Back to back to face to face

~~~ bride and groom silhouetteIn session, with a couple.  He does not want to be here. But she’ll end the marriage unless he comes. I ask questions, make little jokes, try to engage him.  But it’s slow going until he finally says out loud how he sees things.

“It’s like we live back to back,” he mutters.

This triggers an earworm. You know, when you get a song stuck in your head and can’t stop hearing it? Except my worm isn’t a song. It’s a bit of nonsense rhyme from my childhood.

Back to back
They faced each other,
Drew their swords
And shot each other.

The worm plays over and over while I listen to them talk.

It plays until I figure out what the hell it means.

Then I do, and the meaning comes all at once.  And I interrupt the couple to tell them. 

I say,

What you said about living back to back?  I really like that.

It’s a great metaphor for marriage.

Because that’s how we all start out:

Living back to back.

Not looking at the person we married.

Where are we looking? Elsewhere.

Maybe at the past, at old relationships or the marriage of our parents. Maybe at the future, what we expect or want or need things to be. Maybe at our own pathology, our anxiety or anger or grief or unhappiness. The stuff we hope the marriage would heal, the way medicine heals illness.

But not at our partner. Not the real person we married, as he or she is right here, right now.

We think we are. But the person we marry is not the the person we dated.  And marriage is not the dating relationship, saturated with fun and sex and all sorts of idealizations and projections. 

All that’s temporary.  And eventually we realize that. 

And we realize our partner isn’t who we thought he or she is. 

And maybe we realize that we aren’t who we thought we were, either.

That’s where the real marriage begins.

Turning to face the real person we married, and the real person we are, that takes time.

That takes courage.

That takes serious love.

But that, in the end, is the work of marriage.

It’s the work of moving — slowly, patiently, with understanding and acceptance — from living back to back to living face to face.

11 responses to “Back to back to face to face

  • John

    Good stuff. And spot on.

    Are you familiar with Schnarch’s book “Passionate Marriage”? He talks about levels of partner engagement on pp. 247-251. I think it compliments nicely what you wrote.

    In my experience most people don’t know themselves either very well when they marry, especially if they marry young. Self knowledge takes time and experience — usually a person needs to be in their 30s or older before they really get a deeper understanding of themselves. Therapy can help speed this up.

    But that’s many marriages — two people who are largely strangers to themselves and each othe, tied together, jostling for pleasure and security and control.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Thanks, John. No, I don’t know Schnarch. But I want to write my own book about relationships next year, so I’ll look for him.

      • John

        I first ran into Passionate Marriage about 15 yrs ago. Best relationship book by far that I’ve come across. Similar in impactfulness and insightfulness to Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled.” Schnarch builds off of Murray Bowen’s ideas (differentiation of self, pseudo-self, et cetera).

        Is it okay if I reblog your post?

        And good luck with your book. I enjoy reading your posts. You have a good perspective on things!

        • Steve Hauptman

          Of course, it’s fine to reblog. Thanks for asking.
          Glad you enjoy my posts. FYI, they’re the basis for the book I have out already, also titled MONKEYTRAPS, and available at

  • bejoubum

    Like pulling aside the Wizard’s curtain at Oz to reveal the REAL…then having to deal.

    Your earworm really resonates with me. Thanks.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Thanks. For anyone who cares, the full nonsense poem (origin unknown) went as follows:

      One bright day
      In the middle of the night
      Two dead boys
      Got up to fight.
      Back to back
      They faced each other,
      Drew their swords
      And shot each other.
      A deaf policeman
      Heard the noise,
      Came and killed
      The two dead boys.
      If you don’t believe
      This lie is true,
      Ask the blind man:
      He saw it too.

  • Sue

    Amazing!! Makes me think where I came from, where I am, and of course where I’m going. Thank you

  • John

    Reblogged this on What Is Real True Love? and commented:
    Great stuff, and spot on. Dovetails nicely with the post a few below this with the excerpt from Schnarch’s “Passionate Marriage” about our level of “partner engagement.”

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