The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship

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9781423376545: The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship

In The Three Marriages, David Whyte, the bestselling author, poet, and speaker, asks you to think about your significant relationship to your partner, your work and your inner self in a radically different way by drawing them into a mutually supportive conversation. According to Whyte, we humans are involved not just with one marriage with a significant other. We also have made secret vows to our work and unspoken vows to an inner, constantly developing self. These Three Marriages constantly surprise us, and they demand larger and renewed dedication as the years go by. Whyte’s thesis is that to separate these marriages in order to balance them is to destroy the fabric of happiness itself; that in each of these marriages, will, effort, and hard work are overused, overrated, and in many ways self-defeating. Happiness, Whyte says, is possible, but only if we re-imagine how we inhabit the worlds of love, work, and self-understanding. Whyte argues that it is not possible to sacrifice one marriage for any of the others without causing deep psychological damage. He looks to a different way of seeing and bringing these relationships together and invites us to examine each marriage with a fierce but affectionate eye as he shows the nonnegotiable nature at the core of each commitment. Only by understanding the journey involved in each of the Three Marriages and the stages of their maturation, he says, can we understand how to bring them together in one fulfilled life.

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About the Author:

David Whyte is a Yorkshire-born poet and consultant who has introduced poetry into such companies as American Express, Boeing and Toyota. He is the author of the bestselling The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America and Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity as well as several volumes of poetry. He lives with his family on an island near Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest.

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page




BOOK ONE - The Three Marriages: Work, Self and Other

CHAPTER 1 - Some Definitions


BOOK TWO - Love’s First Glimpse: Looking for a Mate, a Job, a Life

CHAPTER 2 - The Classic Case: Love’s First Glimpse of Love Itself

CHAPTER 3 - Vows Made for Me: Falling in Love with a Work

CHAPTER 4 - The Doorless Door: Youth’s First Glimpse of the Self


BOOK THREE - The Joy of Pursuit: What We Think We Are Worthy of in This World

CHAPTER 5 - The Pursuit of the First Marriage: The Classic Case Again: Early Stage

CHAPTER 6 - Opening a Tidal Gate: The Pursuit of a Work Through Difficulty, ...

CHAPTER 7 - Searching for a Self: The Pursuit That Is Not a Pursuit


BOOK FOUR - Engagement: The Dramas and Disappointments Immediately Prior to Marriage

CHAPTER 8 - Have Nothing, Dare Everything

CHAPTER 9 - Jane Austen: Despite All

CHAPTER 10 - Alone in the Struggle: Turning to Face the World


BOOK FIVE - Living Together: The Art of Marriage

CHAPTER 11 - The Art of Marriage: The Disappearance, Reappearance and ...

CHAPTER 12 - A Sweet Prison: Living with the Work We’ve Chosen

CHAPTER 13 - Living with the Self: Divorce, Forgiveness and Remarriage

CHAPTER 14 - Not a Question of Balance: A Marriage of Marriages








Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity


The Heart Aroused:
Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America





River Flow: New & Selected Poems 1984-2007



Everything Is Waiting for You


The House of Belonging


Fire in the Earth


Where Many Rivers Meet


Songs for Coming Home

Published by the Penguin Group
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(South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa


Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England


Copyright © 2009 by David Whyte

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any
printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy
of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada


Page 337 constitutes an extension of this copyright page.


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Whyte, David, date.
The three marriages : reimagining work, self and relationship / David Whyte.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.

eISBN : 978-1-101-01545-2

1. Self-help techniques. 2. Work—Psychological aspects. 3. Self-management (Psychology).
4. Marriage. I. Title.




While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

For my loving wife,




In memoriam

We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.



No one could find me in this strange hiding place. I moved the chair ever so quietly back toward the wall and drew back my feet so that those searching for me would not see those two polished shoes peeping out on the white, immaculate kitchen floor. I tried hard not to imagine the concern and wonderment at my recent unexplained disappearance as I sipped at the glass of red wine and looked down again with renewed effort at my notes.

