The Essential Humility of Marriage
 by Terry D. Hargrave, PhD

Keynote Presented at the
Fourth Annual Smart Marriages Conference
Denver, Colorado, July 1, 2000

 Well, just for the record, I want you all to know that I am a native to Colorado.  I live in Texas, but I was born on the Western Slope in a little town by the name of Fruita.  I say this because normally there is a group of Coloradans assigned to circulate among any Texans in a crowd to attempt to discourage them from moving to Colorado.  I've lived in both places, and I'm not planning to move back, so if you are part of this group, you can spend your time targeting other Texans.

 I do so much appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today.  What I want to say to you, I believe is important.  It is not that it is revolutionary, just perhaps that it is forgotten.  Like something we once knew well, like the artistic expressions used in antiquity, but forgotten and lost until rediscovered in the renaissance.  My goal here is to remind us what marriage is and the purpose of that relationship.  It is to give direction to our education and therapy so that spouses know the value of humbly giving themselves for the good of the marital relationship.  It is the essential individual humility, not only to make the marriage work, but to make the individual person grow.

 Listen to a poem, written for a couple who had made the long journey of marriage to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary.  They ran away and eloped, suffered through a year of separation after being married a decade, survived going belly up financially, put each other through school, and lost their oldest child to cancer in adulthood.

Come, run away with me

Take my hand
 And run with me, run
Remember when we drank each other in
 Guzzling intoxicating flavors of love
Numbing our pasts
 Sensitizing our futures
We didn't think
 We just ran away together
Like swift deer who sense trouble and flee to a happier forage

Come, sit with me
Sit with me
 And gaze at life
Remember when, hand in hand
 We faced the lifetime of work
Hard and Good
 We wrote life's poem together
Knowing my love
 Not knowing how we would turn out
Like a good book that we could not put down

Come, begin with me again
Walk with me
Remember how we paced our companionship
 Growing up and through our heritage
You glancing at me
 And me at you
Growing, comfortable with our gaze
Like trees weathering seasons side by side in continuous cycles of giving to
 And giving over

Come, hold me now
 As we remember tumbling through the travesty
Holding to each other as we watched
 The Precious Petal withering and wasting
Leaving us Alone
 Leaving us Together
Hold me, right in the middle
 As we, wiser now
Drink life so as to not waste one drop

Come now, finish with me well
Come to the path
 We have worn
Come and see what we know
 And learn from what we see
And come
 Fall into my love
 And remember how we ran away into a lifetime of joy
Come, run away with me again

 As this poem illustrates, what I want to talk about is an important resource that makes marriages work.  It is a sense of relationship and purpose which indeed is the essence of marriage.  As marital educators and therapists, this is the resource that I fear we have forgotten--perhaps we have never known about it for sure.

 Our field started serious marital work in the 1940s when people had the luxury of enough time to consider their own happiness in the context of marriage.  Then, people sought marriage as a norm of socialization and stabilization.  We did not even have to address the issue of why people married, everyone just married.  So our training did not focus on the reason, but rather on how people needed to adapt to the spousal roles and "fit" together.

 Then as time progressed, we began to see that just "fitting" together was not working out.  Spouses had significant differences.  As a result, we moved to the idea of facilitating communication and listening.  We believed that if couples could just respect and hear one another, surely they would meld together and be happy.

 But many couples were not happy.  They instead became more vested in the idea of individual happiness and could not understand why their spouses were not just as concerned as they were about making them happy.  For example, watch the following clip from Forget Paris, where a friend explains this individualistic philosophy of marriage to Billy Crystal, who is having trouble dealing with balancing the job he loves with his role as a husband.


 I hope you find this as offensive as I do.  As therapists and educators, we have worked hard--in many cases, harder than the couples we were trying to help.  We developed personality typologies and skill sets that would enable couples to get along--only if they would use the skills we provided.

 In my own practice, I began to realize that I saw the marriage as two individuals trying to get along for their mutual happiness.  It was this individuality that was the problem.  No matter how I sliced it, when the two individuals differed in the marriage, they came into competition with one another.  One's happiness would often mean that he or she won while the other's sacrifice meant that he or she lost.  I found myself in an endless morass of trying to either 1) balance out the winning and losing of the individual spouses or;  2) get them to cooperate together.

