Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
May 2008 - Volume 08, No. 5
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The Basement Wedding

When people marry, they often have too little understanding of what they're doing. They may know what they want it to mean - but often by the time they come to me for marital counseling, those initial good intentions have been long taken over by something else.

Many years ago somebody (I think it was the poet Robert Bly) who introduced me to the "Basement Wedding" - as a way of helping to understand just what really happens at a wedding.

The "Upstairs" wedding - often takes place in a church, or a place that has special significance by virtue of its history or beauty. People gather full of hopes and good wishes. There's music, flowers, colorfully or finely dressed folks gathering to celebrate - and those lofty ritual words that make it all into something that hungers to be permanent. People cry at weddings - not from sadness, but because a wedding is often the closest we may ever come to that perfection that can never be fully realized in this life. Some call it a "fairy tale" quality - and the wedding 'industry' makes a lot of money trying to market the image. But anyway, that's the "upstairs" wedding - hopes and dreams, happiness, well-wishing, and when you add the reception, it's a great party.

But simultaneously, in the "basement," there's another ceremony taking place, just outside of our awareness. The ritual down here is quite simple - the center of which is called "The Exchange of Gifts":

The bride and groom stand facing each other. Behind each are their parents, perhaps stepparents, maybe even an ex-spouse or two. One of the parents - it doesn't matter which one is first - steps forward. Let's say it's the mother of the groom. She speaks to the bride: "My son has meant all these things to me for all these years [she may choose to elaborate, or not]- and now, my dear, he's all yours." (The atmosphere somehow feels as if a specific energy transfer has taken place.) Then the father of the groom steps forward in like manner: "My son has meant all these things to me for all these years, and now, sweetheart, he's all yours." Any other adults who have had a significant role in raising him, will also step forward with the same ritual words. Then in like wise, the parents, and any others behind the bride will each step forward, now gifting the substance of their relationship with her over the years to the awaiting (and vulnerable) groom.

That's it. That's the simple ritual called the "Basement Wedding" - and the atmosphere is not light like that of the upstairs wedding - but heavy with the full weight of the 'gifts' that have been exchanged. It's said that when the bride and groom leave the upstairs wedding, each feels 35 pounds heavier, and has no idea what just happened.

Now, in psychological terms, the upstairs wedding is the conscious wedding. The downstairs, or "basement" wedding is the unconscious wedding. And a psychological rule of thumb states that when there's simultaneously a conscious and an unconscious program, the outcome is always determined at the unconscious level.

Hence my frequent comment that we often fall in love in our blind spaces. In earlier cultures, the wisdom of the village knew better than to ever trust the choice of a marriage partner to the young persons themselves. But we cannot go back - our cultural "grand experiment" is to insist on our own ability to choose. Good premarital counseling can illuminate a number of otherwise blind spots.

That's why, when I work with a married couple, what is brought to me usually reflects the "basement wedding." Sometimes this can be dealt with quite simply, without a lot of history-taking - by coaching or teaching them more useful communication tools.

Nor is it useful to assume that the "gifts" from one's family background are necessarily negative or harmful. It's the unconscious aspect that is usually problematic. "Known" and "unknown" don't have to be separated into good and bad. It's more that they can be logically very different, and even (on the surface) incompatible - therefore we're tempted to divide and exclude.

Much of the success of living in relationship with a partner comes from what I'll call "the coincidence of irreconcilables." I sometimes consider that, if it weren't for that element called "attraction," male and female would be essentially incompatible.

In such place like this, the Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls, would remind us to "go out of your mind, and come to your senses." This also is a secret to good relationships - staying in touch with each other's realities. ('In touch' is necessary, agreement isn't.)

We have our hopes and our dreams, and we also have our background and what might be called our "core" personality - that which perhaps will change very little over our lifetime. A good marriage is not the victory of one over the other. It is the creative coexistence of both - in our selves and in each other.

That's why I like the "basement wedding." It keeps us honest. But in keeping us honest, it also rounds out our wholeness - so that sometimes in spite of ourselves and in spite of each other, there is hope.

So when she says, he's just too logical, and he says, she's too irrational - I don't despair. But I do know I have some work to do.

When each is willing to look beyond that which makes native sense - the ingredients for a good marriage or relationship are present. Sadly, when one party is unwilling or simply cannot look beyond where they come from, the outcome is often in doubt.

In your own temptation to divide and separate, remember that even the wedding was divided. It always is. Yet both ceremonies are real, and both involve the same couple. So, when in doubt, keep in close touch and -

pay attention!

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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