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A Golden Life: Reflections on My Parents’ 50 Years of Marriage

DSC_1086“Falling in love is easy, but staying in love is very special.” 

Hello friend,

Over the recent holidays, I got to spend several days in my childhood home. The place still feels like a haven for me. It cradles me. I love its energy, its vibe. Around Christmas, though, that calming influence is mixed with utter pandemonium, as 20+ people, a few dogs, and a cat all share the space every hour of the day. It is a circus. A delightful circus, but still a circus. The tendency is for the days to whirl by in the madness, and suddenly I am in the car again, heading back to the uncertainties of “real” life and away from the place that still fills me with the comfort and security of a child in his parents’ arms.

This time, however, even amidst the chaos, I couldn’t help but pull back a little bit and take stock. I had a few moments—when the decibels were at peak level as all the kids tore into their presents, or as the multiple conversations criss-crossed at the three tables (one for the adults, one for the teens and people like me who don’t want to grow up, and one for the little kids) at Christmas dinner—when I simply sat back and appreciated the overwhelming swirl of Love and community that filled the house. It was truly awesome. I couldn’t help but notice myself mouthing the words “Thank you” as I looked on in wide wonder. I was humbled by the gift of a seat at the table amongst such beautiful souls. What a family!

Of course, when I think about my family and its remarkable run of happy togetherness, the road leads swiftly and certainly to my parents. The part of this trip that made it extra special was that we all got to share in their 50th wedding anniversary. FIFTY YEARS! Even as I write the words, the concept astounds me. Fifty years of marriage. I was patting myself on the back when my wife and I hit twelve years last Summer. I guess we better pack a lunch!

I have spent a lot of time thinking about marriage in the last couple of years. My own, my parents’, and the concept in general. I think about how tough it is to make marriage work, why so many of them fail, and why some people stay in them long after they should probably be gone. I have seriously pondered most of the couples that I know. Gradually, though, as my study has progressed, I have spent more and more time thinking only about my own parents. They have become the example.

For many years in my adulthood, I wondered why in the world they stayed married. I wanted what was best for my Mom, and frankly, I just wasn’t convinced that being married to my Dad was a healthy thing anymore. Alcoholism lays waste to most things in its path. It is clear to me why most relationships with an alcoholic end badly. Some disastrous combination of untruthfulness and hurtfulness wears the other down until there is nothing left but to leave or be lost.

I once asked my Mom if she was thinking about cutting ties and moving on. From her reaction, it was clear that the thought had never even occurred to her. Her only goal was to get my Dad feeling well again. She knew that the magnificent man that she had married when she was only twenty years old was still in there, that he just needed some help to find himself again. And she was darn sure going to be there every step of the way. Encouraging him. Comforting him. Challenging him. Holding his hand. Loving him. And always, always believing in him. In them.

I have to admit that at the time, I just couldn’t see it very clearly. I would have cut and run, not wanting to go down with the ship. I am hypersensitive, so lies and hurtful words and acts turn my heart in a hurry. I was always amazed—but also dismayed–by my mother’s capacity for patience and forgiveness. There were definitely moments that I wanted her to stand up and shout, “ENOUGH!!!” And I thought less of her for not doing so.

I see it differently now.

As I said, I have been thinking pretty hard about this lately. I think about my parents at that time and how miserable it seemed from my view on the outside. And then I think about them now and how happy and in love they seem, so grateful to be growing old together. I realize now that I was wrong and my Mom was right. She took a lot more than I could take, and a lot more than I wanted her to take. But in her seemingly unending love and patience—and more importantly than that, in her unyielding belief in her husband and in her commitment to him—she was able to weather the storm and carry them back onto the road, where they now walk hand-in-hand to their Happily Ever After.

There are a couple of things I take heart in when I think about their long journey, and in particular about the storm. First, even though I am sure she would do a few things differently, I am even more sure that she would carry his burdens again if need be, and that her belief in him and commitment to him would never falter. And second, I know he would do the same for her.

This is how a marriage works.

