What is a Marriage Made of?

UnknownOn Valentine’s Day this past year, my mother told me my father bought her a necklace she liked in the store. I asked what she bought him. Mom said she bought Dad a Kit Kat bar.

“Dad gave you a necklace, and you bought him Kit Kats?” I asked.

“He likes Kit Kats,” Mom replied. “And I bought him a giant, king-sized Kit Kat.”

Today is my parents’ 48th wedding anniversary—two years away from their Golden anniversary. Dad offered to make reservations at a swanky restaurant in Laguna Beach. Mom suggested they get noodles at a local strip mall restaurant instead, which suits my father just fine.

Theirs is the marriage that formed some of my earliest notions of matrimony, the marriage I’ve been most privy to, next to my own. My parents are closing in on 50 years. Mine officially ended on what would have been our 14th wedding anniversary.

I think a lot about what makes some marriages last and others fail. I’ve read stacks of marriage and relationship books after my divorce, which is a bit like going through your car’s owner manual after you’ve signed the pink slip transferring ownership.

I’ve often thought it would be interesting to gather couples married for 50+ years and ask them how they’ve made their marriages last. No doubt, some couples just endure. But I’d like to know about the marriages that last and grow richer through the years.

My parents would tell you their marriage has not been endless walks on the beach and handholding at sunset. They’ve fought over in-laws and spending priorities…and everything else under the sun. They’ve had long, drawn-out arguments that started over who forgot to do something or why something was done, or not done, a certain way. And they often don’t seem to notice how short and sharp they sound talking to each other, in private and in public.

Over the years, I know they have come to places in their marriage where they’ve wondered about the very essence of the other, the impossible finality of traits that drive them insane…and likely won’t change.

But somehow, teetering on the precipice of calling it quits, they’ve managed to step back each time and stand by the vows of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”

My father is the romantic one in their relationship—the one who still buys tickets to Broadway plays, where they both complain that the show isn’t as good as “The Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady.” Dad plans dates to the Hollywood Bowl, or hires a singing telegram to show up at a house party, or surprises my mother with long-stemmed roses while she is just as happy with a flat of flowers from the nursery to plant in the backyard.

One year, Dad went through extraordinary efforts to surprise my mother with a designer dress she liked, talking her out of buying it at the store and having the sales woman quietly send the dress to his office. A few weeks later, on my mother’s birthday, Dad insisted he needed to pick up something from his office before they went home to get ready for an evening event, which infuriated my mother. She sat in the car mumbling and grumbling about how little time she would have to get ready. That was the afternoon the elevator in Dad’s office building malfunctioned, and Dad got stuck in the elevator with Mom’s “birthday suit,” waiting for someone to rescue him.

Mom gets Dad Kit Kats for Valentine’s Day. She also counts out vitamins and keeps track of any medications Dad needs to take. Over the years, as my father built his own business, my mother—an introvert who is shy until she knows you well—stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him as they met with his clients over dinner and entertained an endless stream of business colleagues at our home.

She’s not overly sentimental by nature, but I’ve watched my mother zealously stand in Dad’s corner throughout his career.

“Your Dad has so much integrity. He cares very personally about the welfare of each of his clients,” she’d tell me. She admires my Father’s work ethic and his honesty. She’d watch him handle the stresses of a fluctuating stock market and anxious clients watching the fluctuating market, and she would look for ways to help him manage the stress. Mom handled all of his packing for business trips, took him out on long walks in the evening where he could disconnect from persistent clients who wanted to reach him at home (in the pre-cellphone days); offered an empathetic ear when my father just needed to talk about his frustrations at work.

Two years ago, Dad was hospitalized with pneumonia and other health complications during a family vacation in Hawaii. Mom stayed up several nights, washing and changing his sweat-drenched pajamas before he was admitted to the hospital. She called family doctors for advice and stayed at his hospital bedside. Mom took active care of him through his convalescence. She may not be a romantic soul, but Mom loves people through her actions and her unwavering commitment.

At the worst points in their marriage, someone could have said, “Don’t stay in it for the children. If you’re not happy, your kids won’t be happy. Kids always know when their parents are miserable, and everyone is better off if you end a bad situation.” It’s the advice I hear offered up to people regularly these days. And I’m sure that in some situations, it might possibly be true (although social-science research would say divorce might be positive for adults but often has long-term detrimental effects for children*)

I look at 48 years of my parents’ marriage, and I’m both grateful and glad they stuck it out. For my sister. For me. For them. I don’t believe I’d be better off today if my parents had opted to divorce. I would have hated a parenting plan that divided my life between two houses. The financial resources stretched to cover two households would have closed off all kinds of opportunities I enjoyed growing up and through my college years. I can’t fathom the emotional upheaval I would have experienced if my parents had divorced, except by watching the life my kids have had to navigate.

Mom & Dad & Grandkids
My mother and father with their six grandchildren.

Today, my parents’ union also serves as the intact marriage my children get to see up close. My kids witness their romantic gestures. The spats. The respect and empathy. My children see commitment and sacrifice and partnership.

Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage is an example to my kids of what it looks like to live out the vows of “for better, for worse,” with both scenarios present on most days.

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*Judith Wallerstein, who passed away in 2012, was a clinical psychologist and a researcher on the impact of divorce on children. Wallerstein, who conducted longitudinal studies over 25+ years on children of divorce, ignited a firestorm when she published findings on the long-term negative impact of divorce on children.While parents often claim their kids will be better off if they divorce because of the negative effect of marital tensions, Wallerstein’s research published in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-year Landmark Study” presented a different picture.

Another interesting article on children and divorce is this older piece from journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. 

The Stranger in My Bed: Who You Married Isn’t Who You’re Married To

Note from Shelly: From time-to-time, I’m sharing some of the best thoughts from writers/friends that I’ve come across on the web. This guest post is from my friend Amber Johnson, who writes Weddedness, a marriage blog with her husband, Cliff. I regularly follow Amber’s blog because she and her husband have some wise perspectives on marriage after the “I do” part…and well, they’re just funny writers to boot. Read this, and then visit her blog as well.

Who are you again?

Ten  years ago, when Cliff and I got married, he had hair and I had thighs that would have fit into skinny jeans, had they been stylish then. I was shy in groups and reticent to ever express a strong opinion; Cliff was more brash. He was headed for a career in social work. I wanted to be a writer.

Cliff was thinking about converting to Catholicism. I thought women shouldn’t be pastors. We weren’t positive we wanted kids. Everything we cared about could fit in the trunk of our car.

Now, Cliff has moved past Catholicism: our pastor’s name is Laura. I’ve learned to share my opinion, and occasionally cross the line to brash; Cliff has softened his voice. He’s left social work behind and is now in non-profit management. I’m on the same career path. We own a house full of stuff, though the things we care about mostly still fit in the back of our car: safely buckled in two car seats. And the hair and thighs, well, time changes things.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: who I married on September 8, 2001, isn’t quite the same person in my bed tonight. The change has been gradual, but the differences are stark. In fact, our son recently looked at a picture from our wedding day, and asked, “Where are you guys?” Good question.

We’ve been lucky: we’ve changed roughly in step with each other. Many of the changes have been for the better (I’ve learned to be more direct; Cliff has learned to listen more). And we’ve developed the thick skin it takes to tolerate the changes that are a bit tougher to stomach.

Not everyone is so lucky: some changes take more adapting. Think of the career woman who decides to be a stay-at-home mom. Or the stay-at-home mom who finds herself yearning for a career. Either occupation is respectable, but a sudden and passionate swing from one to the other can unsettle a relationship, especially for a husband who thought he was married to one and finds himself working out weekly schedules and budgets with the other.

I know of other families where one partner has suddenly become a serious runner, requiring hours of Saturday morning training runs and changed diets for the whole family.

And what if your husband becomes more brash? Your wife more bossy? What if illness or parenthood or unemployment changes something fundamental about your partner’s personality? Even if only temporary, the result can be feeling like you’re in bed with a stranger.

Ethicist Lewis Smedes says of his marriage, after 25 years, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed – and each of them has been me.”

What do we do about this? The answer isn’t to avoid change. The answer is to somehow respect the changes in each other, change in step when you can, and give your spouse space to be who he or she needs to be when you can’t. I think the answer also lies, somehow, in the promises we make to each other.

Smedes writes that “when I make a promise to anyone, I rise above all the conditioning that limits me.” Essentially, you have to rise above who you are and who you see yourself with to be open to who your partner is becoming. Let the promises you made be the through-thread of your relationship, when other things seem less certain. Find unlimited potential in who you could become together. Find excitement in being in bed with someone new.

Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage, quotes Smedes (above) and then offers this wisdom: ”Over the years you will go through seasons in which you have to learn to love a person who you didn’t marry, who is something of a stranger. You will have to make changes you don’t want to make, and so will your spouse. The journey may eventually take you into a strong, tender, joyful marriage. But it is not because you married the perfectly compatible person. That person doesn’t exist.”

Amber Johnson works at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership in Chicago, IL. She and her husband, Cliff, are the proud parents of Sam and Maggie. 

The Perfect Woman

A friend emailed this morning asking if I had suggestions for books to give to high school and college graduates. I looked around at the bookshelves in my study room and suggested a few including, “Living a Life That Matters” by Rabbi Harold Kushner; a book by Dennis Trittin, “What I Wish I Knew at 18″; and “Love Does” by Bob Goff.

The books caused me think about what I consider important at 41, over what my 21-year-old self might have thought about life.

At 21, my ideas about my life looked a lot like what columnist Ellen Goodman described at a YWCA luncheon a few weeks ago.

Who was “The Ideal Woman” circa the ‘90s, Goodman asked?

The Ideal Woman got up at 5:30 a.m. and exercised with a cardio workout and weights for an hour before she woke her 2.3 children, and served them a grade-A nutritional breakfast. She ushered them out the door to school, perfectly groomed, and equipped with every completed piece of homework tucked neatly in their backpacks.

