My lovely wife Laura and I have celebrated this fall our 25th wedding anniversary. Beyond the practice of Christian faith, which certainly has waxed and waned and had its own seasons of prosperity and famine, I don’t think I’ve done anything else for such a long time. I find myself up very early this morning, having just come off our anniversary celebration—a “stay-cation,” in which we did the likes of breakfast at the Loveless Café, viewing a bit of autumn foliage on the Natchez Trace Parkway, perusing the galleries in Lieper’s Fork, lots of eating and drinking, as well as enjoying other perks of having the house to ourselves for the weekend without any offspring around spoiling any sort of romantic interludes.
These days I often do not sleep through the night. But these early morning hours provide good time for reflection for a top ten—or at least ten, as I probably am not willing to claim they are the top ten—list of things I’ve learned about marriage in these twenty-five years.
1. The romance myth is bunk. “They lived happily ever after” should be seen as five of the most damaging words ever spoken and stupidly repeated. I say this not because my own marriage has lacked romance and the best kinds of high drama: we’ve earned graduate degrees together, traveled far and wide, lived abroad, given birth to three beautiful sons; we have hiked the Ngong Hills in Kenya, enjoyed an amorous outing in the Andes Mountains, and enjoyed ardor intensified by an outrageous thunderstorm while in an inn perched on the coastal bluffs of Cinque Terre, Italy. But to carry any sort of expectation of “they lived happily ever after” denigrates the beauty of these memories, because:
2. Marriage is a “people growing institution.” Or so says one marriage therapist whose work I’ve found helpful. This means that difficulty and hardship in a marriage is not to be equated with a “problem marriage.” Marriage entails difficulty and hardship, because we are all still maturing and growing; put two people who are still maturing and growing in a committed relationship, and you necessarily get difficulty and hardship. My wife’s beauties and strengths and gifts and industry and talents, which are many, contribute more than I can catalog to the good of our sons, the good of our household, the good of our community, and the good of me. But it may be that her character defects, those things about her that annoy me, anger me, frustrate me, that these have been just as important in my growth as a human being. Her character defects have made occasion for me to face my own character defects. “Dross is removed by fire.” “Count it all joy whenever you encounter various trials…” I find myself almost contemptuous of these sayings; but my despising does not make them less true.
3. My wife’s job is not to make me happy. Conversely (or inversely?): my job is not to make my wife happy. “If momma ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy” is dangerous conventional wisdom, and sets a context in which growth and maturation will be harder to come by for everyone in that family. (And the saying is also sexist; “daddy” can be just as responsible for the unhappiness of the family as “momma.”) And while we are not “responsible for” another adult’s happiness or emotions, we are “responsible to” contributing what we can to a context in which one another, and the marriage itself, can flourish.
4. Memory is an art: and it is an art much susceptible to one’s state of mind and disposition of heart. Take any particular life episode, belabor it with heavy doses of self-pity or resentment, and the take-away memories will be heavy. Take that same life episode, spice it up with gratitude or a refusal to take oneself and one’s expectations too seriously, and the memories taken away will become a sweet lightening of the soul for many years down the path. Laura and I can have different memories of a given life episode, hers more light and joyous than mine, because I can recollect that in that given instance, I was in a place of anger or pettiness. To collect good memories (and I do not say this in the maddening consumerist manner in which “making memories” is often sold to us these days) is a fruitful endeavor, a gift to a marriage.
5. Things will not always stay the same; seasons come, and seasons go. Are you happy, with all things as they should be: enough in the checking account; enough in the pantry; enough in bed; enough friends; enough festivities and fellowship? Things will change. Are you unhappy, with all things disordered: not enough in pantry or bed or checking account? Things will change.
6. Take two: things will not always stay the same, unless they do. If there are things that seemingly ought to change, but have not, it may be because I am (we are) continuing to do the same things. Change occurs only when something changes. There are some things over which I have control, and some things over which I do not. To obsess about other people changing is an exercise in futility; it is more productive to examine what I need to change, or what I may change, that can contribute to a changed dynamic. The Serenity Prayer is helpful here: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
7. If you are conflict averse (as I have been), practice saying things you know might cause trouble, if they are true (even if you are only sure that they are “true for you”). If possible, say them with graciousness; but even if not, still say them. Speak your truth, even if your voice cracks. Speak your truth, even if you cannot say it in a gracious way. Kind speech is only learned on the other side of truthful speech. What looks like kindness may in fact be deception if it is motivated by conflict avoidance.
8. Looking the other way does not help solve any problems in marriage or family. But harping on the problems does not solve them, either. There is a place of wisdom to be found somewhere between saying too little and saying too much, and wisdom always requires courage and prudence.
9. “Sometimes simply keeping your promise simplifies things. Sometimes it becomes impossible to keep one’s promises. But when possible, simply keeping them makes life much simpler.” So said a friend to me over lunch; and so said he well. We made vows. It has been important for me simply to do my duty even when, especially when, I did not feel like it.
10. Grow up. The best thing I can do for my marriage, my sons, and the various communities of which I am a part is first to work on myself: to grow as a human being, to face my own defects and learn better ways, to become fully alive, and practice authentic freedom in all things. Thus says Thomas Merton: “He who attempts to do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressivity, and his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions…” (Contemplation in the World of Action).
Thank you Laura for these twenty five years together: for the times we have been richer and the times we have been poorer, for the times of sickness and those of health, for the times that have been worse and the times that have been better; until death do us part.