“Your marriage is like a horse . . .” a mixed bag of marriage metaphors

“Love is a many-splendored thing.” – Shakespeare

“Love is a battlefield.” – Pat Benatar

“Love is an open door.” – Princess Ana

For as long as people have been trying to make/trick other people into falling in love with them, they have being doing it by talking about love. It’s part of the mistaken idea that once we find the perfect metaphor, we’ll understand all of the intricacies and splendors of the aforementioned many splendors of love. So we spend time trying to conceive of the inconceivable. It’s why we have so many strange artistic interpretations of heaven (harps? halos?) and why my co-workers spend so much time talking about fantasy football: because things like love, heaven and fantasy football are all strange and unknowable concepts.

Like metaphors and similes about love, people have been churning out comparisons about marriage for probably forever. Maybe you’ve heard how “marriage is like a car – it needs constant maintenance to ensure a smooth ride,” or how “marriage is like a sword: impressive and red-hot at first, but becoming strong and tempered with time and polish.”

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“OK, we have cars and swords. Man does marriage sound cool and exciting! We’re totally nailing these metaphors! Hmm . . . ‘nail.’ ‘Marriage is like a hammer and a nail because . . . “
The good thing about comparisons like this is that they are easy to generate and can sound incredibly wise. The bad thing is that they can sound wise or folksy while actually being pretty dumb. But they are very easy to come up with! For example, a quick scan of the room I’m in right now will now yield a couple of decent similes about marriage . . .

(ahem)

  • Marriage is like this clock: always there, always working even when you don’t pay attention to it, but it occasionally needs to have its batteries recharged.

 

  • Marriage is like this bookshelf: crammed full of things that have given our life a lot of joy and meaning, but still needs to be emptied of things that are just taking up space.

 

  • Marriage is like this couch I’m on right now: well-used and stained, but because it is made from the right material (microfiber!) it can resist almost anything that you can throw at it as it becomes more comfortable with time.

 

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“Marriage is like this couch. Made possible by the good folks at IKEA.”
See what I mean? Wise. Folksy. But even if there are a lot of ways marriage is like a couch (Note: I am now realizing I should have said ‘love seat’ instead. Shoot.) there are obviously infinite ways it is NOT like a couch: This couch is actually pretty beat up and in the end, we’re just going to dump it and buy a new one (not a great ideal to strive for in marriage). It got nail polish spilled all over it and that stain is never coming out (mostly untrue about our marriage). Do not put your nose up really close to the cushions and inhale because it smells . . . let’s say it doesn’t smell great (more true about most marriage than people let on). None of these truths about our couch are very inspiring.  No metaphor stands up to close scrutiny, true. But some metaphors do it better than others. The trick is finding the ones that work the best.
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“Marriage is like this couch . . . even when it seems not so great for humans, it can still be the home to . . . many small animals? Yikes, ok this is getting away from me.”
Here are two more comparisons about marriage, one that I don’t think works as well and one that does. The first one is one that I’ve actually heard and, like the couch example, sounds good a first, but I think is ultimately a very limited and limiting concept of marriage.

Here it goes:  “Marriage is like a bank account. You’ve got to invest in it if you want anything to be there.” Sounds good right? So here’s why I dislike it: If you consider your marriage to be a repository of love or good deeds that you put into it, it sounds an awful lot like you are keeping a close watch on how much you are investing and that you consider anything that comes out of it to be your fair reward. You put in the money, you get to take it out later. And the worst part is that, if it’s like how many of our bank accounts actually operate, we are very aware that it only contains a finite amount of money, that we get back very little more than what we put into it, and that it wouldn’t surprise us if it was all gone someday. That sounds like a very bleak image of marriage: a place for you to store up your fair share of good deeds, but one that you can draw upon until it is all gone.

So instead of that, here’s one last comparison about marriage, one that I like a lot more:  Your marriage is more like a horse. A living, breathing, growing, changing creature that you are lucky enough to be a co-owner and caretaker of. Your responsibility to that animal is to not only provide the bare minimum to sustain its life, but to do your best to care for it and prepare it for the tasks it will confront in its life. Every good deed you do in your marriage has the potential to strengthen and help your marriage: In your marriage, when you put effort into understanding her point of view, when you go above and beyond to let him know that you appreciate him, it strengthens and feeds your marriage. And for a horse to be healthy and strong, it needs exercise. Strenuous exercise sometimes.

