My wife Nita is a salamander, which may be the most reckless metaphor of my lifetime. Please don’t misunderstand me. The figure of speech is not meant to be disparaging to Nita or the salamander. In fact, it’s a compliment. To begin with, salamanders are amphibians, which is pretty cool—right? But even more astonishing, they are capable of regenerating lost limbs. That’s my wife! No, she can’t pop out a new appendage at will (although she does have the baffling knack of extending her leg six feet under the dining table when I say something rude to our dinner guests). However, like a salamander, she has the uncanny ability to adapt and evolve. And that powerful facility is why we have been married for nearly half a century.
The American psychologist, Scott Peck, said it best when he spoke about the “stages of community” in his book A Different Drum. Peck explained that a couple (or any close-knit group for that matter) goes through stages of development in their quest for community. They evolve—or not—depending on their level of maturity. There are four stages. Many stagnate or give up at stage one or two. Only the most psychologically and spiritually evolved get to stage four.
Stage One: Pseudo-community. The first stage of any relationship is the honeymoon. It’s called pseudo-community because from the outside it may look like true community, but it is all built on pretense. The couple wants the relationship to work so badly that they present an idealize avatar of their true selves. Imagine the first date. They scrub their faces, put on their best duds, and maybe even speak with an English accent—anything to be appealing to the other. Meanwhile, they ignore their differences. “It makes me cringe when he talks with a mouthful of pizza, but, hey, no one’s perfect.”
My wife was a trooper during this first stage of our marriage. When I was in my early twenties, water skiing was one of my passions. I was sure my petite and graceful wife would share my enthusiasm—not an easy assignment for a woman who never really learned how to swim. In fact, her definition of swimming was “staying alive in the water.” Still, she wrapped herself in the over-sized orange life vest and slipped her feet into the long planks, looking like a terrorized jack-o’-lantern on a stick. For Nita, slip-sliding on water was as natural as a Parisian fashion show with sumo wrestlers. But she loved me, really loved me—and for that I am both eternally grateful and woefully embarrassed that I put her through so much needless misery.
Stage Two: Chaos. Stage two is not a happy time. It’s as though a marriage certificate suddenly mutates into a license to criticize. What we are willing to ignore in pseudo-community becomes intolerable within the chaos of stage two. We want our partner to abide by our standards, our world view. It is tantamount to saying, “Let me take a moment out of my day to make you a better person.” It’s crazy, I know—why would we want to replicate ourselves?—but somehow we harbor the kooky impulse to take dominion over our spouses.
When this happens, no one is happy. Those who stay in chaos often resort to defense mechanisms to survive. For example, some will emotionally check out and live in their own world of fantasy. I once counseled a woman who relied solely on romance novels to get through the day. “How many do you read?” I asked.
“Just one a day,” she said meekly.
Others choose more toxic get-my-way tactics, including such favorites as depression, anger, addiction, and adultery.
Stage Three: Emptying the self. We always have a choice. We can choose to be right, or we can choose to be kind. Being “right” is about ego; being “kind” is about spirit. Recently, I had a respectful but spirited conversation with a Christian friend on a controversial church doctrine. At one point I said, “But that’s crazy. You can’t believe that . . .” Then I caught myself. “No, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to say that; that was a cheap shot.”
“You see, Allen,” my friend said, “that’s an example of the Holy Spirit talking to you, counseling you to be less harsh and more kind.”
Although I am more likely to label my regret as a twinge of “social conscience,” I do agree with my friend. In that moment I emptied myself of my ego and determined to be kind.
Replacing ego with spirit in a marriage requires an Olympian leap of maturity. We have to truly believe it when we say, “I love you just the way you are.”
That has not been difficult for my wife. I think that being loving is in her DNA. I’m not so virtuous; my genetic code seems to be laced with rungs of “bossy” and “crabby.” But with time—and a wife imbued with indefatigable patience—I have learned that Nita cannot be all things to me (just as I cannot be all things to her). So we both have turned to other friends to satisfy many of our unique passions. Nita has her birding and ecology friends; I have my music and theatre friends. At stage three we no longer need to be constantly together—as we did in the early days when poor Nita rode shotgun on my umpteenth trip to the hardware store.
Not everyone understands this kind of freedom. Nita once received a phone call from a friend who reported that I had been seen playing tennis with a mysterious woman. The meddler was convinced that I was having an affair. Nita and I laughed about the phone call. What the officious friend did not know was that our love has always been deep enough to be faithful and liberated enough to be expansive. Some might argue, “But what about appearances?” Frankly, we don’t care about appearances; we care about love.
Stage Four: True community. It will sound a bit like the Age of Aquarius, but true community is characterized by understanding, forgiveness, respect, and love. It is a wonderful sanctuary, a place where problem solving is civil, even effortless, because you know that you can be completely transparent—or silly or fumbling—and rest assured that your partner will never be derisive. You are at peace.
In the end you know you are at true community when your wife remains unruffled, despite an unbecoming comparison to a salamander. And why shouldn’t she? She knows it is said with humor and affection and that I love her exactly as she is—a woman who is amazingly adaptable, loving, trusting, and positively unsalamandrine in her beauty.
Dr. Allen Johnson is a columnist for the Tri-City Herald and the author of the novel, The Awakening. His column, “Mindfulness,” appears on the first Sunday of every month.