  But why was I trying to get them to cooperate?  Cooperate for what purpose?  I finally came to the conclusion that I was not in the business of trying to eliminate the competition between the individualism of the spouses, but my work was almost totally directed at trying to get the spouses to compete in a nicer way.  Seldom, if ever, did I address the problems of the marriage through focusing on what marriage was or what it was suppose to do.  That was my training.  I bet it was your training too.

 The Promise of "Us"
 The severe gap in my knowledge about marriage surfaced hard when confronted by my young college students.  I share openly about my marriage of 21 years to Sharon and will say that I believe I have a good marriage.  They often ask, "What makes it Good?"  To be honest, although at the time I made up some answers, I did not know.  Was it that my wife made me happy?  Was it that the relationship fulfilled me personally?  Was it because we had good communication and intimacy?  Yes, Yes, and Yes--sometimes.  Other times, my wife would drive me crazy and we wouldn't look much different from the couples we helped in therapy.  Yet our relationship continued to work.

 So it was not only couples who had forgotten what marriage was all about.  It was not only the fields of family education and therapy.  It was you.  It was me.  We had forgotten what marriage was really about.  So what is at the heart of the issue with regard to marriage?

 The heart of the issue is that marriage is a relationship.  A living, breathing relationship that is as real as the two individuals that form the bond.  It is, if you will, a separate entity--a third person--that is created when two individuals give themselves in a bonding manner.  It is not just that two individuals participate together in an exchange for each other's good, it is that they create a whole new being when they marry.  I was first introduced to this concept by the pioneering family therapist, Carl Whitaker.  One time during a conversation over breakfast, he was talking about his wife.  Carl said that as much as he would miss his wife if she were to die, he would miss what they were together even more.  He would call what they were together "we-ness" or "us-ness."

 What is exciting about this concept of "us-ness" is that it is not quite one spouse, and not quite the other.  "Us" is what they are together.  "Us" is created by two individuals in a committed relationship; it takes on a personality with characteristics of its own.  It is not just two individuals who share, it is two individuals who give up part of themselves to create a oneness--an "us."  I think this is what the Judeo-Christian scripture means when it talks about oneness.  It is not that the two individuals share, it is not that they obliterate their individuality, it is that they create a new identity.  In our language, this is not "the two shall become one" as much as it is the two shall become three.  In my marriage, there is Sharon, there is Terry, and there is "us," which has its own personality, its own likes and dislikes.  For instance, I don't like ballet, but "us" does like ballet.  When I say this, I do not mean that I do not like ballet and I just give in to my wife because she likes it and I suffer through a performance.  I mean that when I go with my wife, the activity becomes enjoyable because of how we dress up to go, where we go to eat, and how we interact about the performance.  Our relationship really does like the activity of ballet, even though I would never choose to go by myself.  But it is not only in the activities of "us," it also has personality characteristics that are predictable.  For instance, I can tell when "us" is getting ready to have a fight.  "Us" may be invisible but it is a living, breathing relationship that is kept alive by spouses caring for it and giving to it in a trustworthy way.

 "Us-ness" is IN the relationship, much in the same way that children are a product of and IN the relationship.  Genetically, children have both of their parents in them, but are clearly separate individuals.  However, they depend on their parents to keep them alive.  In the same way, "us-ness" transcends each person in the relationship, but depends on the individuals to keep it alive.  It is the "us" that is the essential element in keeping marriages together, because, in fact, it is the only part of the spouses that is together.

 However, it is not that I sacrifice my individuality for my wife, but that I willingly give a part of who I am for the sake of the relationship.  When I give, and Sharon gives, we bond parts of ourselves together to create a unique new entity.  It is the mutual giving to the relationship that, in turn, creates the context for intimacy found in the relationship.  In this way, sex provides a good picture of this "us" intimacy.  Sexual activity at its best means that I focus on satisfying my wife.  And as a result of the way that I am made, the very thing that I give to her ends up bringing me satisfaction that culminates in orgasm.  Now I think that orgasm is a good thing.  But one aspect that makes it really impressive is that once orgasm begins, it becomes a series of involuntary contractions that dump all that built-up sexual energy.  Think about it.  Sex is one of the few activities in which we consciously and voluntarily lose control of ourselves with another person.  This is truly a golden highway--I give to my beloved in such a complete way that I lose part of myself in the process.  But this is not a painful loss.  It is a loss that culminates in a blissful "ahhh."  I would call it satisfaction.  I would call it peaceful.  I would call it happiness.