My refuge was a chair placed between two massive gleaming refrigerators in the equally massive kitchen that stood next to the room in which I was about to speak; all this on the very top floor of a sprawling bank building in Johannesburg. Though it was light and warm inside the building, it was dark and very cold outside on the high central plateau of South Africa and the night full of frigid, glittering stars. It was a night to think of origins and the specific place of humanity amongst it all, but the lit interior of the building gave out that international projected sense of abstract corporate power that could have placed it anywhere in the world from Singapore to Seattle.

I was hiding because, humanity or not, I was in a very difficult place at that moment. I needed precious time to myself to come up with a theme very quickly for a talk I was about to give in thirty minutes. I wanted to be a thousand miles away from this audience, many thousands of miles away, to be precise. It was all made worse by the fact that I had given a very good week of seminars, not only within the bank but to the wider artistic community in Johannesburg, and they were all therefore expecting more good stuff and had all told those who had not heard me to come along and hear this poet fellow who could address things in a way they might not have heard before. I would have preferred expectations to be very, very low for this evening. Not only that, but this particular talk was to be to executives and spouses, and had to be relevant to both. The creative center of all this attention, however—the speaker, that is—was completely exhausted and as dry of inspiration as they were full of anticipation. I could hear the buzz of excitement next door, and it made me realize how empty I felt right down to the pit of my stomach, as if someone, somewhere had pulled a plug and the last dregs of energy and enthusiasm had drained away at last. I thought of slipping out like some artistic rock star and really disappearing, leaving only the memory of my past triumphs. I was done, dried out, running on empty and ready for a bottle of wine, never mind a glass, drunk not between two refrigerators in a South African bank building but at home by the fire, with family, with friends, with those especially who did not look to me for inspiration.

In fact, I would have given a lot to be sitting somewhere else drinking that wine; actually, I would have given a great deal to be anywhere else in my life. In fact I suddenly saw myself back in the rose-colored past, as a kid in Yorkshire, in short grey flannel pants, adjusting the big safety pin that seemed to hold them up for a good stretch of my childhood, and which I hid on the inside of the waist. For a moment I found myself looking down at the scuffed knees below the line of those remembered pants: knees that carried me through the local fields and the very local fights of a very rambunctious childhood. That kid could never have imagined sitting here in this humming, oblong metal canyon, about to go on in front of a sophisticated crowd in a faraway, future city; he could never imagine the worries and frets and necessities of the adult mind. I thought about him and what he had wanted to do when he grew up. I thought about my son, my daughter, my wife. I thought about myself suddenly, almost as a stranger, sitting here at this threshold in my life, a stranger at least in the eyes of that rascal kid with his pocket full of holes and pebbles, looking up at me between the refrigerators, in childish puzzlement at my worry.

I waved him off, back into his happy past, and looked at my watch in the all-too-unhappy present. I had been sitting here for ten minutes, and it was now twenty minutes to eight. Twenty minutes until I was on, and I still had not even a glimmer as to what I would say. I heard a stray voice in the kitchen doorway asking another if he had seen me anywhere. I looked down, pulled in the one stray toe that had now wandered beyond the sight line of the refrigerators, exposing me to discovery and stared at my notes.

A big part of the trouble I was now in, had come, as it often does, in the form of a wonderful compliment. The head of the bank, who had invited me and hosted me in South Africa, had been incredibly hospitable to my wife and me, and had also insisted on attending every one of my talks. I had then taken it almost as a point of honor to keep him surprised and interested the whole week and not repeat myself, as speakers are wont to do. The effort had gone very well until this evening, when the cumulative effect of finding something new or at least saying the old in a new way over a dozen long talks during the week had brought me to my knees as far as new material and new insight were concerned.

