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Climb With Me

When I was little, I often began my drawings with three parenthesis, on their tummies. They were supposed to be mountains, and made a bland backdrop for the trees and houses I wanted to create. Sometimes I would sketch them in before I even knew what the rest of the page was going to be like. It was my "known", and from it I could explore the unknown.

I have never climbed a mountain, unless you count sleeping in the back seat while my father drove us through the Rockies when I was eight. But there are people who have, and they seem to keep doing it.

Jared and Bess Alden climbed in Mali, Africa. One of the climbs on the Hand of Fatima is called Traditional Marriage. I wonder if it is the second finger on the left.

Jared says, "Rock Climbing is challenging, and requires a serious mind and complete focus. It can not be done lightly. Spiritual growth is the same way. As I climb the rock I must solve the problems written in stone. For me this is like solving truth. The rock is God's word and I must read it and immediately demonstrate my ability to do what is written in the stone. The rock's story is told through cracks, edges and grooves which are ancient remnants of pressure and breakage from water, wind and the movements of the earth. Every little finger hold is a detail of the earth's story. As I climb this story is revealed to me in a great intimacy that unites me to the whole of creation. These are the moments of connectivity that lead me to climb. When my mind is elevated, my body is flawlessly doing the impossible and miraculously this enables me to feel one with all creation. It's ironic. I was 2000 feet above a desolate African floor miles away from civilization and yet I have never felt so much a part of the human race. We access it from within!!!"

Marriage sometimes feels like a big rock. Nothing is moving. There is no ski lift to whisk you effortlessly to the top. But to skilled eyes, like Jared and Bess have, there are footholds, places to grasp on to. The route is clear, certainly not to me but to someone who has learned what to look for.

Sometimes we listen to couples who feel as if they are facing a wall in their relationship. He withdraws. She pleads for change. The marriage rock is a sheer cliff. They both feel stuck on the ground.

But there are footholds, if you begin to believe they are there and learn how to look, camouflaged as cracks. Once we were listening to a couple that felt hopeless, as if their marriage was a wall they could not climb. We invited them to sit next to each other. Touch helped. We asked them to say what they appreciate about each other, today. It took some consideration... attention to crevices in the pain that they could hold on to. She softened as she thanked him for playing with their children. He smiled as he looked at her. Her beauty still moved him, though I doubt she knows it. He appreciated her for making a pile of clean clothes for him, reminding himself as much as her. Their emotional feet left the floor as they began to ascend on footholds of gratitude.

They took turns speaking in bite sized feelings, and then the other would reflect it back. They paused in between messages, to hear carefully. Jared told me that that is how rock climbing works too. One person ascends, while the other belays and watches closely. Then the other takes a turn, and the first person belays. The belay is a tether, keeping you tied to each other and to the rock. It can save your life if you let it. So can your commitment. 

Jared explained that you have to be in communication, not just in words but with actions. Partners have to agree before they even begin to climb, about how much slack to give, ways to signal each other, what route they are taking. They have researched in books about the mountain, placing their trust in people they will never meet who have climbed this way before. Many mountains have bolts bored into the rock face, to support fellow travelers. The one who put them there did it with risk and effort, clinging to the sheer wall for perhaps an hour while he or she drilled a hole.

Jared tells me that "Your life is in each other's hands." One of the serious dangers is when the higher climber dislodges a piece of the rock and it comes crashing down. How like the accusations and betrayals we hurl at the person we have partnered, that come reckless and sharp, picking up speed.

Often John and I will offer a book for a couple to read, that perhaps gives a bolt to hang on to when they fear falling.

"Many men would rather feel your respect than your love." (1)

That can be something sturdy to clamp your rope to, when you are climbing in your own marriage.

"Women process fear in the same way they process pain. Fear is painful for women." (2)

That can be a bolt that gives a husband something to hang on to, when he cannot find his way around her reactions.

Anchoring your rope to a bolt like Men Crave Respect, and Women Feel Fear as Pain, can get you to the next ledge, where the view is clearer.

When your pattern is to withhold respect as some kind of backwards bribe to entice your husband to try harder, you can learn a different way.

"I can show him respect by giving him time to figure it out." His sense of dignity may be more important to the survival of your marriage than being on time, or getting the drain cleared quickly.

Knowing that fear hurts your wife, can help you find your foothold in compassion when she worries that you are late.

"I could call and let her know. That eases her angst."

I asked Jared about the danger. He assures me that he will only slip if he loses faith. He will fall in his mind before he falls off the rock. Keeping trust, and steady climbing keeps him on the rock. The accidents come when there is a mental break first, then a physical one.

Couples who have strong marriages often say that keeping trust is part of their strategy. Divorce is not something they consider. They keep climbing, and it keeps them on the Rock.

We have heard the loneliness of people who are married, yet feel as if they are on entirely different mountains. They are jamming their blistered toes into the granite, but the air is getting thin. They made a sacred commitment to climb, but weariness sets in, and falling down, down tempts them as an end to the torment.

Yet a silent eagle soaring beside them would know what they cannot. Their partner is desperately close, on the other side of the precipice, and they are both in shouting range of the summit. In a last, exhausted push, willing their corded arms and quivering legs to cling to the task of climbing, they will gasp to see that they are face to sweaty face with each other, and the expanse of the whole sky is holding them in its blue embrace.

And in that explosive moment of victory, they will be closer to God, each other, and the whole human race, than they could ever glimpse from the floor thousands of feet below.

1. For Women Only, by Shaunti Fehldon

2. How to Work on Your Marriage Without Talking about It, by Pat Love and Steven Stosny