It’s more difficult to look at marriage as we actually experience it, taking note of its deep fantasies, its hidden emotions,
and its place in the life of the soul; not looking for perfection, but asking what the soul is doing when it entices us toward such a demanding form of relationship.
—Thomas Moore

There’s a wispy goatee on his chin, just a few strands of curly blondish hair, straggly and long. He reaches up every few minutes and plays with the hairs, curling them around his fingers, twisting and twirling and then smoothing them out again. For all I can tell, his goatee is the only thing in the world that truly fascinates him.

He’s sitting directly across the desk from me, just a few feet away, but he avoids making eye contact. Instead, he occasionally seems interested in a montage of pictures on the wall behind my desk—photos of Lisa and me traveling through China with our daughter Julie. In one photo we are hiking upward along the Great Wall. Another shows us dining, cross-legged around a common table, in a small rural village. Looking past me Garrett stares at the pictures, clicking the top of his pen.

Click-click.

The young husband rubs his chin, stares at the picture on the wall, clicks his pen. So far he hasn’t said much, though he blushed out a shy hello earlier as I welcomed him into my office. He seems to be the strong and silent type—big on staring and clicking.

Click-click. Click-click. Click-click.

The noise must drive his wife crazy, I think to myself. Does he do this at home? As a marriage and family counselor I am familiar with all manners of passive–aggressive behavior, but I’ve never seen pen-clicking used as a weapon of avoidance or payback.

His wife, seated beside him, seems not to notice. In this couple she is clearly the social one—warm and outgoing. She looks straight across the desk, directly into my eyes, making sure I’m paying attention to her. When she speaks her voice is clear and strong, cutting through the noise of the pen clicks.

“We’re not here because of any problems” is Danielle’s opening statement to me. “It’s not that. We have a good marriage. We love each other and we both love our kids.”

She watches me, makes sure I understand this, checks to be quite certain of my agreement before proceeding further. She’s dressed in upscale business casual today, a cream-colored oxford shirt tucked in over neatly pressed khakis. Her husband slouches in his chair, absently rubbing his goatee. He’s wearing a wrinkled T-shirt over faded jeans. His sandals are old, tattered, wearing out at the straps and heels.

Opposites attract.

Leaning back in my seat I nod at the young wife, silently inviting her to continue with her story. After many years of practice my nod is a way of saying, I’m listening; I’m very receptive to what you’re telling me. I halfway agree with you so far, even though you’re just beginning to open up. So please tell me more.

Quite a lot of content for one nod. It’s taken years to refine it.

The young wife sighs, interprets the nod correctly, and then plunges forward.

“It’s just…” Danielle begins. She wrinkles her nose, showing a small dimple in her left cheek, clearly trying to find the just-right phrasing to express her many thoughts. “Well, it’s just that both of us feel like we’re not really connecting anymore. I mean we live together, and we’re raising two children together, but most of the time I feel like we’re complete strangers. It’s like we don’t even know each other.

“We almost never talk about anything meaningful, or go for long walks, or do anything romantic together. All we do is get up every morning and go through the same old motions. We don’t scream or fight—I sometimes think it might be better if we did!”

Her husband glances up at me, sees me looking at him, and quickly looks away. He strokes his goatee and clicks his pen.

Click-click. Click-click. Click-click.

I consider telling him to stop. Rethinking it, I decide to ignore the sound as if it couldn’t possibly matter. I don’t even hear it. I sit quietly and gather my thoughts for a moment—waiting, listening. Then I look patiently at the wife, who is wrinkling her nose again and about to speak.  

“We don’t really know why we came to see you,” she continues. “Except it just feels like there ought to be more than this, you know? I mean, is this what marriage is? You live together, one of you chases kids around all day, and one of you goes off to work and then comes home? You eat together and sleep together, and eventually you get old?”

She’s not aware of it, but her voice has gotten louder. She’s been leaning forward in her seat, almost making a speech. She is obviously passionate about this topic and is getting herself a little worked up. It’s clear she’s been thinking about these issues and wondering if there’s more to life, or if she should just settle for an “ordinary” marriage—a marriage like the ones she sees all around her, including at church.

They must be about five years in, I think to myself. Two kids, all the normal parental challenges and adjustments going on, not much real intimacy or relational depth. I give them four years minimum, seven years maximum, probably five years.

“How long have you been married?” I ask the wrinkly-nosed wife.

“Almost six years,” she sighs. “It will be six years this June.”

I say nothing, absorbing her answer, letting the silence congeal for a moment. I give myself imaginary bonus points for guessing the duration of their marriage union, although truly it’s not difficult. After a while the patterns emerge clearly and visibly.

Danielle’s husband clicks his pen again, staring at the grouping of China photos. He seems to be wondering if there’s any point at all to marriage counseling, any point to going through all of this. His body language tells me he thinks he’s wasting his time—he’d rather not be here. Has he heard anything his wife has said to me? Was he even listening? It may be impossible to know, but it’s definitely time to find out.

I look directly at him, smiling, waiting until he meets my gaze.

“What could be better about your marriage?” I ask him. “What needs improving?”

He gives me a wry, Bart Simpson grin. “More sex would be nice,” he says.

His wife elbows him in the stomach, and immediately they start a fake fight.

They’re punching and scratching at each other, halfheartedly, giggling. I get a glimpse of the relational glue that’s held them together so far. It’s encouraging to see. Marriages are a lot like paper airplanes or fragile kites—although they’re meant to soar, the world is a windy and sometimes stormy place. A lot of kites crash. Too many planes start out aiming skyward but end up nose-down in the dirt, crumpled and broken.

Garrett and Dani love each other—it shows in their fake-fighting. She’s punching him in the left shoulder and he’s slapping at her, not really connecting, trying to ward her off and yet keep her fighting back at the same time. Both of them are laughing out loud.

If love is friendship on fire, it’s nice to see a few sparks fly.

I let the silly fight play out for a few minutes. It seems to de-stress the husband. And his wife is enjoying the chance to slap him around a little. She scores a few good hits, probably because he allows it. I notice he is fighting carefully, not using much force. They don’t seem angry at each other; they seem playful, competitive, and childlike.

They pause in mid-battle, both a little embarrassed but relaxed and happier also. It’s good for them to be like this, young and crazy, fake-fighting. Mr. Strong-and-Silent has come alive in this exchange, and now he’s trying to tickle his wife into submission.

It isn’t working.