Sometime in my late twenties, in the first years of our now 30-year marriage, and somewhere on a lethal length of highway locals call the Levan Death Strip, I learned everything I need to know about marriage. The learning came in a dream. In it I’ve identified eight principles everyone can use for a better union.
My husband Randall and I are driving through central Utah’s high mountain desert along an endless, arid highway known as the Levan Death Strip. “Death”, partly because there’s nothing on the landscape but tumbleweed and dust devils, but mostly because it’s one of the deadliest stretches of road in the state. Semi-trailers and careening motorcycles, rusted out 1973 Chevy Impalas, and cattle trucks meet head on at high speeds here, exploding the desert silence with the hellish sound of detonating metal and glass.
As I was saying, Randall is driving. I’m sitting shotgun, my eyes on the map. Straight ahead is this hypnotizing strip stretched taut as if it were a towing rope attached to the hood ornament on our car and at the other end to the setting sun, which shimmers on a ridge patiently drumming its fingered rays across the horizon.
Suddenly, the sky goes dark. In the space of one breath, daylight is swallowed up in a black tide that thickens, obscuring everything round us, three-hundred-sixty-degrees of palpable heavy.
Barely ahead I make out the blinking orange of some tail lights. There had been cars far, far ahead of us a few minutes ago and now they appear closer, having slowed to a crawl. Everything inches, struggles, lurches. Then stops.
We stop too, on the left side of the road. No discussion, no way to move ahead, not only because we can’t see, but because this heavy has body. Some sort of gelatinous, clinging, viscous weight that is cold and lifeless touches my skin when I step out of the car and creep, hand-over-hand along the car’s right side, palming the hood, then patting my way to the driver’s door out of which Randall emerges.
We say nothing even though I open my mouth and try to push noise up from my throat. The sound waves don’t travel through this new quality of air, so no use calling out. No use, even, trying to whisper to Randall, at whose left side I now stand, right arm linked with his left, pushed up against him, drawing warmth and reassurance.
By the cars parked up the road there’s a faint outline of people. They’re shuffling in this serious, deadly quiet. Now the Heavy coagulates and I can make out neither people nor the tail lights that had just been visible in front of us. Randall and I stand in silence, fused that way, totally, existentially alone.
With no way to judge distance but by the length of our stride, no way to converse, and no way to get our bearings, we simply hold on to each other. I can feel the swelling and contracting of his breathing. We fall in sync.
At the driver’s side of the car, on the left edge of the highway, we begin moving, inching. Walking is a must; something tells us standing still will mean death. So we cling to one another –– I on Randall’s left, toeing the edge of the road so we don’t slide off into the shoulder; Randall to my right, initiating every step forward into the darkness.
It’s here, engulfed in heavy murk, that we lean onto each other, pressing. There is a symbiotic, synergistic friction that generates heat and not only keeps us on track and moving forward, but holds us up.
Many dream-time minutes into creeping forward and I turn, straining to see my husband’s face just inches from mine. But I can only make out that he’s wearing a suit. And there are sparks scattered on that suit. Little fine embers seem to be falling onto (or is it emerging from? I can’t tell which), the fabric. Afraid they’ll make his suit combust, I start swatting and then slapping these sparks.
Strangely, the sparks give just enough light to help us push ahead, which I sense we do long after my actual dream ends.
The journey you’ve envisioned on the outset of your marriage as a tidy, well-lit straight line to infinity? Not. Life is neither tidy nor straight, nor is it necessarily well-lit. See up there, a couple of hundred meters ahead where the mirage makes the road look swimmy? That’s where the beeline disappears, giving way –– again and again –– to the reality of the changeable and unexpected.
Know now that this will happen and you won’t self destruct when life doesn’t go to plan.
Start together. Stay in together. Sure, we can also chose to have our individual cars where we’re free to listen to our own playlists, eat our stinky beef jerky, and go at our speed. We can select our solo routes and stop at our preferred points of interest at will. How convenient is that? Saves us from compromising our plans and preferences with another person’s, right?
But the whole point is to travel as a team, which means compromise over convenience, sitting elbow-to-elbow, someone driving , someone reading the map, beef jerky that side, dried sea kelp my side. It’s of little consequence, by the way, who’s driving, who’s navigating; both functions are equally necessary and of course interchangeable, because in my dream, we are both licensed, alert, and invested in the trip, our individual contributions therefore essential for the voyage.
Know now that your marriage is the vehicle that does not just get you to a destination, but will test your capacity to place compromise and commitment over convenience, sharing responsibilities and whatever arises on the route.
You’ve noticed: maps help. (And GPS is better.) But only when you can see a road. What when you can’t? That’s where the strength of your partnership kicks in and you must gingerly feel your way together, into the future.
As a newlywed couple we found marriage mentors––living guidebooks, maps––folks ahead of us in life who modeled how it could all be done well. But roads change, and so travel plans. We, for instance, started out determined to be tandem university professors. Some years into marriage, however, both of us decided not to do our PhDs. Instead, we took a different route, or better, several end-to-end alternate routes.
Know now that maps must be pliable plots, not strict strategies.
Midway along our route tragedy hit and the bright desert daylight was instantly choked with the ultimate heavy. In one stroke of fate, and in the middle of major international move when our stability was already compromised, we lost our eldest child, then 18, to a gruesome water accident.