 The ability to be out of control physically, emotionally naked, and yet totally at peace in the presence of another person--this is what this trustworthy giving yields, whether in physical sex or emotional intimacy.  We give of ourselves to bind ourselves with a spouse in relationship, but creating an "us" does not mean that we lose ourselves.  The "us" becomes a nurturer to our individuality that works both to teach us and to fulfill our personal desires.  This is one of life's paradoxes, that as we give up part of our individuality to create this relationship, we gain nurturance for our own personhood.  When we give to "us" we actually receive the very happiness and satisfaction we desire.

 What is the result of this losing of myself in the sexual experience if my wife and I aren't using birth control and the planets are aligned right?  Conception, of course.  Half of my genetic material meets half of hers to create a whole new human being.  I have said before that "us-ness" is real, but invisible.  This is true, but I like to think of my children as testimonies to the struggle in which Sharon and I have engaged in order to become intimate.  They are different from me and Sharon, but they are the physical representations of our invisible "us-ness."

 The Purpose of "Us"
 This, by the way, is why good marital relationships are so good for children.  It is NOT only that in marriage they have more emotional and financial resources available, important as these things are.  It is the fact that they are products of the relational "us."  When the "us-ness" of a couple is stable and secure, the emotional strength is transferred to the children.  Children DO NOT come from individuals--they come from relationships and flourish best when those relationships are good.  George Will recently said that "Biologically, adults produce children.

Spiritually, children produce adults.  Most of us do not grow up until we have helped children to do so.  Thus, the generations form a braided cord."  If you have children, you know this is true.  You might have had children thinking that you would grow them up, but it didn't take long before you realized that it was them who were growing you up!  I agree with George Will, but the deeper fact is that children are the physical representations of the invisible "us-ness" that exists in marriage.  It is not only children that help individual adults grow up emotionally, it is the marital relationship that grows adults up.  As educators and therapists in the marriage movement, we are so focused on marriage producing good outcomes for children.  This is good and correct.  But the fact is, that marital "us-ness" and its'  physical representation  through children produce equally good outcomes in adults by making them grow up emotionally.

  It is not how the partners communicate or how often they encounter, and overcome, obstacles.  Most couples have difficulty with communicating and have to face hard realities of life.  It is the quality of "us" that either allows the spouses to hang together and hold each other close through good times and bad, or forces them to take destructive actions in the name of self-preservation.
 Marriage is not about a piece of paper that proclaims a couple married.    It is not even about marriage being an institution.  Marriage is a third entity that is brought into being by the commitment and union of two people and kept alive by the sacrifice, nurture, love, and trustworthiness that the spouses provide to the relationship.  You and I both know couples who remain married legally, but have long ago killed off their relationship.  They function as roommates--separate individuals.

 If marriage is not about a piece of paper, then neither is a legal divorce.  We, as a movement, have got to stop seeing the legal divorce as the enemy.  Dead marital relationships are the enemy.  When couples starve off their relationships because they are not humble enough to sacrifice, love, and trust one another, they are committing a relational abuse.  I use the term "relational abuse" intentionally.  For too long, we have seen abuse as only being committed against families or individuals.  From this individualistic perspective, we have seen infidelity, violence, stealing, manipulation, or substance abuse, only in the context of the competing interests or fairness to individuals.  As therapists and educators, we must not only stand for the interests and well-being of individuals, we must also be protectors and advocates of the "us" relationship.  When couples abuse or attempt to murder their relationships, we must vigorously act to protect this "us-ness".  It is not just two individuals, their actions impact their living "us" relationship and in turn their entire families.

 This perspective can be enormously helpful to couples.  A woman recently told me about how she was the one that earned most of the money in the family because her husband was in school.  She identified the car, the house, and the furniture as HER car, HER house, and HER furniture, because she was the one who had done the work to acquire the goods.  When her husband or children would protest her proclamation, she would defend her position.  When we began to speak of this concept of relational "us-ness" she came to see the damage she was perpetrating on the relationship.  She said, "I never realized that being so concerned about what was fair to me was such an insult to relationship.  When I said it was MY car, I might as well have been saying to one of my children, this is my food because I paid for it.  You can't have any.  I've been killing off our sense of coupleness."

