A marriage of contention
What seems hard in marriage is often doing us good
A few weeks ago, we were invited to attend an event featuring Jordan Peterson. Curious to see this Canadian psychologist and academic, who was touring Australia with sell-out audiences, we took up the offer.
One of the questions put to him by an audience member, enquired about his marriage. Being a public figure, it’s hard to keep one’s private life out of the glare of public scrutiny. While Peterson was appropriately respectful of their privacy, he was characteristically honest about his own shortcomings.
At the heart of his answer was a word he uses frequently when talking about marriage: ‘contention’. Peterson speaks about the need to marry someone with whom you can ‘contend’; that is, to have someone who will challenge us.
Speaking of his wife, he explains that he trusts her. Specifically, that he trusts her to tell him the truth; which is not necessarily always what he wants the hear, but rather what he needs to hear.
Contending is like wrestling with someone in order to work our way to a better place, a deeper understanding, a greater truth. In Peterson’s words, it is about helping us solve our biggest problems.
It’s a bit like the notion of ‘wrestling with God’ in the scriptures; now that’s not something we would ever think we could win. Rather it describes the notion of having something wrested-off us that is holding us back or limiting us.
Drawing on his experiences as a clinical psychologist, Peterson has developed a firsthand understanding that our capacity to tell each other difficult truths is dependent on our conviction of the permanency of marriage.
Putting it in his usual blunt way, he points out that if divorce is a possibility for us, then telling each other difficult truths is risky – either of us may not like to hear it and, if it gets ‘too hot in the kitchen’, then we can just leave.
Equally, there is no real incentive to do the hard work of being honest and vulnerable with each other; if it’s not a life-long journey that we are determined to make together, such hard work will likely be a wasted investment.
The reality is, without the commitment to permanency it’s harder to for us make the effort to build a successful, life-long relationship and, ipso facto, less likely that we will.
We remember as a newly married couple bumping up painfully against each other’s limitations with a very firey argument. Reflecting afterwards, we noted that because divorce was simply not an option for us, it gave us the push to ‘contend’ with each other; to discuss and tussle over our differences and eventually build a deeper understanding and to grow as individuals, and as a couple.
Put simply, we knew that there was no escaping each other. With the knowledge that there was no exit option we had two clear choices… work it out or live in misery.
Like or hate each other, we would be waking up next to each other for the rest of our lives, so it was a pretty obvious choice at one level. It was not necessarily easy to do, but the choice itself wasn’t that hard to make.
Of course, most of the time it’s not the issues over which we differ that cause us grief, but rather the way we engage with each other over our disagreements. Here also, our bedrock commitment to permanency motivated us to repair the damage from some of our less-noble exchanges and to seek reconciliation with each other.
Framed by our understanding of permanency, avoiding reconciliation, which is always intimidating, could be seen for what it is; a choice for mutual self-harm and relationship sabotage.
There have been many painful moments in our thirty years of marriage as we confronted the reality of our personal deficiencies. As two strong-willed individuals, our marriage has been one of regular contention, to a point where we often joke that has been like one long, mutual therapy session.
Naturally, the process is still ongoing – we are both ‘works in progress’– though perhaps the ‘therapy’ is not quite as intense as we remember it in our earlier years.
Another area where we the mutual therapy is at play is in our marriage ministry work. Unsurprisingly, working together is not always easy for us, especially when we are under time-pressure.
We use the term ‘creative abrasion’ to describe the often-painful process of bringing a new creative project to fruition. Cherished ideas, painstaking effort, good intentions all get challenged by the brutal objectivity of a process committed to bringing to birth the best possible outcome.
It’s a process that many with whom we work find confronting; the raw vulnerability and honesty to which we have become accustomed from our three decades in the furnace of our marriage, is not what people are used to seeing in a typical workplace.
In many ways, ‘creative abrasion’ is another way to describe what Peterson is referring to when he talks about ‘contending’ in marriage. It too, is a process orientated towards delivering a more refined version of ourselves.
Being willing to contend with each other, and secure in the strength of our marital commitment, we engage in the process of helping each other refine and improve our character and grow in holiness.
In responding to the call to challenge each other (lovingly!) over our selfishness, our assumptions of being right, our independence, our limited wisdom and virtue – there are countless opportunities for ‘creative abrasion’ to do its work in any marriage.
And that is really the heart of the great marital project – helping each other become better, more virtuous… in a word, holier.