A marriage is like…

Last week my husband and I celebrated 36 years of marriage. I could write that these years were sweet wedded bliss but I’d be lying. We’ve struggled through some tough times. Despite our differences, we’re still here, still together and moving forward. You could say I’m a stubborn cuss or say I’m a persistent person. Either way, the same words fit for my spouse.

Because I love metaphors, I Googled “metaphor for marriage.” A metaphor, as you probably know, is a figure of speech that refers, for rhetorical effect, to one thing by mentioning another thing. The search engine results for marriage included metaphors like these…trees…swords forged in fire…a horse and carriage…a duet…a road…seeds…gardens…and a host of other associations. I read every idea and marvelled at the way the contributors elaborated on their meaning. Not one fit my experience.

The truth is a marriage is created by two unique individuals, and if nothing else, we are that. My husband and I have such distinct personalities it’s a miracle we’ve gone on this long. After completing my research, I concluded that I had to find my own parallels.

I sat for a long time waiting for a metaphor to come into my mind. During my reflection time, I remembered a family holiday that included white water rafting on the Kananaskis River in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. A group of multi-aged tourists showed up for the trip, donned raggedy wetsuits, helmets and lifejackets, and then armed with paddles and enthusiasm, we waited impatiently to set off. We felt brave and up to the risk; possibly a little apprehensive. After an instructivel lecture on rafting techniques and a safety demonstration, we piled into the raft. After our guide showed us basic paddling skills, we maneuvered our craft through an easy section of fast moving water. When our crew put their backs into the oars, we became a team. We felt brave gliding smoothly around rocks large enough to create eddies. We even survived a few nose-dives that sprayed up and soaked us to the skin.

Towards the end of the adventure, we tied up on the shoreline and scrambled along the edge where we were instructed to throw ourselves into the water. Some of us were doubtful. The rafting coaches pressed us. Plummeting into a frigid mountain river took my breath away. The river took hold of each one of us and carried us 50 feet downstream where our guides waited, laughing, to pluck us from the stream.

I’ll never forget the exhilaration and shock of leaping into that water. This was the link to my metaphor!

Like a new river rafter, you first experience marriage as if you are leaping into a cold mountain river that looks beautiful from afar but turns out to be risky for the innocent participant. Initially the novelty of romance and delight takes your breath away. You feel like you can handle anything. After awhile, the excitement wears thin, and you struggle to keep your enthusiasm going. Eventually you realize there is work to it so you put more effort into it. Emotional turmoil tumbles around you, pushes you off-balance and threatens to wash you onto the shore or send you scrambling over the rocks. Slippery stepping stones in your life upset your footing. Your well-anchored opinions are washed away like gravel, swept along in rapids, and tossed over thundering waterfalls. At the sharpest curve, you learn to respect the river. Sometimes you are submerged like waterlogged debris in the current; sometimes you float like a fallen autumn leaf. Eventually, you surrender: to the flow, to life, to the love that brought you to each other in the first place. After the rapids, you realize the current is slowing.

Where you once saw your husband as a heavy rock holding you down, you begin to appreciate him as an anchor. You realize the two of you handle the current in different ways; you learn to stand and let the wild water flow around you. He understands your need to float in still pools. You both learn to listen to the silence and stillness of the forest unconscious. His sharp edges smooth out, and his dark sediments slowly settle into fertile growth. The drama of the wild water fades. On the flood plain you learn to go with the flow.

Metaphor is a big picture tool that provides clarity. It shows me the similarities between a wild river ride and a marriage. It helps me step back and see the complete, overarching story of two souls who have learned to travel with the flow of life. From this vantage point, I can consider the future, and instead of focusing on the small details of past turbulence, make decisions that take the whole of the river’s course into account, from spring source to the wide sea.

So tell me in the comments…what is a metaphor for your relationship with your partner?

Compassion for the Shame-Baby

Yesterday, at a child’s 4th birthday party with red, blue and yellow balloons floating on the ceiling, big slices of chocolate cake on plates, piles of presents and 14 rambunctious children chasing each other around the kitchen, the mother of the birthday boy asked me to hold her 8-month old baby girl. We played pat-a-cake and peekaboo, and I revelled in the innocence of this small gopher-cheeked human being.

In the midst of the noise and chaos, she struggled to stay awake. I rocked back and forth, hummed a tuneless melody in the comforting way that I used when my own children were small. She eventually succumbed to sleep as a puppy does, simply closing her heavy eyelids and drifting off into dreamland.

While I felt grateful for this opportunity to revisit the world of little kids, I couldn’t help but compare it to the self-compassion work I’m engaged in myself at the mature age of 66 years. Just a few days ago, I talked with a supportive friend, and I told her about one of my Shadow Selves, “Critical Carla” who yammers at me when I make mistakes. “You don’t measure up!” “You’re a failure!” When Carla speaks to me like that, I become anxious and stressed and I see only my flaws.

Intellectually, I understand the purpose of Carla’s tirades. She’s trying to motivate me by correcting me so I’m safe from the rejection and disconnection that I fear will come with disappointing others and myself. I don’t necessarily feel her protection. Instead, I feel hurt and defensive instead of determined to be my best self. Worst of all, I feel alone.

When I make big mistakes, Critical Carla’s reactions can wreck havoc in my life. When she compares me to others whose lives seem idyllic and perfect, when she castigates me for my disorganized housekeeping skills, my frustration with my husband, my inability to balance my cheque book, or any other behaviour in which I feel “not good enough,” I feel powerless to stop her until I listen carefully and acknowledge her reason for protecting me.

Until I become mindful, the innocent child inside me continues to feel ashamed. She is, as self-compassion researcher Kirsten Neff says, a “shame-baby.” This baby needs my compassion and comfort whether it is warmth and reassurance, rocking, or whispers that say, “You’re okay just the way you are.” She needs to feel safe with me, that she is not alone, and that all human beings have moments when they feel flawed and imperfect. I can put my hand over her heart or cup her face so she feels rest easy in my arms.