I officiated at the wedding of two of my former students last month, and the occasion, coupled with my own anniversary (#34) earlier this month and the fact that June is the month for weddings, makes this column appropriate. I originally wrote it twelve years ago, following a celebration of my parent’s 60th wedding anniversary. It may be even more meaningful now, since gay marriage has finally been embraced by our nation’s president.
In the last century, the institution of marriage endured more than its share of attacks, most especially in the years of the “sexual revolution” (as the Playboy-promoted, post-pill, pleasure-pursuing period of the ‘60s and early ‘70s has been dubbed) when free love was in vogue and avoiding commitment was deemed healthy. In the decades since, divorce has become commonplace, its occurrence rising in most studies from a third to fully one-half of all marriages.
As we enter a new millennium, couples who survive together to celebrate as many as ten years of matrimony are now thought of as long-timers, and the concept of a life partnership, something too ordinary to deserve even a special designation a generation ago, is now viewed as an anachronism, if not an anomaly, in today’s fast-paced and, concomitantly, impatient society.
Impatience may well be the key word here, because it is patience more than any other trait which a successful marriage requires. To be sure, compromise (meaning both the ability and the willingness to engage in it) is highly to be desired and cultivated, and other qualities (among them tolerance, forbearance, sensitivity and forgiveness) are also an absolute necessity.
But to be patient with one’s spouse is critical, because, being human, we all tend to exhibit individual idiosyncrasies and imperfections which become most apparent only to those with whom we are most intimate. And for these traits, patience is the only antidote.
My wife and I recently celebrated our twenty-second anniversary, which is barely a third of the length of my parents’ marriage (sixty years this month). Neither of these points qualifies me as an expert, but I readily confess to having become a fan of the institution. Here’s why:
o Marriage is hard work. Some might guffaw at this reason, feeling that hard work is hardly something to seek out, let alone cherish, but I look at it in a different light. To accept the challenge of making the most intimate of unions work requires (and thereby brings out) the best qualities (those noted above among others) that we as human beings are capable of exhibiting. And it is hard work to bring those qualities to bear on a daily basis. But that hard work contains its own reward, which is the sense of accomplishment and self-fulfillment that allows one to be a more attractive person.
o Through marriage we learn more about ourselves. Again, many might think this reason specious, claiming that only in solitude or periods of monastic-like retreat can we really see ourselves clearly. But I submit that it is in the process of relating continuously to one person, interacting with that person in the most honest and revealing of ways, that we are forced to see ourselves as we really are.
o In marriage we can build a legacy. Marriage allows for the creation and continuation of a family unit, with children, grandchildren and descendants into future centuries all the product of the union of two people. Unless you are Henry Ford or Bill Gates (maybe), you are hard-pressed to find a better and surer way to leave a meaningful footprint of your existence.
o In marriage we share a oneness with all of humanity. Once married, one is always in touch with everyone else who has entered the institution. The struggles, the triumphs, the heartaches, the joys, the intensity of it all is something that every couple has experienced, and being married automatically makes one a member of the club.
o Marriage creates a new oneness and a new identity for each spouse. It isn’t really the case that long-time mates start to look like each other, is it? Surely it just appears that way to those who come to know a couple who have been together for many years. But there is a new entity that is created by a marriage, and as the years pass, that new entity becomes a new, second identity for each spouse. This point may seem a bit arcane, and perhaps it is. But successful married couples understand it and, speaking for myself, I like it.
o Marriage gives us the best chance to experience all that life has to offer. There are certainly other ways to live fully that do not require marriage. But in marriage, individuals often find their complements, and thereby they are opened to new experiences that they otherwise might never have known. Moreover, in the process of coupling with another, there is an inherent impetus to explore his or her uniqueness, those interests and hobbies, dreams and fears, aspirations and inhibitions that make him or her the very special person that he or she is.
o A lifetime of love is the greatest gift that life can provide. This one needs no further explanation. To love fully, and to be patient in that love over all the days and months and years that fate allows to be shared together, is to know life at its very best.
George Eliot, the nineteenth century author, may have said it best: “What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life – to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?”
We celebrated with my folks earlier this month. Fifteen of us—children, grandchildren, sons- and daughters-in-law. It was a very special time, and I felt blessed to be able to see the joy that results from a lifetime of sharing and building and living and loving.
To marriage then. Hear, hear!