My last Musings was about relationship and community. May is coming to an end (already!?) and June is beginning; it’s “that time of year” and I am pondering a different kind of relationship, a different kind of community. Since my beloved husband and I are both ordained clergy, we have attended well more than a normal quota of weddings during the course of our own marriage. [In fact, this weekend, I will attend two at which he is officiating.] We have spent lots and lots (and even more lots) of hours listening to couples talk about their memories of their (usually separate) pasts and their hopes for their (common) future.
Next year, I will celebrate the 30th anniversary of my ordination and my husband will celebrate the 35th anniversary of his. You might think that in a combined 65 years of ministry, at least one of us would have some idea of what makes a marriage work. You’d be wrong. It’s possible that we are simply the slowest learners on the planet, but I’d like to think it is more complicated than that.
If truth be told (and, by all means, let’s tell it), I don’t even know that I could say definitively what makes our marriage work. Except a lot of work. Hard work. Probably the hardest work I have ever done. But (I’m being honest here), the specific work seems kind of hunt-and-peck. Some hard work seems necessary and other kinds just seem like wasted hours, spinning wheels, and undiluted angst. Work for the sake of work is not always fruitful; it can be totally unappreciated because it produces something one’s spouse doesn’t want or need: a mansion, a sports car, tickets to the World Series, the resolution to some problem she/he didn’t even notice, a sparkling clean garage, home-grown tomatoes…)
I am very up-front about this when I do pre-marital counseling. I tell people that it is not my place to decide whether they should or should not get married (barring the single instance of abuse between them…and that only means I won’t do the wedding, not that they cannot get married if they are still set on doing so.) My place and purpose is to ask them enough challenging questions so that they can decide this is (or is not) a good idea. In 30 years, I have only had one couple choose to wait (it was 18 years ago and I suspect they went on to marry other people in the interim)…although I have also had a couple elope between one meeting and the next when they decided the marriage was a great idea, but the wedding was not!
I have blessed the marriages of couples who had everything going for them: good jobs, shared values, personal maturity, honesty, humor, visible love, and families who are completely supportive; and seen the whole shebang go bust in 18 months. I have also stood in front of a church with a couple who (to the outside eye) have nothing whatsoever in common except this determination to share their lives with one another, and then gone on to baptize their children, bury one or more of their parents, sit with them through a recovery from a horrific event [accident, medical emergency, bankruptcy, an affair, an addiction, a job loss], and then toast them at their 20th wedding anniversary party.
I keep looking for qualities of relationship that seem essential: like honesty. I could not live for long with someone who lied to me. But apparently Hillary Clinton can. A rollicking sense of the ridiculous and the ability to laugh at one’s self is another essential for me – although neither saved my first marriage from dissolving. Romantic love is one that many people swear by, but all the romantic love in the world is not a sufficient foundation for some relationships…while some arranged marriages which begin with the couple barely knowing one another can unfold into deep respect, shared goals, and a steady, faithful companionship that lasts with compassion and tenderness through dementia or some other chronic, debilitating deterioration.
Two years ago, our daughter married a wonderful young man and they are learning from their mistakes and their triumphs how to find a common path that brings joy. This July, my husband and I will celebrate our 29th anniversary. My great-aunt and great-uncle have been married over 75 years. My husband’s parents divorced when he was 8; mine were married until the day my mother died.Tomorrow I will watch one person take vows for a second time, and three people take them for the first time. One couple is in midlife; one graduated from college earlier this month. One of my nieces and her spouse never want children, another niece and her (same gender) wife want them as soon as possible. A female friend went back to work two months after she delivered triplets and her husband stayed home to be the primary caregiver for the babies and their older sister (the triplets graduated from high school this year –). A different female friend left her law practice the day her pregnancy test came back positive and (25 years and two children later) has not worked outside the home since.
I am humbled by the variety of ways we experience this strange and amazing relationship called marriage. I am humbled by how little I know about it, even after being at it for almost three decades. I am (frankly) surprised by how enduring it is as an institution when the world gives us so many more options…and equally surprised by which people choose it and which don’t. I am amused by how much we study it and how myriad the (often conflicting) conclusions researchers reach about what will make it a success or failure.
All I know for sure is that a wedding is not a marriage.
So Saturday I will be praying with my whole heart that the weddings I am witnessing will become – by some mysterious metamorphosis – marriages that bless the individuals in them, the extended families that come from them, and the world that surrounds them.
Text © 2014, Andrea La Sonde Anastos