The positive outcomes of strenuous, arduous exercise, the kind you would put a champion horse through, are similar to the often unrecognized benefits of doing hard things together in your marriage: having children, moving to a new place for her to further her education and career, or even just compromising on the furniture you’d like to put in your living room. These can be hard things and strenuous exercise. But like running a horse to build up its stamina and tolerance, practicing the difficult work of tough choices and difficult circumstances prepare you for the circumstances you never could have seen coming. It shows you how strong your marriage really can be. A bank account is finite – it is immediately obvious when it will run dry and there will be nothing left to give. Bank statements have a immoveable bottom line. A living thing, though, has hidden wells of strength, unexplored potential that you can’t appreciate until it is pushed to the limit and then beyond it. And every animal is different! What will be needed to coax more effort from one may not be the exact right thing for another to do. And nobody knows an animal better than its owners, no matter how folksy their advice or well-written their blogs.

And finally, why is marriage is more like a horse than a bank account? Without question there will come a day when, if you are keeping a running tally of who “owes” the other one something, you will come up empty. But if your horse/marriage is something that you’ve invested love and time in, when it’s a thing that you love and loves you back, it will be strong enough to pull you out of the deepest hole or the thickest mud and help get you back on the path together. 

Ultimately, any comparison or advice you hear is only helpful if it rings true to you and if it can help you in your life. I think both finding the ways in which marriage comparisons work AND finding ways in which they don’t work can help to highlight what is true and what is not about the (somewhat) unknowable concept of marriage.

If there are any metaphors or marriage comparisons that YOU have heard, either ones that you liked or ones that you thought were pretty terrible, share them in the comments! Because it’s either that or I will sit here and keep looking at things in this room and telling you why marriage is like this rocking chair: a great find on Craigslist, but it had a lot of dog hair on it at first.


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5 thoughts on ““Your marriage is like a horse . . .” a mixed bag of marriage metaphors

  1. Alright, I decided I’m just going to say it: “Love is an open door.”
    I don’t like it. Hopefully I can explain why without too much trouble. I think it conjures up a mentality of no restrictions, no strings attached, and total freedom from responsibility. Maybe I am reaching a little bit, but I feel like with real love, there is much responsibility. I am not able to give into anything I think and feel because the man I love may not be thinking or feeling the same thing I am. He may have other expectations for the time being. And just because we may finish each other’s sandwiches, doesn’t mean that’s always okay. Sometimes I really wanted the leftovers and am disappointed Spencer took them to work. And sometimes I have to work hard to stay away from his leftover pizza because I know he is really looking forward to it.
    I was thinking for a while about a metaphor/simile that I could get behind in regards to love/marriage. I think it came to me this morning: marriage is (*can be*) like a punch in the face. Marrying Spencer was the best thing I could have done – and I realize that more and more the longer we have been married – but I think most people, if honest with themselves, would admit to having that moment fairly early on in marriage where they sat up (mentally) and thought, “What on earth have I done?!” We cannot know what marriage is like until we experience it. It is extremely hard and the life we knew before cannot be the life we try to make for ourselves with our spouse. And I think that can come as a big shock at some moment. But then we realize how wonderful it is to work along side of someone and to become a new person along with this person that you love best in the world. Yes, I believe it can come like a punch in the face. But that doesn’t mean it has to be bad.

    1. It was pointed out to me that, in the context of the movie Frozen, “love is an open door,” is actually pretty metaphoric (when you consider how the first song in the movie is about one sister literally shutting the door on the other one). In any case, as a song, “Love is an Open Door,” is just kind of meh. I’m fine going on the record as not caring much for it as either metaphor or song (or life lesson).
      I DO think that the phrase “marriage is like a punch in the face” is . . . um, really problematic (given the fact that physical abuse is an unfortunate reality of many marriages). Also, I can’t really imagine a punch to the face NOT being bad . . . But your reasoning is solid! I do think it’s something shocking you can never really be ready for. Maybe instead: marriage is like diving into a glacier lake? Or, if we want to be trendy, like an ice bucket challenge?

      1. Yes, I felt the same about the punch in the face comment. Physical abuse is a very big problem for some that is tragic and I hesitated to use it for that reason. I do not intend to make light of that at all. My intent was to conjure up the mentality of a major wake-up call that may not actually be pleasant when it comes. The reality of marriage can be terrifying before we realize the good that comes.
        And I just won’t get started on Frozen. You wouldn’t want me to.
        Alright, sorry. I will stop commenting novels!

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