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The Three Marriages

David Whyte, Riverhead Books, 2009.

Reading notes

January 2014


David Whyte is someone worth knowing about if you find some interest in this site… and you may already know him by the way. He is a poet, speaker and essayist who keeps exploring, in many talented ways, the meaning of life and of our quests. You can get more information on him and on what he is doing on www.davidwhyte.com.

In this book, the core idea is that we tend to be engaged in three marriages: the one we can naturally think of, i.e. with a partner in life, the one with our work, i.e. with our actions in the world, and the one with ourselves, i.e. with our true self. The purpose of the book is to explore these marriages, their commonalities, their mutual relationships and the way they can together contribute to a life worth living.  


This is a very attracting theme and it is developed in the book with many stimulating and deep insights, supported by examples and stories from the author’s or other people’s lives.  Below is an account of it but there is of course much more in the book itself.  In italics are my own comments. At the end of this paper, after this summary, I’ll come back to some key questions the book raises and will share my reactions to them.


The three marriages

 The structure of the book in itself suggests that the three marriages share some common pattern. It is composed of five parts; the first one is made of one introductory chapter giving detailed definitions of what will be intended by those three marriages. The parts that follow each deal with one particular phase which can be found in the dynamics of each marriage: the first glimpse, the pursuit of the marriage, the engagement, living together.  Each of these parts contains three chapters, each of which dealing with one of the marriages. Only the last part offers an additional fourth chapter which deals with the synergies and relationships between the three marriages, though some insights about this issue can be found in the introduction and in the previous parts.

The word “marriage” here does not relate to any legal form but to an engagement in the relationship.

Love’s first glimpse

 All three marriages are born from an initial spark. We all know the famous “love at first sight”. It also exists for a vocation; it can happen through an experience, an encounter, or an event one witnesses, which cause a shock and after which the person suddenly gets a clear view of what she wants to become.  David Whyte takes the example of Joan of Arc being literally called but also of other less exceptional ones. He reports having himself experienced a shock of this kind when watching a film by Cousteau as a teenager; at this moment, he decided he would be an oceanographer. 10 years later, and after many adventures, this was what he had come to be. 

Note that not all marriages start with love at first sight, whatever marriage it is. It sometimes takes time to realize the depth and potential of a relationship with a partner, a work or oneself; however this does not  exclude the possibility of a spark; it simply may occur in the course of the relationship, and not at its start, and then give it a new colour.

Regarding more particularly work, the idea of a marriage with it may seem odd to millions of people around the world who are unhappy with a work they often did not even choose. David Whyte simply states that we are likely to be called by some particular ways of acting in the world. Whether or not we are able to respond to it because of economic or social conditions does not prevent this call to exist. Similarly, many people are single but would like to get married. Dissatisfaction at work can well occur when we do not respond to this call.  “We may not have an arranged ceremony at the altar to ritualize our dedication to work, but many of us can remember a specific moment when we realized we were made for a certain work, a certain career or a certain future: a moment when we held our hand in a fist and made unspoken vows to what we had just glimpsed” (p25).

Sometimes, this spark is a negative one: we are not marvelled by the vision of where we are heading to but we strongly decide about what we do not want. David Whyte gives the example of Charles Dickens, initially living as a young boy a life of misery.  

My interpretation of this last example, and of others we can think of, is that this rejection of an undesired present situation may well be the consequence of a vision, possibly of an unconscious one, of where we want to go. In any case, what David Whyte points here is key: our compass, when we can sense it, is oriented towards an intuition (a premonition?) we have of key experiences we wish to live in our lives and/or of the person we want to become. .

 In all three marriages, we embark in journeys and, though we place high hopes in each of them, we cannot fully foresee where they will take us; for sure, they will offer unexpected turns.  Moreover we have little control over them; we obey them and the more we do, the more we end up obeying them. . “Following this path through increasing levels of seriousness, we reach a certain threshold where our freedom to choose seems to disappear and is replaced by an understanding that we were made for the world in a very particular way and that this way of being is at bottom nonnegotiable. Like the mountain or the sky, it just is”(p70).

