Marriage as Improvisation

My brother Jerry is a theater professor. I have been fascinated by the overlap in our professional lives. When he directs, he is trying to make the relationships and action onstage real and believable. When I work with couples I am trying to facilitate the same in a marriage, make the dream of closeness real and believable to each person.

When Jerry was going through his training, I had the pleasure of seeing him perform improv with his fellow actors. When we were talking about it later (thankfully he likes to talk about his craft as much as I do) he mentioned the one rule of improv—“Don’t block.” Actors in improv have to take whatever the other actor(s) generate and allow it to influence their response on stage. When one actor essentially says in word or action, “No, that isn’t happening” it kills the action, the life of the scene drains out, and it goes flat.

Blocking the influence of a spouse can kill the improvisation on a dream that is essential to a happy relationship.

It reminds me of the two Bob Dylan concerts I recently attended. The first was a dreadful affair where Bobby hid behind his keyboard and screamed his lyrics the entire show. The stage was full of competent musicians, but there was no life between them, no fluid interaction—each artist sticking to a lifeless script. The second was a miraculous event in which Bobby was out front, interacting with the audience, smiling and miming, every lyric sung or spoken as if for the first time. Bob had his old pal Charlie Sexton on lead guitar, and Bob and Charlie were interacting, improvising, and having fun. Charlie was pulling Bob out, encouraging him to be Bob, and Bob was obviously inspiring Charlie. Each song was electric. I literally felt like applauding through the whole show.

Happy marriage is a lot like a juicy improv or a musical miracle in which each partner is actively pulling the other person into the action through encouragement, playfulness, and most importantly letting the other person have profound influence in their lives. This is something that one must allow, feeling secure enough within self to absorb and appreciate the influence of the other. Often in marital counseling I see couples where one or both partners are actively and fiercely blocking the influence of the other. They see the other person’s influence as a mortal threat, and are willing to attack and stonewall to block it. This has usually evolved over years of poisonous interaction.

The willingness and ability to accept influence has been shown in research to be a deciding factor in marital happiness and risk of divorce. Accepting influence means that as partners tune into each other over time, becoming aware of each other’s fondest dreams and deepest dreads, they allow their partner to influence the course of life in ways large and small. This means that meaningful conversation is absolutely essential. Accepting influence means beginning to see things the way your partner does and doing it their way, at least in part. The opposite of accepting influence might actually manifest in two extremes—blocking influence or surrendering control. I will look at these two patterns in my next entry.

Mindful Marriage

Marriage is many things–a tax break, a social status, a legal contract, an expression of religion, an intended lifetime bond. It has been described as bliss, a ball and chain, half a chance of failing, and a symbol of God’s love for humanity. The purpose of this blog is to raise awareness of the relationship aspect of marriage, to uncover the path to joyful and satisfying marriage that will last, grow, and evolve.

I am a marital therapist. I constantly read and explore the available body of research about marital dynamics. There is an amazing wealth of knowledge, which often defies conventional wisdom or commonly given advice.

But, even more pertinent, I am a married man, mindfully exploring the depth and breadth of marriage to my lovely wife Peggy. I am also a survivor of divorce–a first marriage that failed but taught me much. My intention is for this blog to bridge the connection between the professional and personal in my life, to be a true expression of the experience of marriage that has been given to me. My hope is that it will be helpful and timely to you, whoever you are.