Marriage … and the Nature of a River

Photo by David on Flikr

Photo by Mark on Flikr

Today I was reading the book Take Back Your Marriage by friend and colleague Bill Doherty.  Bill uses the metaphor of a river trip to describe the journey of marriage.  Living in the northwest, I can relate to this idea. In the summer many people float and raft down the rivers around the Puget Sound. I got thinking about the beginning of marriage and the Wenatchee River in summer.  This river has stretches that meander along slow and gentle.  Along these stretches in the hot summer sun, you’ll find floaters tied together in gigantic inner tubes.  Their laughter and conversation float along with their floatie of cold beer. Early in marriage, with the support of friends and family, the determination of newly spoken vows and often the absence of children, marriage can feel a bit like a lovely float down the Wenatchee in late summer.  Like a person new to river rafting … having a class I or II river to learn on is necessary while you learn the techniques of managing a river both in and out of the boat.  Marriage in this phase is often easy, taking minimal effort and is fun.  In fact it is easy to forget you are in a raft, let alone notice that you are in fact moving down the river … down toward new areas, new landscapes … change … maybe even class V rapids.

Being in a river raft oblivious to the passing scenery and signs of change can catch you off guard when all of a sudden you see massive rapids ahead.  Hands and beer go flying as you try to quickly remember what to do.  “Where do we sit?, How do we paddle?, What do we avoid? … oh! $&*^!”   I see this all the time with marriage.  People meander unaware of signs that rapids are coming.  Maybe they are spending more time at work.  Maybe less time together.  Maybe they are perpetually distracted placing other demands of life ahead of caring for their relationship.  Maybe a sense of dissatisfaction or loneliness gets converted into irritation, criticism and arguing – aka unhelpful paddling.  Add to this mix a child, a loss of a job, the illness of a loved one and you are in over your head … trying to get back in the boat.

Expecting rapids not to come is like expecting a river to be a lake.  Rapids come, the water moves downstream, and the speed of the river changes.  The river cannot be stopped just as time cannot be stopped.  One of the most common mistakes people make is to forget the nature of marriage, the nature of time, the nature of a river.  When couples forget they are on a river, that change will come, they often turn their discontent on each other.  They blame the other for their unhappiness or their stress.  It is like one person in a raft turning to another and rather than preparing to survive the rapids, begins blaming him for the nature of the river.   “How could you let us get into this mess??!  It was your job to keep us in that fun place!” This is as helpful in river rafting as it is in marriage … not so much.

If you have found yourself blaming your partner in times of stress, ask yourself how you see the nature of marriage.  Is it a noun – a wedding you had many years ago, a static thing you mostly ignore or is it a process, a journey, a verb?  When hard times come, do you see them as a sign that something is wrong with your marriage, with your partner or with you? Or do you see it as a momentary rapid requiring care, determination, skill and effort?  When your marriage is going well are you more apt to not notice – taking for granted that ‘this is how it should be’?  Or do you see it as a momentary time to enjoy (float, laugh, have a cold beer) and a time to strengthen your skills so the next rapids can be exhilarating instead of death-defying?

A marriage made of two people who understand the nature of marriage and who intentionally strengthen, cherish and value the process weather the storms and rapids. They gather more and more stories … and they grow in wisdom, compassion and love.  They remain in the boat.  Each period of perilous rapids reinforces their bond and helps them to know how to prepare for the next ones.  They see their times of floating as a delicious reprieve, a time to repair any holes, and a time to enjoy the sensual pleasures around them.  They take it all in and lavish that joy on each other.  Their marriage not only survives, it thrives.  These are the folks who have many stories of rapids and floats, of making mistakes and learning from them, and who say, “Yep, I’d do it all again!”

… they understand the nature of a river.

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