Note that this decreasing freedom of choice is the rule of any project, be it a small one (e.g. arranging an activity for the next week end) or a big one (e.g. launching a business or building a house). We have plenty of options when we start designing the project and the more we go into the project the less options we have; we have made choices, hence closed some doors in order to open others; we have paid with a big part of our freedom of choice the possibility of achieving something, and also of learning. In so far as a marriage is a project, this rule applies to it. But there is more than that in what David Whyte offers here. In other projects, we may regret this lack of freedom, i.e. we may wish we had made other decisions in the former stages, and then be now in a different situation (for example, when building a house, wishing we had chosen a different orientation or another heating system). What David Whyte suggests here is that we are not upset by this lack of freedom because we have found the right path to follow: thanks to following it, we gradually find or build the self we are looking for.

“Youth is the metaphor for all original enterprises”(p90). When we engage into these marriages, when we experience this spark, however old we are, we borrow something of the young age. It is about enthusiasm but also about illusions and idealization. We fall in love with some sort of perfection, the perfection of the beloved one as a partner or one’s own perfection. We are then deaf to the warnings and the calls to reason that others may provide. This deafness however seems to function as a protection.  We therefore avoid being disheartened by the difficulties that are waiting for us further down the path. Engaging in a marriage needs some lack of “being reasonable”.

How we respond to the invitation from these marriages can mark or maim us for the rest of our days. As David Whyte beautifully says it, about a vocation: “Refusing to fall in love with a vocation and thereby refusing the necessary insanities for the path ahead is hardly ever a passive process where everything goes into neutral; it is actually corrosive on the personality and the character of the one who repeatedly says no to something that keeps whispering yes”(p59-60).

Finally and perhaps most important, those calls, whether for a beloved one, a work or an exploration of our own depths, set us in motion, in the same way, towards some growth, towards a “conversation with something other than ourselves”(p59). In other words, the same energy is acting under different forms and, finally, it does not matter which one is taken. “We may start anywhere and in any way but the encounter asks us the same. Those first glimpses lead us into worlds that eventually test (…) our sense of worthiness for a task much larger then the initial invitation” (p59).

The joy of pursuit 

Once we have experienced this spark, we have to follow up and make the vision of the relationship become a reality.

Hence comes a time when our motivation is tested, a time which “involves a dismantling of our usual daily self-protection” (p109). This is mainly described in the sphere of the marriage with a partner.

Regarding the marriage with a work or a vocation, David Whyte insists on another aspect; i.e. the fact that we sometimes forget about the calling that led us to what we are doing. We cannot be always 100% with it. “Exile and forgetting are natural states for most human beings, but so are remembering and recalling. All tasks are completed through cycles of visitation and absence. We should get used to this cycle and integrate it fully into the way a work or a vocation is achieved and not hold ourselves to impossible standards that are often quite tedious, giftless states in any case” (p137).

Though David Whyte does not say it about the two other marriages, one can easily imagine that this does also apply to them. See also in this site  other views on this ebb and flow phenomenon.

Working is worrying. We spend the time of our working life worrying about things being done, or happening, or not happening. This is different in the marriage for  the self, which David Whyte names: “the pursuit that is not a pursuit”. Deep inside of us, is a genuine self that does not worry, that is not touched by the fact that we succeed or fail.  However, we cannot find it by using this skill of worrying about goals and reaching them. It can be found when we stop wanting.  This can happen through a regular practice of meditation or through exceptional events in life where our ego suddenly surrenders, for instance thanks to extreme physical exhaustion. 

This is explicitly inspired from Buddhist tradition, however  “without shaving one’s head”.

Thus, there seems to be a significant difference between at least two of these marriages.  However, I have some doubts on this. We’ll come back to this question further below.

The engagement

 This is now the phase of the actual engagement to the marriage

David Whyte comes back here to this idea that life is testing our courage and our motivation to follow our initial intuition. There is a moment of truth when one is alone and facing the big decision of engaging or not, facing the risk any such decision entails. What is required then is “to have faith in a foundation you have discovered in life and which, though it is difficult to describe, even to yourself, you refuse to relinquish” (p193). It is as if life provided us with some initiation ritual before we enter into the serious project. This is developed in the chapter devoted to the marriage with a partner.

In the one that follows, supposedly dealing with the marriage with work, David Whyte analyses cases where a marriage, the one with work, could be fully experienced because of the person’s failure to enter into a marriage with a partner. “The death of of our hopes in one marriage may lead us to live out those same hopes with the other imaginative vows” (p213).

