The Sacred Marriage: When Conflicting Values Become One

Wedding rings Depth psychology often makes use of alchemy to describe what happens in therapy. Alchemy was a discipline in Europe and Asia for about 1,200 years. Gradually it branched into chemistry, medicine, mysticism, and psychology. A frequent image in the work was the marriage between the king and the queen, the sacred marriage. In therapy, this a fruitful trope when integrating opposites that are giving rise to feelings of conflict. Two viewpoints, both experienced as true by the person who holds them but not apparently compatible, are integrated into a new awareness that supports each and is greater than both.

In the clinical example that follows, names have been changed and personal identifiers have been screened out.

Mark comes to meet with me for the first time. We don’t know if we’ll be working together yet. I offer a 20- to 30-minute, no-charge consultation to find out what’s guiding people to therapy. This time also gives us the chance to establish (or not establish) a therapeutic alliance. Like every relationship, therapy is a “third thing,” a place where two distinct people meet and interact. What were previously separate fields of interest—for him, concerning problems and their impact on his life; for me, problem-solving—integrate into a single field. We determine together that there’s a good fit and that we’ll work together.

Mark tells me he’s having issues in his primary relationship. These issues present as a conflict. He could work on the relationship and improve it, or he could end the relationship and seek out a more satisfactory one. He experiences conflict because both of these positions are true for him. Each position expresses one or more of his highest values. These values or guiding principles are why we refer to a king and queen (although we could just as easily use king and king or queen and queen, depending on a person’s orientation). It’s almost as if the values are “crowns.” For Mark, working things out maintains his belief in his marriage vows, which in turn contain his feelings about the presence of the sacred in his life. At the same time, the idea of cutting his losses also carries a value for him. Which is, again, that life is sacred and none of its resources (such as time) are to be wasted.

It’s a conflict precisely because each position is true and carries some of his values. For this reason, having one position “win” means the other position “loses.” Since both positions are true, this could wind up looking like something merely gets repressed, only to pop back up later on. Each position contains a life-affirming principle. In the image we’re exploring, each king or queen has a “domain” that includes some of Mark’s psychic content. In other words, his life.

When the sacred marriage takes place, nothing is lost. The two that were in opposition join together into a third thing, something not previously known.

As we work, we identify and address some problems Mark has with talking about feelings and an awareness of others’ needs. These aren’t so challenging with colleagues at work, or at the start of romantic relationships. But as romance has become marriage, these begin to present as issues, and there’s friction between husband and wife. It turns out that when I talk to him, though, Mark knows more than he knows he knows about his wife. As he becomes more aware of his own perceptions, and rehearses naming and communicating his feelings in session, conflicts with his wife decrease. The previously opposed values (marriage is sacred and life is too precious to waste) become more integrated. The sacred marriage occurs as a result of his work, and the relationship with his wife benefits.

Just when I think the work is completed, Mark tells me he’s beginning to have a problem with alcohol. Each night, when he gets home from work, he has a glass of wine. Initially this was a reward, not an issue. But one glass became two or three and recently has become a bottle. The first thing we do is establish that he consult with his doctor, then we talk about what’s going on.

When asked to describe the problem, Mark says, “I can’t stop.” But while Mark wants to stop drinking, he also wants to drink. He’s under a lot of pressure at work, and the glasses of wine help him “take it down a couple of notches.” I use consecutive questioning to help us get to the core issue. This is that if Mark fails, he feels he’ll be abandoned, will experience unbearable levels of sadness, loneliness, and fear, and will not survive that experience. This fear drives him at work, but at home he uses alcohol to shield himself from it.

Here, the “king” is Mark’s value related to not relying on substance. He feels he should be tough and just quit drinking. The “queen,” equally true, is that he mustn’t fail. On several different levels, he must survive. These dominants, each with its domain in Mark’s life, are in opposition to one another. I support his sobriety goal, but his fear of “dying” if he fails can’t be ignored.

We work to effect a marriage, an integration of these two systems of value. In order to address Mark’s concern that he will not be able to endure the terrible feelings of sadness and loneliness, we mindfully call them up and sit with them in session. We practice distraction methods as well, so that Mark can limit his exposure to the distressing feelings. In this way, he gains some feeling of mastery over them, which greatly decreases his perception that they are “unsurvivable.” As it turns out, this mastery serves much the same purpose as his glass of wine. The marriage occurs, and Mark is able to both be strong and self-reliant as well as take good and loving care of himself.

One afternoon, I get a call from Mark. Where am I? “We’ve got a session,” he informs me with some heat. That doesn’t sound familiar, so I check my schedule book. “I’ve got us down for Friday,” I tell him. No, he distinctly remembers, we scheduled for today, Wednesday, now. I feel myself becoming adversarial, ready to defend my position. We’re in opposition, and only one of us can be right. Or can we both be? I think my way through this out loud and say, “My memory is that it’s Friday. But I know about myself that I make mistakes. And that I don’t always know when I’m making one. So to the extent that this is my error, I apologize. I value the work we do.” His voice relaxes and he says, “Thank you,” then acknowledges that there’s a chance he’s mistaken, too. We confirm he has this time on Friday available and that we’ll meet then.

When the sacred marriage takes place, nothing is lost. The two that were in opposition join together into a third thing, something not previously known.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Peter Cashorali, LMFT, therapist in Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Bobbie

    Bobbie

    May 8th, 2015 at 8:31 AM

    It can be very hard to work with someone when it is as if there is no room for compromise, it is either their way or the highway.
    When I run across people like that this is what makes me want to plant my feet even more firmly and stand my ground.

  • Luke

    Luke

    May 8th, 2015 at 12:25 PM

    I very much believe that life is a dance and you win some and lose some. You have to learn all along the way the things that are going to work for you and that which won’t. Sometimes you won’t even know that until you mess things up a few times and finally decide that there are some life lessons to be learned there. I think that as much as we all want things to be easy, they just aren’t, and sometimes the sooner that you can learn that lesson then the easier life becomes.

  • Sara

    Sara

    May 9th, 2015 at 10:40 AM

    It is hard when it is a marriage of your own beliefs, so you can imagine the difficulties not only when you have to try to come to terms with your own beliefs within yourself but also with those of someone else!

  • Paige

    Paige

    May 11th, 2015 at 3:33 AM

    And when those two things are unable to come together to make something new then I guess that is when you should know that this really is not going to work out too well.

  • jeremy

    jeremy

    May 16th, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    The absolute wrong thing to do is to blame the one person in life who is trying to help you

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