My wife, Carlin, and I have been married for 42 years. It is the third marriage for both of us. When we fell in love and I had decided that she’s the one, I comforted myself believing that “third time’s the charm.” But we were realistic adults and we had understandable anxieties about commitment. We both had made vows in our previous marriages about loving, honoring, obeying—well, at least loving and honoring—until death do us part. I wanted to be sure things were going to turn out well.
In one of our intimate conversations, I asked Carlin, “Can you really commit to me?” I felt sure that the answer was “yes,” but I felt I had to ask. To my surprise she said, “I can’t commit to you, but I can commit to us.” I was startled and taken aback. I felt hurt and afraid. All I heard is that I can’t commit to you. But as we talked more and I sat with what Carlin said, I began to feel better about a commitment to us. But it took me many years to fully recognize the wisdom in what Carlin had told me.
We both had experienced the reality that falling in love was the easy part, staying in love was the hard part, and even more difficult was the day-to-day practice of repairing the small and large disconnections that every relationship experiences that can pull a couple apart. It is not easy to capture the essence of a marriage that is moving into its fifth decade. But those who might want to understand ours could be guided by my sixteen books. Number seventeen, Long Live Men, will be coming out in November 2022.
Each book, beginning with Inside Out: Becoming My Own Man, which came out in 1983, three years after Carlin and I were married, described some of our major disconnections and resolutions. They also detail how we worked back to Us when You and Me were pulling us apart. I learned early that most of the conflict between You and Me comes from inner conflict between ways I’d been conditioned to be and the deeper sense of who I am and aspired to become.
In Inside Out, I described the 10 Commandments that I received from the manhood messages that I had ingested by the culture:
- Thou shalt not be weak, nor have weak gods before thee.
- Thou shalt not fail thyself, nor fail as thy father before thee.
- Thou shalt not keep holy any day that denies thy work.
- Thou shalt not express strong emotions, neither high nor low.
- Thou shalt not cry, complain, nor ask for help.
- Thou shalt not show thy feelings.
- Thou shalt not be uncertain or ambivalent.
- Thou shalt not be dependent on others.
- Thou shalt not acknowledge thy death nor thy limitations.
- Thou shalt do unto other men before they do unto you.
I knew I wanted to have a different kind of relationship with my wife than my father had with my mother and I wanted to be a different kind of man than my father and the men I grew up around. It wasn’t until I had been through two marriages and two divorces that it began to dawn on me that Me and You would often be experienced as Me vs You when our partner would trigger old feelings and fears that were left over from our childhood experiences growing up in a family that was often dysfunctional to some degree.
By the time Carlin and I were married, we had both experienced what happens when our individual selves feel hurt or wounded and how that can lead to conflict and eventually to distancing and, in our case, to divorce. But a commitment to Us brings in a higher power, a willingness to think beyond our separate needs to what is best for the larger entity, the Us, our Couplehood.
In his book, Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity, Joshua Wolf Shenk begins the book with this quote by playwright Tony Kushner.
“The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.”
What a powerful sentence. It says to me that not only are You and Me susceptible to the distortions that come from the inevitable wounding that we all experience from past relationships, but that You and Me don’t even exist as separate entities.
We can talk about the separate parts that make up the human body—the heart, lungs, the brain, the kidneys, etc.—but we can’t really separate them from each other or from the whole that is us. Sometimes we imagine that one part of the body is in conflict with another. My heart wants one thing but my mind wants another, but in reality all our parts are interconnected.
In our relationships and in the world, we often live in an illusion of separation. We continue to play out the battle of the sexes in our love lives and we continue to play out the battle between political parties and between countries in the larger world.
I believe family therapist Terrence Real has a similar perspective. In his book, US: Getting Past You & Me to Build a More Loving Relationship, he says,
“Us consciousness says, ‘We’re in this together.’ You and me consciousness says, ‘Every man for himself.’”
It is easy to get into You vs Me consciousness when we feel threatened. We’ve all had the experience. We’re having a nice, pleasant conversation with our spouse. Then something happens. A word is spoken, a hostile look, body language that puts us off, even a silence that lasts a little too long and we get triggered. We react with a series of harsh words, the tone of our voice changes, and we are in attack or defense mode.
In his book US, Terry goes on to say,
“I tell my clients that if they walk away from their sessions with me with just this one concept, they will have spent their therapy money well. Here it is: There is no redeeming value whatsoever in harshness.”
This wisdom is like money in the bank. It can help us take a few deep breaths before we react to our partner. It can help us ask ourselves will the next words out of my mouth be in the service of us or will they trigger a me vs you reaction? None of us will be perfect in curbing harshness or always supporting the larger value of respect, love, and healing that are inherent in Us consciousness. But we can always make it our intention to do so. We get better with practice.
I had an occasion to practice yesterday when my wife, Carlin, and I were planning to go to a concert in the park that started at 3:30. She came down from a nap and sat down in my office. I was working on this article and wanted to see if she wanted to leave right away or later when it cooled down a bit. She said some things that were confusing and I kept pressing to find out when she wanted to leave. Her responses frustrated me and I got more irritated and harsher in my reactions. She got up walked out of the room and closed my door.
I went back to my writing. I assumed she would calm down and the frustrating interaction would be forgotten when we went to listen to the music. But another voice from the deeper part of Us said, to go in and reconnect. I knocked on her door and went in when she responded. I touched her arm and sat down near her. “Listen, I know I was harsh in my response…I was just feeling frustrated trying to figure out when you wanted to leave…I got more irritated…and I acted dumb.” The words didn’t come easy, but I got them out.
She responded with humor and warmth. We had reconnected. The Us won that encounter and we had a wonderful time listening to the music and seeing friends. Disconnections will always happen in our most intimate relationships and in the world, but we can choose whether to commit to the bigger reality of Us or keep trading harsh Me vs You interactions.
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