The other day I was talking to my Aunt Joan and she mentioned that she and Uncle Jack will be married 60 years in December. “I think we’re going to last,” she said. She was only 16 when they married and conventional wisdom wouldn’t have given them much of a chance. Her Aunt Bert gave her sheets for a wedding gift, saying, “If you don’t last I want these back!” But they did last, with two happily married sons and five grandkids, a family business (Aunt Joan still answers the phone), and a “family compound” on their land “out in the country” as we used to refer to their property in Strawberry Plains. And anyone who observes the two of them together can see how much they love each other.
We’ve been married only a third as long, but I don’t doubt we’ll make it to our 60th anniversary, if we’re both still around then. That doesn’t mean we are perfect and it doesn’t mean staying married is easy. Both of us frequently tell our kids that “marriage is hard work.” That’s not romantic, but it’s true.
I’m not here to pass judgment on anyone else’s marriage, and I’m not an expert, but I will share with you some of the principles and practices that I believe have kept us married (in no particular order).
- We didn’t have any formal marriage preparation (just a 45 minute talk with the priest who married us) but we took to heart something he said it the homily at our wedding: “Never ask whether [you should stay married]; only ask how.” Both of us have chanted that like a mantra at various times.
- We were married in church. One of the songs we chose was “The Wedding Song,” which is a little cheesy, but which I love for the line: ‘The marriage of your spirits here has caused Him to remain, for whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name, there is love.'” In a sacramental marriage, two are gathered in Christ’s name, and so He is there in the midst of the marriage. I know people do it, but I cannot imagine how we would have gotten through some of the trials we have faced if God were not present in our marriage.
- Along the same lines, we attend church together, and pray together. John was not Catholic when we married; he was vehemently Protestant, in fact, and we had a lot to work out before we agreed to marry. One thing we always agreed on was that attending church together was important, and he graciously agreed that the church could be mine. When he, of his own accord, came into the Church the Easter after our third child was born, it was the happiest day of my life.
- We spoke our wedding vows to one another. I mean we memorized them, and spoke them directly to one another without the participation of the celebrant. This was actually Father Spitzer’s suggestion. It meant we had to practice the vows before we said them, and reflect upon what we were promising. We chose to use the traditional vows, which really cover all the bases, if you ask me. We know exactly what we promised, and I reflect on the vows from time to time to judge whether I am keeping my promises.
- We were and are absolutely committed to staying married. I sometimes joke with a friend of mine, who is equally determined to stay married, “Murder, maybe; divorce, never.” And we are only half joking. Divorce is not an option for us. We are not going to be able to get out of this, so we have to figure out what to do to make it work.
- We know that marriage is hard work, and we are committed to doing the work. Just like “Faith without works is dead,” commitment without hard work is hollow. I guess you might be able to stay married without doing any work, but you couldn’t possibly have a GOOD marriage. So we have spent years in marriage counseling–not because we were ever in danger of divorce, but because we wanted to communicate better, to prevent problems, to “tune up” our relationship. We talk about our problems. We make sure to spend time together. When we had three little kids, we found a regular babysitter. We have always gone out for “date nights” frequently. I am absolutely amazed how few of my married friends make any effort to do this.
- We value traditions and memories. The honeymoon doesn’t last forever. But memories do. We keep the “spark” alive by remembering frequently what brought us together and talking about the “good old days.” You need those warm and fuzzy feelings to get you through the dark and dreary days that come.
Because they do come. We have been through some very, very dark times. the storms of life have buffetted us just as they have everyone else. We are fortunate that usually we find shelter in each other. But love isn’t a feeling: it’s a decision. There are days when I loathe my husband. I am completely sure there are days when he loathes me. There are days when I don’t want to get his medicine ready or pour him a bowl of cereal, but I do it anyway.
If you have kids, you know that you love them unconditionally, that you would die for them. Most of us had parents who loved us like that too. But that’s biology. When we keep loving our spouses when they are not being lovable, it’s not about biology; it’s a conscious decision.
I haven’t been very lovable this week. Just about everything John has done has irritated me, and I haven’t tried to be charitable; I’ve been in a bad humor. I haven’t felt loving toward him, nor has he toward me. Just as God keeps us in existence each second by the strength of His will, we choose each day to keep our marriage in existence. We lie down together each night, even after a bad day. We each know that the person next to us in the bed has chosen to mirror God’s love for us by offering us unconditional love. What could be more amazing?