. And both the man and the boy surprise me all the time. I know you and don’t know you, I thought, watching his easy stride. You are as intimate as my own heartbeat, and as mysterious as the universe itself.
It is the biggest paradox. You step back so you hold another within. You honor the impossibly wide relational chasm so you can be enveloped. You let go so that you can have.
My evangelical training spoke of God as Holy and Other and Out There and Not You. The Celtic view locates God within the very cells on your skin, closer than your own heartbeat, nestled and surrounding your spirit and soul.
Which is true? Both. Both are always true. All relationships are paradoxes, with God as the most insufferable paradox. We can only pray that our hearts will grow warm enough to stretch over all of the ever-expanding edges.