Before the Wake-Up
Before the Wake Up
by Ken Sullivan
Marlon Brando playing Sky Masterson in the movie version of Guys and Dolls summed it up perfectly. Lecturing the love-struck Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) about her enmeshed relationship with gambler Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) he says, “My daddy once told me ‘he says no matter who you get married to, you wake up married to someone else.’ It’s probably true, you take it how the dice falls.” It seems odd that a lifelong bachelor, rogue and devoted gambler could be so wise when it comes to the nature of love and relationships. Many books have been written on the subject and many a therapist has struggled to explain for the desperate couple in her office how and why this apparent truism occurs. Yet, rarely has it been described so succinctly.
Explanations and couples’ therapy work are mostly focused on what happens after the ‘wake up’. We’re told that the higher purpose of committed love relationships is to heal childhood wounds; to complete with our current lover, the unfinished business of our past; to learn to love and be loved. Issues of transference and projection, boundaries, needs, and communication skills among others are discussed and homework assigned. The couple must learn about tolerance and acceptance. They have to get off the blame game and start to take responsibility for their part in the dynamic. The old, dubious term ‘co-dependency’ may even be pulled out hoping that all the couple’s ills will be explained by it. The challenges for the couple new to therapy will be plentiful, painful, and hopefully in the end worthwhile – there are few guarantees.
A perspective that is often forgotten or disregarded in couples’ therapy is the relationship before the ‘wake up’. Since the juncture of commitment is so often the mark that is referred to (“It was different before we got married.”), could there be some value in inquiring about what it was like before? Should the couple bring some attention to who and how they were during the courtship phase and can this lend itself to helping the couple now? The answer is decidedly yes.
When a couple finally seeks help it is usually after all else has failed, too much time has passed, and the therapist is seen as their last resort. The relationship has mostly broken down (for at least one of the individuals) and little hope remains. Contrast this to the way it was in the early stages.
In the beginning, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation or degree of awareness, everyone experiences feelings found nowhere else in life. From tremendous passion and bliss to crippling worry and fear, the entire spectrum of emotions can be felt even in the space of one date. Men who are otherwise stoic and well guarded may begin to act like free-spirited children in a playground. Women who have doubted their worth may feel a new power in how the other person pursues and seems particularly attracted to them. New love brings us the opportunity to experience ourselves and another in ways we never have before. This is not just a chemical or hormonal reaction caused by some primitive courtship gene, it is a necessary though quite unconscious undertaking designed to let us experience our possible, full-potential selves. As well, we get a chance to see another human being in his or her full potential.
This is a critical point. Not only do we experience our own possible self, we collaborate as a couple in making each other a perfect version of the less-than-perfect people we will find after the ‘wake up’. Here’s how it works.
Mary asks Bob out on a date. Before getting to this point Mary had assessed Bob in some favourable enough way that a date could at all be possible. Perhaps he looks good, has a cute smile, is mysterious or reminds her of a past lover. Whatever the criteria, Bob has passed muster. What Mary has done is to elevate Bob to a place he wasn’t before – not only in her eyes but for Bob as well, especially if his feelings for Mary are reciprocal. Bob now gets to experience himself as desirable, sexy, interesting, worthwhile – whatever he makes Mary’s interest in him mean. He might be mistaken in what he thinks Mary thinks of him, but it doesn’t really matter. Bob will search within himself for just those qualities he thinks Mary finds most attractive and start to work on them. Perhaps he will exaggerate them, but in any case he will better them. He will be funnier, neater, sexier, stronger, smarter and especially more sensitive. He will get to experience himself in ways that were not possible when he was by himself. It took the interest of another (Mary) to create this possible self.
Mary, of course, colludes with Bob by continuing to focus mostly on those qualities that keep her attracted to him. She will even overlook other qualities that might challenge her decision (these become the source of many complaints later in the relationship). She will support and contribute to what makes Bob so attractive to her. She will compliment his dress or looks, she will cheer him on to confront his boss and listen compassionately to the story of his life. For his part Bob will do exactly the same thing. He will notice the positive in Mary, bask in the glow of another’s interest, work hard at maintaining Mary’s esteem of him, disregard those parts of her that may take away some of the luster, support her in achieving her potential, and show a sensitivity that may seem to completely disappear in the future. Mary will continue to present only those qualities of herself she thinks would be most attractive to Bob, and thereby also gets a chance to experience herself with greater possibilities than she would without him.
For a while the new couple is in almost perfect balance of unconscious participation in making each other more than could be possible if alone. The benefits are great. Each feels heightened beyond measure with potential, passion, self-esteem and the esteem of another. The energy needed to maintain this level of connection is considerable, however, and we all know that it doesn’t last forever – at least until we are next in a new relationship. The sad thing of this is not that it doesn’t last – that is the natural ebb and flow found in any relationship. The sadness occurs later when the relationship has headed south.
We may lament what was and hold each other at ransom for how they’ve changed, but more tragically, the couple has forgotten that they used to collaborate fully in creating a self and a mate of great potential. This is the energy couples need to reacquire and nurture to help them through future challenges. They need to do this in conscious ways different from the ‘blissed-out’ unconscious way of the past. When a couple regains this good will and healthy collusion, therapy progresses more smoothly. Considerable work may still be ahead of them, but the team approach is always more productive than what individuals can accomplish separately.
As for Sky Masterson, his after-the-wake-up life was bound to be very interesting. He married Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), the Salvation Army officer out to save the souls of sinners.
Ken Sullivan is a facilitator for the Total Self and Spiritual Psychotherapy, Relationship Counselling and Body-Centred Therapy Programs and Intensives. He is a Senior Spiritual
Psychotherapist for the College’s Counselling Clinic, a case supervisor and runs psychotherapy groups. Ken is a graduate of the Spiritual/Body Psychotherapy and Relationship Counselling Programs and is in private practice.