 This is what I believe to be the essence of what we have lost in marital education and therapy work.  We have forgotten what marriage is and what the purpose of marriage is about.  Marriage is a relational "us-ness" that is formed through the union of two people and kept alive by their loving and trustworthy actions.  The purpose of forming this relational "us-ness" through marriage is to grow the individual spouses up--emotionally, physically, socially, and spiritually.  When we lose sight of this purpose and simply focus on skill building, we usually are training couples to be more knowledgeable about what they are not doing.

 Please understand me here.  I am not speaking against skills.  Much of the work in marital education and therapy has been on skill building--how to communicate, how to resolve conflict, recognizing personality issues and styles, and practical work on parenting styles and finances.  This has been an excellent focus and has not been misdirected.  I liken skill building to the engineering necessary to construct bridges.  Anyone who has ever seen the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco can marvel at its' engineering.  The immense towers and thousands of cables all combine to make a safe, stable, and secure bridge.  Skills give marriage the nuts and bolts of how to construct good relationships and definitely are essential in our work.  But what I am talking about concerns aesthetics and purpose.  We have assumed that the people we help, know where bridges are needed and why we build bridges.  If we teach them skills, then they will make the proper applications.  We need to wake up.  It is not only skills that are needed.  If you haven't noticed, our entire society is calling into question the value of marriage and why individuals should even bother in bonding themselves to another human being.  We need our emphasis on skills, but we also need to be clear on the exactly why those skills are important and where they are to be used.

 Stability, Security, and Sincerity:  Growing a Strong "Us"
 How do we get to these strong "us" relationships.  It grows much in the same way that people grow.  People have to go through childhood and adolescence, and so does their "us."  In my mind, there are three broad elements or attitudes that we want couples to develop in nurturing their "us-ness"  These are stability, security, and sincerity.

 Stability is the first developmental necessity.  To explain what stability is, imagine that when a couple gets married, they step side by side into a row boat.  Each takes an oar in hand and is ready to set off for a promising and committed ride that will last a lifetime.  They start rowing.  Things go okay, but it is hard for the spouses not to notice that the other does not quite get his or her oar in the water far enough.  Or he or she strokes at uneven pace.  Or that he or she just does not row like the family of origin.  So, they make suggestions.  They become indignant to find out that the other spouse was just thinking the same thing about them.  Imagine, how wrong they can be!  They start defending, criticizing, and mocking one another.  Finally, out of frustration, they pull out the oars and start flailing one another.  Not only is the relational "us-ness" going no where, they are doing damage to one another.

 Stability is the element in relationships that allows the couple to be assured of a safe, nonthreatening, and nondestructive relationship.  Partners cannot express their deepest thoughts and fears to each other if the information is going to be misused in some way.  Spouses must know that they can live together without hurting each other individually.

 In my practice, I usually see instability in couples for two reasons.  The first is left over family of origin issues.  If a person marries believing their spouse will take the place of a mom or dad they never had, fill the role of a terrific mom or dad, or provide the opportunity to work out issues that existed between mom and dad that were never resolved, the marriage will be in a constant state of instability.  Spouses cannot fulfill any role that is parental simply because it is not the same type of relationship.  When partners try to work out their family of origin issues with one another, it is like trying to use the script to Othello with the actors for Romeo and Juliet.  It does not work and it cannot work.

 The second reason that couples develop instability is because of conflictual patterns.  These patterns perhaps start out as personality tendencies, but when mixed with the spouse's behaviors, they can be habitual and destructive.  Some of these patterns are well known, distancer/pursuer, blamer/placater, and overfunctioner/underfunctioner.  In cases of these habitual patterns, we must help the couple recognize the destructive sequence and find a healthier substitute.

 Stability is born in relationships through spouses displaying patient respect and humility.  Respect is the attitude that helps couples realize that their spouses are precious and fragile human beings that must be handled with care.  Humility, the essential humility, is the recognition that when things don't work in the relationship, many times it is about me and my past instead of always being about my spouse's shortcomings.  Stability is an essential factor in growing new relationships and thus is most critical to establish in the first two years of marriage.

