I enjoy dancing, all kinds of dancing, but mainly what our dance instructor refers to as “social dancing.” She distinguishes this from ballroom dancing by its natural rhythms and flow, its turns and pivots that do not stress the body but strengthen it. Ballroom dancing, she insists, is too unnatural, too artificial, too labored. Social dancing is for people who attend weddings or other events and want to enjoy themselves with confidence and flair without coming off as arrogant.
Yet, as she was telling us this last Tuesday night during class, my wife and I were engaged in something that resembled sparring more than dancing. After months of lessons, we have found that keeping your frame up and following your feet are secondary. The real secret to dancing is figuring out who leads and who follows. And that, no matter what the instructor says, is a battle.
Anyone married long enough to have made it through the reception knows that there is a dance of marriage, too. This dance, however, is not concerned with following prescribed roles but with giving them up. This means letting go not only of your ideas about what constitutes a “good” marriage, but what constitutes the self. Following the dance metaphor, this would be like learning your part inside and out—and then giving it up, letting the music move you in ways that you cannot control and perhaps never expected.
Like dancing, the key to marriage is not what you do but who you are, which requires not discipline but honesty, not willpower but surrender, not playing a role but offering yourself as gift to the other person without expecting anything in return. Thus, contrary to what logic or common sense might dictate, the work of marriage has more to do with the self than the actual relationship.
But how do you achieve this, especially when you have been conditioned to think of marriage as an investment or business contract, a quid pro quo relationship? In theological terms, you must let the self die (i.e., your preconceived ideas of the self) so that a new person may emerge that is greater than your former self. This new person is not greater because you are smarter, thinner or more successful. Neither is your transformation a matter of learning a new set of skills to communicate more effectively. It is not a question of information or problem-solving, but of your ability to accept failure, loss and imperfection. Letting go involves accepting yourself as a human being, and being human is an act of faith.
No one can do this work for any of us, and other people cannot heal us of our unhappiness, which was what Tristan, that 12th century icon of romantic love, was searching for (and every leading man since then). Our dance instructor can show us the steps, demonstrate the turns and select just the right music, but if I resent the need to surrender to something larger than myself, I might as well put boxing gloves on, because the sparring will continue.
Theologically, the ultimate irony is that by surrendering or dying to self, I become more of myself; the greater person emerges. This paradox of Christian faith is what led St. Paul to observe that a God who dies and is resurrected was pure folly to the high-minded Athenians. What they considered folly, he wrote, is our salvation. This paradox lies at the heart of our understanding of marriage as a sacrament. It also helps Tuesday nights.
—Robert Brancatelli is an assistant professor in the Pastoral Ministries graduate program and in the undergraduate Religious Studies department, Santa Clara University .