I am thankful every day that I was born to these two amazing people. I am thankful for the way they raised me, the love and self-confidence that they instilled in me. I am thankful for the way they have supported me and my siblings as we have endeavored to live meaningful lives and build families around their model. I am thankful that my kids get to love them and learn from them. And I am thankful that, amidst all of my ponderings of the difficulties of marriage and the many ways that marriages fail, I have a shining example of how marriage succeeds, of how marriage is meant to be. I only hope that I can follow their lead.

How about you? Who are your greatest relationship role models? Open up your journal and examine what it is about the couples you know who are doing it right. What characteristics do they have that makes their relationships work? Do both parties have that characteristic equally, or one more than the other? Do their personalities and skill-sets complement each other? What makes some relationships last where others fail? Is it the depth of commitment each person makes? It seems that people in my parents’ generation felt more of a moral obligation to marry for life than is expected in the current generation. While you can definitely argue that that doomed many people to remain in unhappy relationships, what do you see as the upside of that moral obligation? Is my mother’s resilience and willingness to weather the storm a byproduct of such a morality? Do you see that as a good thing or a bad thing? If you are married now, how confident are you that you will make it to the end of your lives together? If you aren’t married, does the poor success rate of marriages make you more hesitant to marry, or does that awareness not play a role in your confidence? How happily were/are your parents together? Are they a good role model for you in the marriage department? What about their relationship do you most want to avoid? What do you most want to emulate? Do you expect to live happily ever after with someone? Leave me a reply and let me know: What would people say about your relationship 50 years from now? 

Let Love Rule,

William

P.S. If this made you think about your life, pass it on. Let’s build a community of self-aware people!

What I’ve Learned In 12 Years of Marriage

DSC_0230“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” –Friedrich Nietzsche

Hello friend,

Today is my anniversary! Twelve years ago, in front of a small group of loved ones on a gorgeous Saturday, I vowed my friendship and love to an amazing woman. Near the end of the vows, I said, “It is my intention to be with you forever….” That’s everyone’s intention, right? So, why does it seem so rare that people actually pull off this trick of staying married forever? Beyond that, why is it even more rare to stay happily married forever, with the friendship and love still flowing? Well, I’ve only been at it for twelve years, so I can’t claim any great expertise or mastery on the topic of a lasting marriage. But, at least at this point, it feels like we are ready to press on to our Forever, walking the Road of Life hand-in-hand. I sure hope so.

Marriage is a challenge. Whoever tells you otherwise is a liar. For almost everyone I meet, I can, within a few minutes, tell you about a dozen reasons why I would not want to be married to them. It is simply a challenge to live cohesively with someone for any extended period. It is why, for most of us, we love it when our friends or relatives come for a visit, but we also secretly love it when they leave.

And I am the worst. There is no way I could be married to me. I am spoiled. I hold everyone to very high standards. I am opinionated. I am stubborn. I am sure that I am always right. And, possibly most challenging in a marriage, I am hypersensitive; I take everything to heart. All of that makes for a combustible mix of “Difficult to Live With”. I would not wish me upon anyone. My wife, needless to say, is a saint.

I never thought I would marry. Before I met my wife, I was too blissful in my singlehood to think of marriage as an option. I just liked being alone and devoting my life to personal improvement: learning and growing spiritually and intellectually. I guess I thought marriage would stifle that learning and development. As it turns out, marriage has taught me a few things that no amount of book-learning or meditation ever could. For a guy who naturally prefers solitude, twelve years in a marriage—and nearly seven as a father—come with lessons that are only understood intellectually but never mastered, that must be re-learned and practiced every single day.

The first lesson that I practice—and fail at—every day is the importance of continuing to act like my partner’s best friend and biggest fan. I think so much of this lesson that when I was asked to officiate at my sister’s wedding a few years ago, I chose it as the main focus of my sermon. It is easy in the euphoric beginning to be the biggest fan and the best friend. The “in love” part is still in full effect, and the personality and behavioral idiosyncrasies—as well as their contrasting viewpoints on what cleanliness looks like, how much time with in-laws is enough, how to spend your money, what to watch on television, how frequently to have date night (and “date night”), where do your shoes go when you come inside, and how to raise children, to name a few—have not been in your face EVERY SINGLE DAY without pause. The challenge is to be able to pull off the “How would the biggest fan act?” and “How would a best friend act?” every day, even while swimming in the pool of all these potential triggers. The lesson I am learning—and trying to remind myself every day—is to ask those questions and be sure that I can answer with my head held high. It is a challenge.

