I am one of those people who loves metaphors.
God knows, I am plenty verbal. (Ask anyone who knows me: I will talk your ear off!) Nonetheless, when I need to learn something or teach something to someone else, I look for images or metaphors that will help explain the concept. Visual images that represent a concept are great because they can gather meaning as time goes along, representing multiple things as you learn more about the concept/subject. Images that can do this are “multivalient.” It’s a bizarre made-up word that I learned in seminary that means “more than one meaning” and it only reinforced my desire to use images to represent concepts.
On to our subject for today: WALLS.
I’m a counselor, and when counselors talk about walls, we are usually talking about emotional blockades that people use to keep others at a distance emotionally. We talk about refusal to be vulnerable and to “let people in” so that they can know the “real you”.
That’s not what I’m talking about today.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media about walls, mostly with the focus of keeping undesirable people OUT; walls as a means of keeping the ‘good people’ safe from the ‘bad people’ who want into our country and our economic system.
That’s not what I’m talking about either.
I like to talk about walls when I talk about relationships, especially romantic relationships, and most specifically marital relationships. The reason that I do that is that so many people have misconceptions about what it takes to make a marriage last, to truly succeed as a couple. I tell the couples that I am working with that a good love connection is going to be a lot like a really good brick wall.
Here in Arizona, most of our fences are concrete block walls or brick walls, so you see freestanding brick walls in almost every neighborhood. Every now and then you find a block wall that has collapsed, scattering bricks or concrete blocks as well as chunks of mortar all over the sidewalk and the yard. On a rare occasion you will find bent rebar (the metal bars used to reinforce block walls) still sticking up out of the ground with a few blocks still intact at the bottom, held in place only because of the rebar. That’s a rare occurrence, mostly because walls reinforced with rebar don’t ‘collapse’ per-se…usually something happens to bring them down, like an uprooted tree falling on the wall.
What does that have to do with relationships?
Well…block walls are usually built of bricks and mortar, and occasionally rebar. Each of those things represents something crucial to a successful marriage. Let’s start with the bricks.
When it comes to relationships, the bricks represent the common morals, values, and priorities of the couple.
It is very important to have shared morals because it means that behavior that is forbidden for one of you is forbidden for the other, and behavior that is considered laudable for one of you is considered laudable by and for the other. For instance, the animal rights activist is never going to want a fur coat as a gift from their spouse, no matter how cold the climate they live in, or how much of an expression of love their partner might think that would be. You might think that shared morals is a given, especially when your partner seems like such a good person, but it takes exploration to suss out the finer points of morals. Do you cheat on your taxes? Do you take office supplies from work? Do you lie…to anyone? When is that acceptable and why? Do you support abortion rights? Would you ever opt for an abortion in your own life? What do you do if your child is profoundly intellectually disabled? Would you ever put a child in an institution? What if you become really rich? Do you give a bunch of money to charitable organizations? Do you ever give money to family members? What do you think about helping out adult children with financial issues?
See what I mean? Morals aren’t as easily determined by daily behaviors as we think they are. Of course, your partner’s daily behaviors say an awful lot about who they are and what their morals are, but you have to ask the hard questions…and answer them yourself as well. I am consistently shocked by the things my clients reveal that they didn’t discuss before they married…and that topic always comes up because of the problems they are having in their marriage now.
Commonly held values and priorities are also important and act as the bricks in your marital wall. Let’s use work as an example. Work should hold the same value and your careers the same level of priority for both members of the couple. This doesn’t mean that one of you can’t stay home to take care of the children, because that is another thing entirely and has to do with your beliefs and values (and priorities) around raising children. However, a lack of common values and priorities around work can lead to one partner frustrating the other by working long hours for an extended period of time, or by repeatedly changing jobs or careers. The first illustrates a difference in the how work is valued as a priority, and the second a difference in the value of stability and commitment to career. Money is another area where common values and priorities are really important, because money is frequently a subject of conflict for couples. One partner usually wants to save and invest and the other partner is more prone to spend and the truth is that there needs to be a balance of both saving and spending as well as financial responsibility focused on a saving for retirement and aged years. This kind of stuff can create major rifts for couples and long term resentment, and these are two things you never want developing in your marriage. In the end, having similar values and priorities allows you to act in concert and support each other as decisions are made and changes occur. Both of you will feel equally respected and equally committed to each others goals, since after all, those goals will be driven by common values and priorities.
