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Why Every Marriage Is a Bait and Switch

Someone's real self emerges to us over time, not all at once.

Key points

  • We think we know why we’re marrying the person we choose, but we actually don’t have a clue who they are.
  • Our partner emerges to us, and we to them, over time. No one stays the same, nor should they.
  • The way we change with each other is deeply meaningful, and can be something to be celebrated rather than complained about.

I like to ask my couples, when they’re complaining about a particular aspect of their partner’s behavior, “Well, why do you think you would have married someone who…?” Their answer is, inevitably, “He/she wasn’t this way when we married.”

Every marriage is a bait and switch. When we first get together and are in the romantic phase of our relationship, we show our best side and see the best side in our partner. That’s one of the most wonderful things about the first flush of romance: even the most annoying habits are bathed in the glow of the romantic lens. And being seen that way, where the best is assumed of us, brings out our best, furthering the virtuous cycle.

Fast forward a few years and the romantic phase is over. Instead of a virtuous cycle, where we assume the best, sometimes the opposite occurs: we interpret everything through a negative lens. How could this be? Isn’t this the same person we chose to marry, “for better or worse, in sickness and health, 'til death do us part?”

Neither side of this dichotomy is the truth about our partner or the truth about our marriage. We didn’t marry an angel any more than we married a devil. We married someone who is “both/and” and it is this wholeness, I believe, that is necessary for our fullest development. If things were only wonderful we would have a great friend but not a marriage partner. If things were only difficult, we would have a miserable marriage. It is in the combination where the magic of marriage is to be found, and it’s important we all remember that the next time we complain about our partner acting differently than they used to.

The truth is, we don’t have a conscious clue whom we’re marrying when we pop the question or say “yes.” We see only an idealized version of the other person, just like they see an idealized version of us. It is only over time that the deeper levels of our partner (and ourselves) emerge, and it is then that people are apt to feel a “bait and switch.”

I believe these deeper, hidden layers are the deeper, hidden reasons we have chosen our partner, even though we weren’t conscious of it at the time. We emerge in concert with our partners, just as they emerge in concert with us. That gradual emergence, layer by layer, is deeply meaningful. It is a symphony that includes the two of us, as well as what is happening in the world around us. Yes, it can include many challenges, but when we are able to discern the motif of meaning that threads through these challenges and power struggles, then our marriage becomes an adventure to be lived rather than a problem to be solved.

Ultimately, I believe our primary relationships are microcosms of the world at large, and that all of life can be viewed in a similarly meaningful way, if we are able to open our apertures (and silence our judgments) wide enough to perceive it.

Facebook image: Goncharov_Artem/Shutterstock

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