Another daily challenge of a lesson for me in my super-sensitivity is to not take umbrage at every seeming slight or unfairness—“Why do I have to cook so often?” or “Why don’t you acknowledge me for all I do?” or “That comment was passive-aggressive”—because letting all of that stuff stick only makes you bitter and more thin-skinned the next time, as though you are always building a case against your partner. Building a case against them—just like “keeping score” on the dishes or the cleaning or the gifts—is a recipe for disaster. It only makes you more resentful, and only makes them more defensive and distrusting, seeing your love as conditional. I am all for communicating your needs and letting your partner know when they have hurt you—I need to work on that one rather than writing it in my journal—but I have definitely come to see what a terrible waste of energy it is to hold onto every little grievance, or even to take them seriously. Choosing every one makes you a constant victim and makes your partner feel like they can’t do anything right. Neither of those roles is fun to play.

One role that is good to play is Yourself. I am learning—and trying to put into practice—the lesson to let your partner be who they are, even the stuff you would rather change. Challenge them, sure, and help them see if they are being destructive, but sometimes you just have to understand that they aren’t there for you to mold them. Just love them and accept them. Affirm that you love unconditionally. Feed whatever parts work for you while still accepting the rest.

Probably the greater lesson that binds these other lessons together—and actually bonds each of our individual lives together—is the supreme importance of CHOICE in all of this. You have to CHOOSE the right attitude, CHOOSE to be forgiving, CHOOSE to be a fan, CHOOSE to not be petty or snarky. It seems way easier to let a marriage drift into unloving, spiteful oblivion—which I believe it would do if left to its own devices—than it is to CHOOSE to do the daily work of cooperating, forgiving, and supporting. But what do you want? You have to do the things—CHOOSE the things—that get you what you want. If you want marriage to work, CHOOSE to do the things that make it work. Of course, it still requires your partner choosing to do the same, but start with yourself. You have control of that much.

Yes, as a grizzled veteran of twelve years in the marriage game—were those the easy dozen or the difficult dozen???—my takeaways seem to come down to some really simple concepts: appreciation, forgiveness, acceptance, and the absolute necessity of choosing the right attitude. Hey, those sound like my takeaways from LIFE! Oh, what a tangled web we weave. In the end, good principles transcend all institutions and never go out of style. I can only hope that I have the fortitude to keep these lessons front and center for all of my days to come. If I can do that, I can earn my “happily ever after”.

How about you? What lessons do you take from your most intimate relationship? Open up your journal and dive deep into what makes it go and what makes it stall out. How equal is your partnership? If you had to name a percentage, how much of the load do you feel like you are carrying when it comes to keeping the relationship going? How much of the physical load (e.g., keeping up the house, taking care of kids, etc.)? How about the emotional load? Financial? Is one of you clearly the rock, or does that role get passed back and forth depending on the situation? How long have you been in this relationship? If you had to guess, is it going to last until death do you part? How confident are you in that guess, and what dictates that level of confidence? How good of a job do you do at being your partner’s biggest fan? How about their best friend? Are you doing better or worse at it now than you used to? If worse, why do you think it turned? What can you do to better act like the biggest fan and best friend? How sensitive are you to perceived slights by your partner? How much do you feel like you are keeping score against them and building a case? Does that serve you in any positive ways? How well do you do at allowing your partner to be themselves? How consistent are you in the attitude you choose for the day? Do you usually go more positive and forgiving, or do you tend toward the negative and unforgiving side? What principles guide your relationship? How is that working out for you? If you could choose other principles—(hint: you can!)—what would they be? Do you think it’s up to you how long and strong your relationship goes? What’s your prediction? Beyond just lasting, what have you learned about how to make it happy? Leave me a reply and let me know: What have you learned, and how far is that going to take you? 

Go and love,

William