The Marriage Body

“Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” ~ Wm. Blake

All human experience comes to us through FORMS. This was the great revelation of Immanuel Kant who coined the term “categories of mind” and pointed out that we can only know things as they appear to us through our mindset with its limitations and predilections. All physical phenomena have forms – even wind, water and light have patterns that can be observed and predicted in the great game of cause and effect. Ideas require FORM in order to be fully experienced in the human realm. These FORMS are the archetypes, the well-worn river beds into which new experiences tend to flow.

MARRIAGE is a FORM that is constructed collectively and individually to be a container for many things: sexual satisfaction, procreation, raising children, easing loneliness, owning and bequeathing property, running businesses, creating dual-units for the social system, maintaining tribal loyalties, passing down genetic and moral codes, etc. It also is the container for subtler forms of energy like: affection, imagination, memory, fear, faith, shared experience, projection, joy, disappointment, hope, anger, transformation, compassion, impatience, yearning, bliss, etc. At any given time, one or more of these may be in ascendancy or may seem to have vanished altogether.

All these emotions and effects may be experienced outside of marriage too, but the accumulated power of them within the FORM of a single marriage feeds what I will call The Marriage Body and gives it the illusion of substance. It is now a “something” which has a past, a future and can exert influence over people and events in the real world.

Is there “really” a marriage body? If it “dies” the two people grieve over it as if it were a living thing and the physical symptoms often found in divorcing couples give strength to the idea that something has been severed or cut off, cut out, killed. Here is how poet, Robert Bly, describes the Marriage Body:

A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, or time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or not talking. 
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.

The man sees the way his fingers move;
he sees her hands close around a book she hands to him.
They obey a third body they have in common.
They have made a promise to love that body.

Age may come, parting may come, death will come.

A man and woman sit near each other;
as they breathe they feed someone we do not know,


someone we know of, whom we have never seen.

(The Third Body by Robert Bly)

Now, you may have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, the unsettling sensation of waking up one morning and suddenly not recognizing your own spouse. Or, even if you recognize the contour of the body and the face, all feelings of marital love have simply vanished. Like a radio whose dial has been jostled, you can’t tune in to the “we” frequency anymore. Only then do you recognize the ephemeral nature of the Marriage Body which is entirely based on a tacit, unconscious agreement about a shared past and an anticipated future. It is a drama in which two co-authors are also the stars. In that moment of lapse you inadvertently stumbled into the place called the Present where the flow of life is all there is. Sometimes you can jostle yourself back into the play called Our Marriage, but sometimes you cannot, as if you “missed the tide” and that ship sailed without you. Now you find that the reality you are tuned into places different demands on you. It’s like finding yourself inside a different a game.

Marriage is a FORM of the type called PLAY.

In all successful PLAY it is necessary for the players to take on roles, agree to goals and rules, boundaries, penalties, points, etc. Play can be exhausting, painful, dangerous, risky, but people choose to do it because it is basically FUN. It allows you to do those things that human beings like to do the most: test your abilities, learn new things, be cooperative and competitive, hang out with other human beings, see the world from different perspectives, feel really alive.

The reason that people say vows like “I will love you forever” or “until death do us part” is that marriage as PLAY is more FUN and life-affirming for both players when it is an INFINITE rather than a FINITE game.*  Infinite games are all about keeping the play of possibilities alive; finite games are about winning and losing. If you are in a relationship where somebody always has to win and somebody has to lose, then you are in a finite game which is not life-affirming and ultimately, not much fun. What makes marriage such a desirable game is its infinite quality. This does not mean that the play of marriage that you are in has to last forever – in fact, that’s impossible. The body forms that both players are in will eventually wear out and death will end the game in its present form. What it means is that marriage participates in the qualities of the infinite – meaning that if you play it, you get a taste of what eternity is. That is worth the play! As mythologist Joseph Campbell tried to explain to Bill Moyers:

“Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere.”

The kind of eternity the Play of Marriage allows you to experience has to do with recognizing the boundless nature of love, compassion, forgiveness, joy and delight in another’s wellbeing. It’s sort of like getting to play god and goddess for awhile, which is why so many cultures treat the bride and groom as if they were the divine couple during their wedding ceremony.

The Marriage Play is open-ended in that there is no end point where one player wins and the other loses; its possibilities of enjoyment and learning stretch out into infinity. The vows of fidelity around marriage and the idea of “til death do us part” increase the enjoyment of the game in the same way that raising the stakes do in other games – these are the boundaries that help refine the play and keep us focused and invested in the unfolding drama.

Now, it is fully possible to do a Divorce in such a way that it is life-affirming for both players. That is, to keep alive the sense of play for both partners while ending the FORM of the play they have been in. This requires giving up the idea of winners and losers. It also allows the soul to remain alive and interested in the proceedings, which, when you think in terms of infinity – or even of getting through next week -- is not a bad trade-off.

To Divorce with Soul-Based Mediation means to understand the playful nature of all life forms and respect all your game partners. If you finished your marriage because each of you just ran out of chips to play or moves to make, then you could honor one another for the amount of time and energy that each did put into making the play enjoyable; remember the best of the times and the life lessons that came from them. If you ended your marriage because you were like two samurai warriors and it just became too exhausting to continue, you can still salute one another as honorable opponents and reflect on the valuable skills you learned in such intense and fierce play. If one of you wanted to end the game sooner than the other, each can take comfort in the fact that opportunities to find new FORMS of the PLAY are endless and offer themselves to us each and every day in myriads of forms.

To help with the inevitable sadness of saying goodbye to a game and the play partner with whom you shared so much, I offer a succinct piece of wisdom from America’s poet laureate, Mary Oliver:


To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.


            ~          ~          ~


Rev. Rebecca Armstrong, 2007

* For more on Finite and Infinite Games, see the book by James Carse of that name. Highly recommended for giving perspective during times of crisis.


Rebecca ArmstrongComment