She then showered, slipped into her $1,200 Armani suit, and left for the office where she spent a rewarding day working at her creative and meaningful job that improved society, and yet also provided her with a $250,000 salary.

After work, The Ideal Woman returned home to make a Julia Child-worthy dinner with her husband while they had interesting conversations about their day, helped their children with their homework, and then gathered the family around the table to have stimulating debates over dinner about world affairs.

After dinner, she spent quality time with her 2.3 children before tucking them into bed. The ideal woman then read several journals to stay up on current events before engaging in hot, multi-orgasmic sex with her husband until midnight when she fell asleep because, well, tomorrow is another day.

Goodman’s tongue-in-cheek description made me laugh. And wince. It was awfully close to what I envisioned for my life at 21.

I wanted to be clever. And accomplished. An amazing wife and mother. I knew, theoretically, that you couldn’t have it all, but it wouldn’t hurt to aim high.

So I set out on a career path, driven by the idea that I could write about important topics; and while I was at it, end world hunger. I learned that my sphere of influence was a bit smaller than that.

I discovered that rather than change the world, I could affect (and be affected by) the lives of the three or four or five people who worked alongside me by being a good co-worker, a fair manager, and a dedicated friend. I found out that as you move up a career ladder, you sometimes lose the intimacy of deep relationships with your co-workers. I also learned that managers get to make significant decisions, but they must also handle the unpleasant decisions that sometimes negatively alter people’s lives.

Along the way, I got married, armed with feminist ideals of partnership and equality. If you had asked me about the pitfalls of marriage at the onset of my own, I would have answered that too many women submerged their own identities in marriage and lost their independence and sense of self. It’s possible that that happens. But on the other end of the spectrum, I found that it’s hard to buck traditional roles or even pretend that some gender-based differences don’t exist. Focus on making sure responsibilities are split 50/50, or that your spouse appreciates your independence, and there’s less attention paid to knitting together an intimate partnership.

It was interesting to see François Hollande be sworn in as France’s new president last week. He and his girlfriend, Valérie Trierweiler, are the first unmarried couple to occupy France’s presidential palace. Furthermore, Ms. Trierweiler is trying to figure out how to reinvent the role of first lady to fit comfortably with her own professional career as a journalist.

“I haven’t been raised to serve a husband,” she told the NY Times. “I built my entire life on the idea of independence.”

NY Times readers responded with a barrage of compliments for Trierweiler’s bold statement. I read her comment and wondered how that would work out for her.

My 41-year-old self now thinks less about gender wars and more about the ways that men and women are amazingly different. And how much I appreciate those differences. And how building a relationship requires a deep commitment to figuring out how to serve another person.

How do you find ways to meet your spouse’s needs? How can you be the person who cheers him on, appreciates his strengths, and provides some grace when it’s required?

It sucks that my marriage ended with my husband having an affair with my friend. But I also think of the countless ways I failed to appreciate the things that Eric did well; failed to see things from his point of view; or communicated harshly when I could have opted to be more kind or gentle.

I listen to girlfriends complain about their husbands, and I’m sometimes struck with how small the annoyances seem to me in comparison to the benefits of having a spouse.

I used to chafe over the division of labor in our house. I worked full-time. Eric was a stay-at-home dad. It annoyed me that I worked all day only to come home to pull a second shift with dishes to wash, the laundry, diaper duty and manage our social calendar while Eric whiled away time on the computer. Male managers at work didn’t run out at lunch time to drop off dry-cleaning and buy birthday presents for their kids’ friends. Their stay-at-home wives took care of those duties.

Yet, today, when all the responsibilities fall to me, I think I’d be heady with gratitude for any one item to be taken off my plate by someone. I guess you care less about measuring for 50/50 when you’re shouldering 100 percent.

At 41, I care (a little) less about perfection. On most days, much of my house does look like a model home. Everything’s spotlessly clean and in its place (save the children’s rooms). But truthfully, the house is a little sterile that way. When I go to the homes of many of my friends, there’s a lived-in feeling that’s comfortable and inviting. I love the conversations and the laughter we share in their houses, and I leave without remembering a single detail about their furniture or decor.

And the same is true for almost everything else we women seem to put our efforts into when we’re 21: What we wear, how thin we are, how smart we are, how successful we are in our careers.

When I think of some of my closest friends, I think of people who are genuine and caring. I enjoy my friends who are kind and loyal and fun to be around. I don’t care about their houses, their clothes, or careers. Think about the people who have meant the most to you in life, and I doubt any of us come up with a list of people who matter to us because of their degrees or successes; their athleticism or beauty.

It’s only the most partial of lists, but this is what life looks like into my fourth decade of living:

  • I (mostly) realize that idealistic standards are ridiculous
  • I’m less anxious to change the world, and I think instead about the small ways I can make a difference right around me.
  • I appreciate what is because, too often in the past, I’ve brushed aside the moment while I’ve focused on the future.
  • I’m usually happiest when I’m thinking about other people rather than myself

Would I have understood any of this at 21? I’m not sure. Usually life lessons are learned far outside of the pages of a book.