 Security is the second element important to growing strong "us" relationships.  Go back to the couple in the rowboat.  After they have established the fact that they can row together without harming or hurting one another, there is important work to be done.  Careers need to be established, work at home to be accomplished and divided, finances to be handled, and children to be raised, just to mention some of the tasks.  In each task, the couple must do their part of the rowing to make sure that the work is accomplished.  Not only once, but these marital tasks, the work of marriage, must be done over again and again.  There is always pressure at work, always something to be done at home, and never enough money.  Security in this "us" relationship is established by me being able to lean into my spouse to count on the fact that if I do my part, she will do her part.  In short, it is about trust.  This trustworthiness not only builds the ability to give to one another, it makes the couple partners.  That magical part where spouses are confident enough in one another to become a team.

 In order to achieve security, spouses must divide tasks evenly and fairly and take their fair share of responsibility.  But taking responsibility for a task is not enough. Spouses must also execute their responsibilities in a reliable way.  Let me illustrate this using one of my pet peeves--housework.  We are in the midst of a profound sociological change.  Around 70% of women work outside the home, yet they perform at least twice as many of the household tasks necessary to make the home function.  We've known about this profound inequity for more than ten years, but have yet to effectively change anything about the problem.  Women, who are overworked by two full shifts of work, are desperate for help.  They look at what they consider to be their deadbeat husbands and disdain their irresponsibility and unreliability.  Instead of trusting a secure relationship, they most often consider the male spouse incapable of changing and permanently immature.  Most often, they come to the conclusion, "I don't need another child--I earn an income and I take care of everything anyway--I'll go it alone."  It is one of the contributing, and more subtle factors the high divorce rate.

 Now a huge portion of this problem is that both males and females do not take the idea seriously that housework is the obligation of the male.  Males make excuses like "I wasn't raised to do it," or "It's just not that important to me."  Females, on the other hand, also make these excuses like "He just can't do it the right way." or "I'm luckier than most, at least he's giving me some help."  Many professionals complicate this already insecure picture by explaining that it is due to gender differences--You know, Men and Women are from different planets.  Men and Women share Earth and there is a lot of work to be done.  Unless both males and females wake up to the reality that working couples must take equal responsibility for the home, then reliably execute that responsibility, couples will not trust one another and their relational "us-ness" will be insecure at best.  This insecurity will, in turn, breed a lack of giving that will put the marriage in jeopardy as couples separate and compete for power.

 Security is a primary factor for couples that are past the newly married stage, but not quite into the middle years of marriage.  These habits and issues are usually formed through the 2nd to 9th year of marriage.  It is a crucial time in which it becomes apparent whether a couple will consolidate their "us" identity together, or whether they will pull apart and be individuals outside the relationship.

 Sincerity is the third growth factor in developing a strong couple "us-ness" and it is perhaps the most ignored in the field of marital therapy.  Sincerity reflects the ability to learn about one's self and achieve personal growth in the context of the marital relationship.  If a couple came to therapy and was stable and secure, but complaining that they didn't have any goals or that they seemed to be drifting apart, I use to have a tendency to not get it.  I would think, "You don't have extreme and damaging conflicts, you have found a way to get the work of marriage done--I see couples all the time that are in real trouble.  You two look pretty good."  The problem was that I was not seeing the importance of a couple learning to use the relationship to fulfill personal growth and build goals and legacy together.  Remember the couple in the rowboat?  Sincerity in the relationship is when the couple learns that they can row together safely without fear of damage or intimidation, they have gotten use to the trustworthy rhythms of how to work their careers, finances, and parenting together, AND THEN they look at one another and say, "Where would you like to go?  I'm willing to put in some oar time to accomplish something that is meaningful to you."  But this relational sincerity is not only about sacrificial giving, it is also about the spouses being willing to give up the part of individuality that they hold onto--the part that is the hardest to give up--the part that is at the heart of our infantile defenses, selfishness, or unacceptable behavior.

