On Marriage, Oneness, and Solitude

“On Marriage”

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

–Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

–Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Oneness, or unity, is a central scriptural theme.

 “And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.” (John 17:11)

“And he commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.” (Mosiah 18:21)

“Behold, this I have given unto you as a parable, and it is even as I am. I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” (D&C 38:27)

“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:17)

Interestingly, there appears to be something of a twist when we look for the theme of oneness as applied to marriage. I have no way of knowing for certain without extensive research, but marital oneness seems to be quite strictly qualified in the scriptures, expressed mostly as a union of the “flesh.”

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24)

“What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh.” (1 Cor. 6:16)

 And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.” (Mark 10:8)

More generally, as with the first set of scriptures above,  oneness seems to apply to disparate individuals joining together in a single community, in the sense that Paul says, “We being many are one body in Christ” (Rom 12:5). This is even the case with Christ’s relationship with the Father, where he describes this relationship as something of an intimate divine community, one that his disciples can become members of, one with the Father as Christ is one with the Father.

Oneness is clearly significant within the context of marriage as well, but we can see some obvious differences in the scriptures. In a sense, marriage exemplifies a particular kind of oneness, a oneness that occurs through the joining of flesh to flesh and becoming one body. To be married is to be one flesh, unlike a Zion-like, even “trinitarian” oneness of mind and purpose. This certainly doesn’t mean (and therefore I am not implying) that this other kind of oneness is exclusive to community only; clearly, marriages benefit from shared purposes, experiences, and even preferences and desires where possible. But I nevertheless find it interesting that oneness of the first kind is, as far as I can tell, not explicitly tied to the marriage relationship. On that note, I find Khalil Gibran’s meditations on marriage above to be intriguing. Here, the marriage relationship presupposes, in a way, the communal oneness sought after in the Zion ideal. This is, perhaps, partly because marriage is a covenantal entity that is different from trying to become one with fellow Saints, or at least its covenant is more pronounced and more intimate than the covenants we make with our fellows. The couple makes ritualistic promises to one another that they will, in effect, be with one another forever. These promises are sealed, in effect, through becoming one flesh. In this way, “you were born together, and together you shall be forevermore. You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days. Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.” Gibran begins here, almost parenthetically, practically in order to just get the oneness codified by ceremonial promises and sexual intercourse out of the way, almost as if to say, “It’s there. It’s always there. It’s simply part of what it means to be married. Don’t dwell too long on it or you’ll miss the important part.”

Which is what? Rilke powerfully supplements Gibran’s answer:

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

–Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

To be the guardian of another’s solitude. The marriage relationship is the ultimate symbolic evidence of our connectedness to the world around us, that we are not isolated beings detached from the rest of the world, but that all things are in different stages of oneness and connection. We live and move and have our being in vast webs of life, connected to people, places, things, the earth, in trillions of different ways. We sanctify and codify this connectedness in marriage, by giving our flesh to one of these things in particular, another person, one in whose hands we choose to place that which is most sacred and valuable–our very selves. But once we are married, once the recognition of oneness is established, then the real work begins. Only then, hopefully, do we learn, as Rilke wrote, “Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.”

The work of loving a spouse is the work of holding sacred the spaces that exist between and amongst our togetherness (which is always already there) of honoring the events and choices and views associated with the other individual such that we protect the space that allows these things to exist and flourish. Marriage can, of course, be extremely hard, for reasons most of us are familiar with, either from personal experience or observation. But I’m convinced that one reason it can feel intolerable is because one or both individuals do not protect the solitude of the other. Instead, they seek to shape the other into the image of their idea of the ideal spouse, or, just as destructive, they subsume their own selves in order to become what they believe the other desires. This isn’t one size fits all, of course. There are always situations which prove unendurable for one or both of the parties and a separation is the only charitable and just solution. But I do believe that Gibran and Rilke have revealed something about love and marriage that is a shining jewel of truth: In a genuine, lasting relationship with another, we are tasked with protecting the capacity for the self of the other to grow, become, flourish, to revel in his or her creative freedom. The other ideally does the same for us. And not just to protect one another from external interference (and perhaps most importantly, from our own interference in that flourishing by seeking to mold the other into what we desire), but to encourage and stimulate and love the selves our spouses are becoming. Marriage is a unique and effective vehicle for this kind of life-giving solitude because it is meant to instantiate, model, and hold sacred oneness in a way that doesn’t destroy one’s individuality but allows it to grow and thrive. Within the oneness of the marriage relationship we can see each other as wholes, not as parts of one whole, each with his or her own dreams, hopes, desires, purposes, strengths, and we love one another when we honor and protect those things in the other, the things that make who we love the person that we love. And we grow up, as Gibran says, together–always together–but not in one another’s shadows, for by showing one another this kind of loving trust, we become the suns in one another’s skies.