Finally, in the chapter dealing with the marriage with the self, David Whyte comes back to the idea of loneliness. Even if we can get some support from others, we are alone in the process of becoming aware and accepting our own fears, anxieties and pains. This is the threshold to any real engagement towards our true self.

Living together

 Eventually, we live in the marriages.

In the marriage with a partner we have to let go our illusions about the other and about ourselves. This is the end of the “dreamed” other. We must accept that she/he is different, has hopes and dreams that are not ours; therefore we become more tolerant. “Marriage is where we have to be larger the self who first made the vows” (p263).  It also takes us into beforehand unknown aspects of ourselves, quite often those we were not keen on seeing and accepting. It is an avenue to increased self-awareness; this, too, requires a lot of courage all along the way.

The marriage with work, like the one with a partner, is made of hundreds of small events, small actions, most often very prosaic ones, that are miles away from the romantic vision of extraordinary moments or achievements. And this goes on day after day, year after year. A happy marriage is when this day-to-day life is however lived with the feeling one is on the right track, when “we get a song in our hearts simply from doing the work itself, as much as from its rewards and its fruits” (p 287).

There are obstacles that come in the way of the involvement in work. The parenting task is probably the most demanding in this respect. It makes even more necessary for its own sake as well as for the marriage with work, moments for stepping back, “regular visits to ourselves”. Thus, even if this marriage may temporarily stay in the backstage, it will easily come back to the fore when appropriate.

In the final chapter related to the marriage with the self, we come back to the idea of accepting the freedom of what/whom we married, we must accept that the deeper self too lives its own life, without our control. The marriage with the self also invites us to acknowledge and accept our vulnerability, to release the usual protection we use to avoid facing them. This is the door to our self, as well to the compassion for others and their own vulnerabilities. Accepting this is also accepting the unavoidable difficulties and painful events life has in store for us.  As the buddhist tradition coins it, pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional. This requires silent conversations with ourselves; silence is like the kitchen or the bedroom to a couple, the place for key conversations.  “There is a peace that passes all understanding and it is attainable, though it will not give us any special privileges.” (p301). When all this is reached, “the ego has become a good servant to the soul’s desires” (p310)

 The marriage of marriages

 How to make those three marriages allies instead of competitors? David Whyte contends  that none of those marriages are negotiable. “Each of marriages represents a core conversation with life that seems necessary for almost all human beings and none of the marriages can be weakened or given up without a severe sense of internal damage”(p313). None of them would accept any compromise, in the style which the expression “work-life balance” would suggest. It is not a question of balance.  It is not about bartering about the amounts of time and of other resources allocated to each of these three parts of life that would be definitely separated but about “finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together”(p11).

Loving someone, in our marriage with him/her, does not mean preventing them from experiencing what needs be in their two other marriages; it means loving “the desires that the other person holds for the other two marriages”(p315). Attempting to make this first marriage the unique source of development, for oneself or for the partner, is the best way to make it fail. This first marriage can be a place where the two partners help each other in their struggles with their two other marriages. They become “co-conversationalists in the marriage of marriages”(p316).

Making these three marriages friends and allies, instead of rivals enable them to yield all their benefits;  what we learn about life and ourselves in one of them makes us better partners in the other ones.


Some key questions

 One great value of this book is that it raises and deals with some key questions. It does this with depth and talent which definitely make it worth reading; however, I sometimes felt it did not pull the thread as far as can be. With all due gratitude to it and its author, here are some avenues for further exploration. They are of course inspired by the theme of this site. The marriages which David Whyte describes are quests, as intended here, i.e. the search, through various activities, relationships practice, for the experience of something deep we may hardly be able to name, but which seems essential to our life.   

What makes a relationship a marriage ? Or why are there only three ?

 Can’t we imagine a fourth or a fifth type? This leads to the question of what is intended by “marriage” here. The book does not give any precise definition, it seems that the word “marriage” is rather used as a metaphor, as an image, more than as a well-delineated concept.

We may have for instance other strong relationships in life, with our children or our friends. A difference can be that we can have several children and several friends in the same time whereas, according to David Whytes’ descriptions, we cannot have more than one partner and one work, or one core thread linking our meaningful actions in the world at a given time, and of course not more than one self either.  