It’s then we learned that darkness had texture, heft. At any moment the Heavy can hit and swallow up our sunny route. Loss of all sorts, not just the dramatic blow we have known, can change virtually everything in an instant. Struggles with illness both physical and mental, addictions, a partner’s or child’s illicit behavior, unemployment, and larger societal events (war, economic downturn, natural disaster, etc.) or a combination of any of the above, might be our dark tide.
Know now that darkness not only might happen, but it will. When it hits, your marriage can remain intact and even grow stronger, becoming the very thing that helps you individually and as a family to survive.
5. Soft Shoulders
You know those signs that warn motorists of soft shoulders off the sides of the road? In Tanzania I once witnessed what happens when they are ignored. A public bus over-crammed with passengers with their goats and chickens and baskets of market goods dangling out the windows tried to overtake a stalled vehicle by driving onto the soft shoulder. The moment the bus’s two left wheels were off the asphalt and on the soil, the bus began sinking, then teetered, then toppled over on its side. Screaming, crushed adults and children, yowling and fluttering livestock were the soundtrack I can never erase from my memory.
Know now that soft shoulders are everywhere and anyone can slip more easily than you might imagine. And when darkness sweeps in and disorients you threatening to drive you off your route or from each other, it is especially important to toe that edge, reminding yourself to push inward toward your partner and away from the soft shoulder.
6. Synergistic Support
Although my strong inclination toward rule keeping meant I sensed limits well with my left foot, I was afraid to move forward into the darkness. I kept pulling backward. Behind felt safer than ahead, and I recoiled from whatever was out there in that pitch black mass. In real life, too, part of me wants to retreat from the unknown because I lack confidence in my ability to conquer difficult and intimidating situations. Randall, on the other hand, doesn’t obsess over worst case scenarios and forges forward.
Know now that progression in marriage requires both staying out of dangerous soft shoulders and pressing forward into the unknown. When you and your partner are pressing inward, toward each other, the isometric pressure not only propels you forward but actually gives you energy and helps you to stay standing.
When I first interpreted this dream, I saw those sparks on Randall’s suit as trouble coming from the outside. My job was to beat that trouble down. Part of a strong partnership is being alert and sensitive to our mate’s vulnerabilities and doing what we can to keep our partner safe. Of course my message is not to feel excessively guilty when a beloved plays with fire, so to speak, because of course we’re all responsible for our own decisions and behaviors. But I’ve observed the strongest couples try vigilantly to protect one another from trouble.
Loving each other means attending to each other, helping keep one another safe and well. We can do so by staying extremely close and watching for signs that something is smoldering. Does your wife struggle with anxiety? Does your husband have addictive tendencies? Does she fly easily into a rage? Does he slump regularly into a depression? Is she on the professional road a lot where she could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Does he work a lot on the Internet where he could slip into a new identity and thus illicit behaviors? Then you do everything you can to strengthen them for those situations where they might fall into trouble.
Know now that everyone has weaknesses and everyone is susceptible to temptations or attacks on their virtue and morals. Know now that central to loving our spouse is not only having their specific sparks at heart, but to help beat them back before they take flame.
8. Or … Sparks
And here is the most important portion of the dream. Because at 20+ years into marriage I found that my former interpretation of it, which you just read, and therefore my paradigm for marriage, had changed. Where I’d previously seen myself as the safe-keeper, the border patrol, the ever ready spark-slapper, now I saw those sparks differently.
What if those sparks I’d been slapping at weren’t signs of danger? What if they were something else? What if those sparks –- what I’d thought were temptations, fiery darts –– weren’t flying at my partner but those sparks are actually emerging from him? What if they weren’t bad fire but good, even flecks of hot gold? Not trouble but promise? Not hints of weakness but signs of power? I thought, “What if those sparks are searing heat and power literally bursting out of Randall, and I, in my hyper-attentiveness and self-righteousness am beating them down, beating him down, extinguishing a light, extinguishing him?”
There are so many ways we can extinguish the light in others. We think we are being care givers and life coaches, but in over-critiquing, in hyper-patroling, we can become nit-pickers, fault-finders, nay-sayers. We can also hold each other back in our jealousy and insecurity when we permit our own fears, self doubts, and insecurities (we all have them) to breed that nervous reflex that lashes out –– slap! –– disallowing others to simply be who they are, to shine, even brilliantly.
We assuage things by saying we’re just being honest, when we actually end up beating that person back, or beating her up. We slap out another’s light by refusing to forgive, holding a grudge, keeping score, playing tit-for-tat. We can engage in power plays, we can belittle, we can even discredit our own beloveds in slanderous gossip. We might play politics, demanding equality at every turn, not interdependency as an overarching guide, saying, in essence, “Well, if I can’t have those sparks, then neither can you!”
When this new marriage paradigm came to me, I have to tell you: I wept. How many years had I focused on potential faults in my husband and not on the promising strengths? How many opportunities had I missed to praise him, to celebrate in his light, to see his radiance increase?
Know now that even in purely selfish terms, you are the prime beneficiary when your partner glows. Indeed, we all benefit when anyone glows! You’ll remember: those sparks on Randall’s suit gave us both just enough illumination to light our way through a world of complete darkness.
When we make it through this heavy passage together––and I trust we all will–– then it will certainly be by virtue of all this unsmothered, heat-generating, God-given mutual incandescence.