 As many of you know because I have written about it before, I come from a household that was physically abusive.  When I was eight, I made a manipulative effort to gain a declaration of love from my family.  I was somewhat depressed and went into my family's bathroom, took out one of my father's double edge razor blades, and carefully sliced into my forearms--even then I knew that if I cut into my wrists I would really be in trouble!  What I expected from my family was a move of protection in response to my cry--loving and caring--assurances that things in the future would be more stable.  What I got was my mother pulling my skinny little arm up to her face, grabbing the razor and putting to my wrist and proclaiming "If we are going to do the job right, this is where we need to cut you."

 A toxic shame washed over me.  It was a shame that I had always suspected-- that I was not loved and was not wanted.  Although through the years I had reconciled with my parents and family, worked at keeping the damaging interactions of abuse away from my wife and children, and recovered much of my identity, there was part of a shame core that I harbored just for myself.

 It was more of an entitlement that I carried around.  It said, "I have a right to be depressed, you don't know the background that I came from."  It said, "You can't say harsh things to me, I have been traumatized enough in my life."  It said, "I'll say or do anything I damn well like, people have certainly said and done what they wanted to me."  It said, "You must feel bad and sorry for me because I am one that has been victimized."  It is not like I carried these messages all the time, they just came out when I stumbled across anything disturbing that reminded me of this past--then I would pull out my shame core and claim my entitlement.  Conflicts with Sharon that hit these triggers would immediately be over as I spiraled down into depression, distance, anger, or manipulation.

 But "us" would not leave me alone.  The longer that I held onto my shame, the more powerful the marriage became in pointing out how stubborn and immature this attitude was.  Sharon, and our relationship, kept scraping off the outer layer of my pain and all the entitltements and destructive behavior that I had used to deal with it.  Laying it bear with honesty, the question kept on being presented verbally and non-verbally, "How long are you going to hold on to this that keeps you from growing."

 I would protest, both verbally and non-verbally, "You don't understand, this depression, distance, and anger is what I have always used to survive.  If I don't use it, I will die."  The answer would come back, both verbally and non-verbally, "I, we love you.  You will not die.  Your not okay, you're not perfect, but it is okay.  It is time to grow past it."  Now I cannot honestly stand before you and say my old shame core is completely dead--but I can stand up and say that I am better.  Not because I have pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, but because I have been humble enough to let my relationship with my wife teach me about how love works, that life can be trustworthy, and that I can become more human.

 This is the essential humility of marriage.  Partners committing themselves to the enormous task of creating a new person--a relationship--an "us-ness."  Then these partners growing that marital "us" by the humiliating process of realizing that many of the issues that cause conflict are about their own backgrounds and destructive patterns.  By being humble enough to embrace marital work responsibly and reliably so as to not take advantage of each other.  And finally, by subjugating oneself to the tough training of sacrifice and teachability--giving up old habits and defenses that prevent us from growing.

 Is subjugation, humility and humiliation painful?  In the long run, however, not really.  It is just like the orgasm we described in the sexual experience.  When we loose control of ourselves and totally give to our spouses and the relationship, we get--we get a sense of peace of who we are as individuals, and a sense of satisfaction that we are truly connected.
 And if that kind of humility can take place in creating a stable, secure, and sincere "us," then we will have long and loving marriages.  Like the couple for whom this poem by b.f. maiz was written.  They had been married 62 years and were celebrating their anniversary in the very same church in which they were wed on a September Sabbath 62 years earlier.  A lifetime of humility and love yielded an "us-ness" that assured the couple that they would make the same pledges of love all over again.

On that Holy September Sabbath Morning
We Together
 You and I
Locked Our Lives
I promised, through all the ripe and painted Autumns
 to walk with you
Through the bleak and icy Winters
 I made a vow to cuddle with you
Through the fresh and resurrecting Springs
 I took an oath to accompany you
And I swore to love you
 Through the green and sunlit Summers

On this Late September Sabbath Evening
Our lives Together, still Locked
I renew my promise
 I restate my oath
  I reaffirm my vow
And with the sincerity of a Pristine Priest
 White frocked and cloaked in holy ceremony to swear to love his God
I do swear, once again
 To Love You
Even longer than forever
Even longer than forever
®Copyright CMFCE. 

Dr Hargrave's book, The Essential Humility of Marriage:  Honoring the Third Identity in Couple Therapy, can be ordered through for $36.95.

Contact Dr Hargrave at 806-651-3620  or at

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