How do you come to know yourself?
You can journal. Attend a retreat. Sit on a rock and think.
But perhaps the most underrated tool for gaining self-knowledge is participating in any long-term relationship — particularly one in which the escape hatch has been double bolted by the exchange of public vows.
With most relationships, we only show people certain parts of ourselves. We encounter coworkers, family members, and friends in a pattern of meet and retreat; we assemble for intervals short enough to keep our best face forward, before withdrawing again to our separate spheres.
In a marriage, spouses do not get together for discrete purposes of fun or functionality. They’re together in everything. All the mundanities of daily life. All the stresses of professional and personal setbacks. All the varieties of bodily functions. There are no true timeouts, no chances to literally or metaphorically step away to powder one’s nose.
Duty-bound to make it to the other side of every conflict, spouses are thrown back on each other again and again.
Through this process of full-contact confrontation, you not only get to know your partner, but discover a heck of a lot about yourself. Marriage holds up a mirror in which you can see how you act and who you are more clearly. The layers you’re able to artfully disguise from the world are exposed, leading to the repeated realization: “Oh, so I’m like that, am I?”
In showing us ourselves from every angle, marriage can pack the introspection-generating punch of a hundred self-help books.
In reflecting back all our dimensions, marriage can offer the opportunity to recognize and strengthen the parts of ourselves that are underdeveloped.
In giving us a good hard look at ourselves, marriage can represent, as Joseph Barth once put it, “our last, best chance to grow up.”