Comments

  1. Beautifully expressed, Jacob. I love the ending, especially this, “Marriage is a unique and effective vehicle for this kind of life-giving solitude because it is meant to instantiate, model, and hold sacred oneness in a way that doesn’t destroy one’s individuality but allows it to grow and thrive.” So, so true–and sometimes so hard to learn.

  2. Chris Kimball says:

    Thank you.

  3. Pure awesome, Jacob.

  4. Wonderful, Jacob. Thank you.

  5. Rachel Whipple says:

    What you describe is not what I thought marriage would be when I got married. I was too fixated on playing the role of a good little Mormon wife. I’m lucky that what you describe is what I’ve found.

  6. wreddyornot says:

    I think I understand.

    Now can someone give it to me in the context of an exampler marriage? Diety? Can you make a case there? And how does that work among us? What woman in an exampler marriage of oneness gives her husband over to solitutue? Or what man does?

    And beyond this posting’s scope perhaps, as to a child in such an exampler marriage, how does it all work?

    Who among us has a genuine, lasting relationship where we see both tasked with protecting the capacity for each to grow, become, flourish, and to revel creative freedom?

  7. #6, Good question. It’s an ideal, and like all ideals I’m not sure we could find an example of anyone who lives it perfectly. I think that this concept would especially speak to couples who married spouses quite different from them, where contention and heartache might be present because one or both constantly and frustratingly wishes that that the other would be a certain way, or think like them, etc. This notion of not just allowing them to be who they will be, but of striving to protect and honor them in that being could potentially ease much of that kind of suffering, and give them a shared task of trust that would become an anchor in a stronger marriage.

  8. This is a lovely meditation. It reminds me of one of my favorite historical speeches, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Solitude of Self,” in which she argued (before Congress!) that women should have the right to vote–not for the standard reasons, but because ultimately every soul stood alone before God: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5315/

    I love how your piece manages to respect (even celebrate!) that solitude while still honoring the ideal of unity.

  9. wreddyornot says:

    I do find the meditation appealing and consistent with loving relationships.

    Can there be examples to follow in the Mormon realm approaching the ideal even if we acknowledge they don’t (can’t) meet it?

    There’s Joseph and Emma’s marriage, where contention and heartache was present because one or both constantly and frustratingly wished that that the other would be a certain way. How’d they do historically living up to what is posited?

    It seems in most of our examples, from the ideal of a Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother on down to the Prophet Thomas S. Monson and his wife, Frances Beverly Johnson, women get overshadowed. Are we to assume that such women just want that kind of a solitude? Are there contrary examples?

  10. 9- Perhaps these women were not overshadowed in their marriages. Maybe they seem to have been overshadowed because of sexist, male-dominated mores in society and public perception. Perhaps within their marriages, their husbands did guard over their solitude, in the face of public perception…
    Then again, you’re probably right.

  11. This is a beautiful and thoughtful post- thanks Jacob. I find this an ever-intriguing question: what is the proper ideal of marriage? For a long time, I believed it to be a kind of Hegelian synthesis– where the thesis and antithesis are subsumed into creating a unique product as a unit, their individual selves lost and mingled inextricably in a new creation, a new kind of being. I tended to measure marriage by how “unified” the two became– how they built upon a common goal, vision, and common values, how they merged. I am now discovering it’s much more complicated than that, and this is a timely post as I try to understand what spaces mean in marriage, and whether to celebrate them, mourn them, protect them or “fix” them. I will have to reconfigure my notions of heavenly parents; should it be completely distinct from trinitarian or Zion notions? I think I resist this solitude and separateness concept a little; perhaps as a reflection of my subconscious attachment to Platonic ideals? Where plurality means incompleteness or flaws, and unity means success?

  12. All these citations are artists and writers, obviously introverts, who love being alone, who love solitude. Is solitude the correct word? Could it be, alternatively, described as independence? Because I, on the other hand enjoy a crowd and being close. IMHO, a perfect marriage is where each brings gifts into the relationship of two happily independent people, with strong connections of body, mind and spirit. And with the strong desire and ability to be independent, otherwise. (Solitude? Not in the sense of being alone.)

  13. Jacob, this was beautiful. Thank you!

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