If we cannot have more than one partner at the same time, in any kind of marriage, is it equally acceptable, in the logic of these marriages, to change partners along our lives. It seems all right regarding work; David Whyte himself reports that he went through at least two very different kinds of jobs in his career. Is it the same mechanism with a wife or husband, i.e. changing when appropriate to a new phase of life, or is this one ideally a life long commitment? And what about the self in this respect?

In any case, however, if marriage is about exclusiveness, about choosing depth instead of breadth, some people will choose to settle in one place or region. In the same way as marrying a woman means renouncing to many other ones, they will thus let go the endless search for new landscapes. This can also give birth to a marriage with work if this love for a region implies helping its community or protecting its environment. However, there can be more in it, i.e. a slow and long deepening of a communion with nature and mankind in the particular form they take in this place as well as a married man will deepen his relationship with the Woman as personified by his wife.  Albert Camus thus wrote a magnificent little book in his young age where he decribes his deep and unique relationship with his home country and its nature, and it its title is.... "Noces" (i.e. wedding). Could there also be a marriage with a place ? Perhaps not, in the sense this word is intended here, if it does not entail the enhanced self-awareness which David Whyte presents as one core benefit of a successful marriages.

Through those questions without any definitive answers we are circling around the mystery of the strong involvements in our lives…

Are those three marriages similar ?  

 David Whyte does not explicitly say they are but various elements may lead the reader to it. Calling those three ventures “marriages” suggests that they share at least significant commonalities. The front cover’s picture shows three very similar thin trunks, or branches, bound together with a tape. Then, the book’s structure (see above) may also suggest that what is true for one marriage also applies to the other ones; however it is difficult to completely draw this conclusion from the book because examples related to a given aspect are often provided about one or two of the marriages but not about all. In other words this similarity is sometimes underlined, particularly in the part “Love’s first glimpse”; it is often suggested more than fully explored, but also occasionally denied.

The similarity is denied when David Whyte explains that the marriage of the self is about connecting with what in ourselves, does not worry, whereas the marriage with work is about worrying. Nothing is said about the marriage with a partner in this respect but the many examples David Whyte gives about it suggest that this can also apply to it. This would then be a key difference between the marriage with oneself and the two outside ones. This idea is also present in Yves Emery’s experience which is also posted in this site. I can well imagine that this can be what some people experience but I have my doubts about the possibility of generalizing this difference. In a spiritual quest too, people may often start by worrying about reaching a goal; this is beautifully shown in Hermann Hesse’s Siddharta; only at the end of it can they reach this state of no worry any longer. Reversely, at the end of a quest through actions in the world, this state of not wanting things to happen any longer can also exist; see for instance in this site what the Bhagavad Gita says about it; and when David Whyte explains that the marriage with a partner leads us to fully accept her/him as he/she is, this state is not far from the absence of worry. A rival hypothesis to David Whyte’s one would then be that any marriage, or any quest, starts with worries about reaching a goal and ends, if this ultimate and happy stage is reached, with the acceptance of what is.

Why are they similar, at least in some respects ?

 It then seems that one can find at least some common characteristics in the three marriages.  Is it surprising? No, if we hypothesize that some invariants can be found in the flow of any quest.

The initial spark, giving birth to any marriage according to David Whyte, will resonate with this “big bang” which may or may not have occurred some billion years ago but which is indeed present in our representations of a major beginning. 

We have seen above that the loss of freedom of choice is traded against the possibility of achieving something and of learning, in all three marriages as in any project. This is linked with time‘s irreversibility.  A sugar dropped in a cup of tea will never become a sugar again and, once this has been done, we have to do with mild tea…And all quests necessarily, at least for some time, use the vehicle of a project.

The tests and ordeals which occur in the next phases, as described by David Whyte, resonate with the many myths and legends where the hero too goes through ordeals where his courage is tested and strengthened before he can …marry his princess.

Finally, the dynamic which leads to the absence of worry resonates with the end of an archetypical story of a quest: Parzival’s myth.  He is allowed to reign in the Grail’s castle after he has fought, lost and won, his last fight. The fights and ordeals which tested his courage were necessary for him to reach the outskirts of the castle but only when his sword was no longer needed could he step inside.

These are hints that are far from building a well-rounded theory but they are an invitation to explore the laws of a quest, an issue which is of course meaningful in this site. This is no criticism to the book, one cannot do everything in one single work; it is however its merit to offer food for thought in this respect.

 What are the relationships between the three marriages ?

