Relationships can be pretty darn hard. After almost 3 decades of marriage, there are still days when I wonder what in the world my husband is thinking. Of course, even though I frequently choose not to admit it, he has similar thoughts about me. It is an interesting phenomenon to think about, particularly as the wedding-season is approaching. I mean, what do you tell young people as they look at you with starry eyes and ask the rhetorical question, “How do you make a marriage last?” The first thing I typically think is that I am being patronized because of my age. You know, ask the old queen an easy question so she can preserve whatever brainpower she has left. Then, my thoughts move to questioning the intent of the question. Is this soon-to-be young bride or groom seriously wondering about maintaining the health of their relationship or do they want reassurance that their partnership is special and immune from dissolving into frustration, arguing and potentially divorce?
There are many people I know, including my husband and myself, that have had what we now fondly refer to as our “starter marriages”. These unions began with optimism about what life should be after the I-do’s, but can’t withstand the realities that present themselves as life moves on. Some are doomed from the start simply because of unrealistic expectations. You know, things like, “It will be better when we are married,” or “I am ___ years old and it’s time for me to settle down”. Some marriages expire when one party or the other realizes they were in love with what they wanted the other person to be rather than to clearly see who they are. Still others end because our culture is not very good at making things work. There seems to be a belief that if a relationship is hard, it’s not meant to be.
Allow me to sidebar at this point. Some marriages are not meant to be! Substance and/or physical and emotional abuse are deal killers. When they occur, the relationship is over. There are some amazingly strong people who can rise beyond their behaviors and addictions with professional help. These individuals have my utmost respect.
So, what makes a marriage last? Go to any wedding shower and you will find sage advice woven into the conversation or, more obtrusively, written on cards that are presented with high hopes to the young couple. Honestly, to tell them to be open and honest at all times and to never go to bed angry sound good. But, how long do those virtues continue after the “I do’s”? “Open and honest” is well and good until the first bad haircut or the pants that actually do make one’s backside appear larger than normal. How about “open and honest” when the in-laws are coming for an extended visit? Or after making an expensive, special, time involved dinner that tastes like cardboard? How open should one actually be? Honesty is vital, but what happens when it falls in the category of being brutal?
Then we have the concept of never going to bed angry. Really? As if anything is actually accomplished in the midst of fatigue after a long, frustrating day when all one really wants to do is go to sleep? In theory, rest and sleep are better when stress is minimal, but the reality is there will be times when it takes more than a day or two to resolve some issues. That doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed. It simply means there is something big in the way and it will take some pondering, soul searching, introspection, prayer and, possibly, professional help to come out on the other side of it. Like the other difficulties we face in life, these times can be catalysts for growth and deepening our understanding of who we are – both as individuals and as partners.
Again, what makes a marriage last? It took some years to figure this one out. The funny thing is, it is not as complicated as we try to make it. Maya Angelou phrased it beautifully in her famous quote:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Herein lies the key. It’s not about the money or the children. It doesn’t matter if the house is big or small or if the car is new or old. Nor does it matter if one partner or the other travels 5 days a week or works long hours. What does matter is that in the midst of life, both people feel loved, nurtured, respected, appreciated and safe. I guess that’s where open and honest fit in. Beautiful words and gestures mean nothing if they aren’t believable. But, when they are backed up by complete honesty, they are cupid’s arrow to the heart. Love begins and renews itself over and over again.
The thing is, this mantra doesn’t work only in marriage. It is important in the workforce, at school, with our children or in any other interaction we have. We avoid the people who make us feel inferior, stupid, naive, or incapable, yet we migrate toward those who encourage, praise, admire or complement our actions. We long to be acceptable and accepted.
I think that’s why I love my dog so much. It doesn’t matter what mood I am in, how unorganized or crazy I feel, if I have dressed up for the day or if I am schlunking around the house in pajamas. She offers me the gift of unconditional love. Because of that, I can forget that she gnawed on the dining room rug, (it’s been replaced), or had her way with a little used chair, (the upholsterer is coming to pick it up one of these days). What I do remember is that she is always glad to see me and share her tail wags and puppy kisses.
You see, I believe God is the same way. God will love me always – in spite of my moods, my outbursts, and every personality wart that makes me…well, ME. To know and recognize God’s unconditional love allows me to chisel away at my more negative side and let the good shine through just a little more. God’s love makes me feel a little safer, a bit calmer…and the list goes on.
So, what about marriage? What makes a marriage last? In my opinion, the cryptic answer is embedded in knowing puppies, God and the wisdom of Maya Angelou.
Maybe we should expand on the statement, “I do” and make it “I do intend to make you feel loved, nurtured, respected, appreciated and safe every day of my life and if I don’t, I am counting on you to love me unconditionally until I do again.”
That should come right before, “And I promise to always pick up my socks.”