So…you’ve got the bricks to build your wall because you share morals, values, and priorities. Now you need mortar, and sex and intimacy are the mortar in a relationship. What separates a partnership/ marriage from a regular friendship is the level of intimacy. Friendships might have a great deal of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy and the more there is of those three things, the closer and longer lasting the friendship will be. I frequently tell couples that the best thing they can do is become really good friends as well as lovers, because their friendship will get the relationship through difficult times when they don’t feel as ‘in love’ as they used to be. The ‘in love’ thing is what brings the flush of sexual intimacy to the fore. Sexual intimacy takes the other three levels of intimacy and deepens them significantly, and then it ices the cake, so to speak. Sexual intimacy creates an incredibly strong bond because it’s hard to hide from your partner when you are naked and being sexually expressive. It is the deepest and most private form of intimacy, and I truly believe that it is sacred. Maybe I’ll blog more about that another day, but for now I just want to say that sexual intimacy becomes the mortar that holds all the bricks in place, that brings the wall to a level of cohesion and stability that other relationships cannot reach.
We’ve all had friends who were really good at the sex thing but who lacked commitment to the other person in the relationship. You can call this commitment issues; you can call it “friends with benefits.” I call this an example of someone trying to build a wall out of mortar alone. You can do it…you can mound up your mortar and try to build a wall, but it won’t last through any serious storm. The difficulties that life brings will inevitably cause the wall to slowly disintegrate and crumble. This is why marriages based in chemistry alone don’t work for very long. The sex is great and for a while the couple can use the sex to cover up the growing divide between them, but eventually no amount of sex is enough to cover for what isn’t there: real friendship, along with common morals, values, and priorities.
So what’s the rebar for? Well…rebar is there so that the wall can’t be toppled easily. Like I said, my neighborhood is full of block wall fences, and occasionally they collapse…usually due to harsh weather. Walls with rebar in them, however, tend to remain standing until something specific happens—something like a car crashing through the wall, or a tree falling in a monsoon, or someone purposely trying to tear the wall down. This is because the rebar is driven into the ground below the wall to anchor the wall and the rebar acts as an internal support for the bricks and mortar. In a relationship, rebar is made from a common spirituality that often establishes many of the common morals and values. In my marriage, the rebar is our Christian faith. When life gets rough, my husband and I turn to God for support and we openly discuss the evidence we see of God’s action in our lives. We encourage each other in our faith, and when we are struggling, we pray together. I’m not saying that a couple without a common faith will fail; that simply isn’t true, since those couples have shared values, morals, and priorities and hopefully deep levels of emotional and intellectual intimacy, as well as a robust sex life that builds their wall tall and strong. However, having gone through quite a few “storms” that tried to tear down the wall of my marriage (a child addicted to cocaine and opiates, the death of both of my husband’s parents, a severely ill child, etc.) I can tell you that a common faith will strengthen the union in ways the common morals, values, and priorities as well as sexual intimacy simply cannot achieve.
Having said all that, my mind wanders to a certain politician that thinks that building a wall will solve some of our problems with Mexico and its citizens. Perhaps he’s right, but only in the sense that focusing on our commonly held values, morals, and priorities might bring us to a much closer relationship that could change everything. It would be a wall built of bricks alone, as many friendships are…and honestly, it could change everything. Maybe he’s right. Maybe we should build a wall, one that no one would have to ‘pay for’…but wouldn’t it be worth everything?