 This is a major idea of the book: the three marriages are non-negotiable but they can and should support each other. However, the book deals with this as a major focus only in its introduction and in its last ten pages. In practice, ways to foster the synergies and to avoid the rivalry between those marriages in the dilemmas of daily life remain to be explored more deeply…  On a more theoretical level, the book addresses the issue of the relationships between the three marriages in some pages but it leaves many questions open. The structure of the book as well as its front cover tend to represent them as three parallel lines, though bounded by a tape; it does not offer the image, for instance, of three branches of the same tree. So, the reader might get the impression of three projects running on the same level and rather independent from each other. However, some other parts suggest that the relationship between them is richer.

One aspect of the synergies between marriages takes place between the two outside ones and the marriage with the self. For David Whyte, our ability to connect with our centre, makes it easier to succeed in the two other ones. “ It might be a comfort, then,  to understand how much our happiness in the two other marriages (…) depends on our having a settled marriage with the self” (p297).  Reversely, he also shows how the two outside marriages help us become more self-aware and “larger”, which will inevitably help in conversations with the self. 

There are two other aspects of these relationships, seemingly more specific to the relationship between the two outside marriages.  Though he claims that marriages are non-negotiable, David Whyte brings some confusion when he suggests that Jane Austen wrote great novels thanks to the fact that she did not manage to get married, or when he takes the example of Queen Elizabeth 1st refusing to get married because she was already “married” with her kingdom. This does not seem in line with this idea of each of the three marriages being non-negotiable. It rather opens the door to the idea that the marriage with a partner and the marriage with a work can replace each other and, moreover, that they can hinder each other. It also opens the door to the hypothesis that the marriage with the self is the core one because all three eventually lead to personal growth but it is the one that is explicitly dedicated to that, whereas the two other marriages are often useful but nevertheless optional, more indirect, ways supporting it.

On the other hand, David Whyte writes that attempting to make the first marriage the source of everything is detrimental to it and to the partners; this may be because defensive neurotic strategies of the ego will then develop, hindering any synergy with the marriage with the self. The notion of balance can be reintroduced here, not in terms of time or resources spent, but in terms of the two marriages preventing each other from becoming too exclusive and hence pathological. This also links to the issue of the quest as an illusion, which we find in other pages of this site. Living two sorts of outside marriages in our lives can be a way, though not the only possible one, to avoid this neurotic, fatal, use of any single marriage, possibly because the aim anyway is that they both help us in our marriage with the self.

So, when and under which conditions would those two marriages live in happy synergies are questions that would be worth investigating further. Moreover, if,as stated earlier in the book, the same energy is acting under different forms through those three marriages in order to push us into personal growth, why and when does it sometimes need three forms and sometimes less ?

Why do some marriages fail ?

David Whyte gives a number of reasons why some do. More precisely, he explains what is needed in order to make those marriages successful. If I may try a summary, what is needed is the ego’s surrender, not to someone but to something larger than it. This is very well developed all along the book. However, one aspect may deserve a particular attention and it is about this “love at first sight”; whether it is about a person or another venture. Sometimes, this initial spark is simply wrong… This person we fall in love will never be our spouse; this exciting work career will simply not take off… What makes the initial spark a right guide? Is it that this kind of intuition is always right and that we may then spoil the marriage along the way? Or, still if this intuition is right, does it come to us sometimes in order to make us learn something and not necessary to succeed? Or are there indeed wrong signals at the very start and, in that case, how to identify them?









#1 Yves Emery 2014-01-13 15:06
Je voudrais apporter une réponse très personnelle à la question titre du dernier paragraphe : "Pourquoi certains mariages échouent-ils ?" Il me semble que l'homme a beaucoup plus de facilité d'évoluer dans la souffrance que dans le bien-être. Lorsque tout baigne, pourquoi changer ? Par conséquent, l'Inconscient (ce qui est plus grand que nous), ne partageant pas nos limitations sociales et culturelles, est tout à fait capable de faire jaillir une étincelle destinée à nous engager dans une certaine voie, une voie qui nous semble limpide et qui n'est pourtant pas faite pour nous, et dans laquelle nous allons nous planter lamentablement. Ce, afin que cela fasse mal, que l'on souffre et finisse - dans le meilleur des cas - par se remettre en cause et évoluer. Et cela vaut pour les trois mariages.


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