In 1902, the famous Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke began a letter correspondence with a 19-year-old aspiring poet and military cadet named Franz Kappus who was trying to decide between a literary and a military career. In his letters, Rilke offers advice on how a poet should feel, love, and seek truth in trying to understand and experience life and art. In 1929, three years after Rilke’s death, the ten letters were published as Briefe an einen jungen Dichter (Letters to a Young Poet).
I recently came across this volume of poems and was struck by the advice Rilke offered on marriage, specifically — on the importance of differentiation in intimate relationships. A common theme in couples counseling sessions, it represents one of the central challenges of long-term relationships: finding a balance between holding on to one’s self (maintaining autonomy) while meeting the needs of our partner (adaptability and compromise).
While Rilke’s language may be different from that of psychologist David Schnarch who writes widely on this topic (two articles by Schnarch are posted in this blog), his separate-but-together message resonates strongly. Rilke also writes of how we must learn how to love if it is to be a truly rich and satisfying experience.
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The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development.
But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
That is why this, too, must be the criterion for rejection or choice: whether you are willing to stand guard over someone else’s solitude, and whether you are able to set this same person at the gate of your own depths, which he learns of only through what steps forth, in holiday clothing, out of the great darkness.
To take love seriously and to undergo it and learn it like a profession — that is what young people need to do. Like so many other things, people have also misunderstood the position love has in life; they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure are more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, precisely because it is the supreme happiness, can be nothing other than work.
So those who love must try to act as if they had a great work to accomplish: they must be much alone and go into themselves and gather and concentrate themselves; they must work; they must become something.
For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey.
Rainer Maria Rilke