Part of the way I have always worked is through memorized poems, my own and others’, of which I have a few hundred and which I bring to bear on a given subject. It had all happened naturally that way because I had always loved committing poems to memory and I somehow managed to build my work around it. But sometimes you could easily forget what you remembered, and so I had the first lines of all these memorized poems laid down in a multipage list. I would add to this list only as each poem passed the invisible test of being solidly in my memory. It was this that I looked at so earnestly as the minutes ticked away. I was often unnaturally proud of this list, but it was doing me absolutely no good at the moment. It was now a quarter to eight.

In my case, looking at notes is always a sign of desperation. I never prepare for talks this way. I rely on a general day-to-day inquiry that comes to fruition by talking out loud in front of an audience. I always feel the invitation made by attentive, listening ears makes the talk as much as any individual giving the speech. My exhaustion, therefore, had given me a temporary loss of faith in the way I usually hold the conversation. I turned the pages over and realized that I wasn’t even seeing anything on the blessed pages, never mind synthesizing anything from the lines. I lifted my wrist again; it was ten minutes to eight, still nothing, and the buzz was getting louder, the questions as to my whereabouts a little more animated through the kitchen door.

There was other trouble waiting for me in that crowd this evening: the face of my wife. That face at the end of a week when I had been working nonstop, hogging all the limelight and barely able to have a real conversation with her, and I was supposed to give a speech, brazen as you like, on bringing work together with all those other human imponderables of family and self. I could just imagine her at the table, giving me that beautiful but wry smile, putting her hands together so politely at the end with her new South African friends, and saying to herself, Well done, very well said. Mr. Gold-Plated B.S.

I looked down at the blue hands of my wristwatch: five minutes to eight. The interesting thing about wristwatches as objects of desire is that when advertised for sale, they are always worn in situations of extreme timelessness—climbing a rock face, flying a plane, sitting with your son—as if by their purchase we will be absolved of time and no longer besieged by its swift, uncaring passage.

Time was moving very swiftly indeed as far as coming up with a decent theme. Work, life, balance. I dismissed the last word from my mind and from the talk. Poets have never used the word balance, for good reason. First of all, it is too obvious and therefore untrustworthy; it is also a deadly boring concept and seems to speak as much to being stuck and immovable, as much as to harmony. There is also the sense of unbalancing that must take place in order to push a person into a new and larger set of circumstances. Gazing blankly at my notes, I suddenly remembered, as in a dream, another talk that I had given, at the other end of the earth, as a guest lecturer at the University of Anchorage on a very, very cold snowy day in Alaska. Emerging from a veritable blizzard into a lecture hall with an unknown crowd of students, I realized that my adventure in getting there had completely pushed from my mind the subject of this particular class. I asked them to tell me what their usual subject was for this afternoon. One fellow at the front put up his hand and said, “English composition.” The title floored me a little, because no serious writer ever thinks about English composition, and if he did it would mean he had temporarily lost his mind or his way as a writer. English composition is for those looking from the outside in. English composition is to real writing as Sunday school is to Moses before the burning bush. I started hesitantly, knowing I had to find a different ground on which to walk as I spoke, and finally found the way in when I overheard myself say, “English decomposition.” Suddenly the students were interested. I found myself talking about all the ways in which you have to break down and discompose your ordinary speech in order to say something real and worthwhile. . . .

“There you are,” said the voice of the sound technician, holding up the lapel mike for me with one hand and holding the battery case in the other. He stood in the space framed by the two refrigerators, looked off to the side and said in a loud, excited voice, “I’ve found him, hiding in the kitchen.” Thank you, I thought. I looked at my watch again. Eight o’clock, nothing, absolutely nothing, except that clue about being discomposed and the image of Moses before the burning bush.

My banker friend made the wonderful introduction I didn’t want and didn’t deserve and didn’t want him to give. I thought of how much time human beings spend in circumstances they would never willingly choose for themselves. I thought of why this might be so. I would have been much happier with “He’s done great all week, now let’s all let him have a really off night and still love him at the end.” The room went quiet. I looked out at the assembled ...

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