© Bruce Allen
“To be in love was to understand how alone one had been before. It was to know that if one were ever alone again, there would be no exemption from the agony of it.”
–Michael Chabon, “Moonglow”
This is a look at marital love through the years as a series of passages, the effect of which is, in the best marriages, cumulative. Think of these as Six Stages of Relationships That Work Over Decades, if that helps. I admit that this is mostly a ‘best-case’ scenario and may, in fact, be as good as it ever gets with couples who decide to become parents. It is not all roses and champagne. It would all be easier but much less meaningful without kids. (God, too, has an opinion on that subject.)
It is clear to me that these stages and the passages between them form the arc of a long-term Marriage with Children. It is equally clear to me that there are numerous impossible real-world situations that disrupt the smooth geometry of the arc described below. I’m not sure if this is how I think things are, or even how they ought to be, and I know that most relationships don’t get to touch all the bases. Perhaps this may be helpful to couples during the grueling Commitment stage, that there is light at the end of the tunnel if you can just keep the train on the tracks and get through the tunnel. Anyway, I hope some of this resonates with you, and that you can find God’s love somewhere in here.
- Friendship – Maybe coffee later this week…
It is, for me, undeniable that a couple intent upon a long, meaningful relationship ought to be friends before they ever become lovers. Serious lovers. Research by John Gottman at The University of Washington suggests relationships built upon a foundation of friendship have a far greater chance of surviving difficult periods than couples whose relationship was founded upon a more casual and/or physical basis. Think about it—if you and your best buddy had a fight, you wouldn’t ‘break up’ over it. You would cool off and pick things up where they left off. As boys, being told by a girl that she wanted to be ‘friends’ was the kiss of death. As an adult—perhaps this marks the change—it is only good sense to see if you can BE friends with someone of the opposing gender without it being sexual.
It is a good and natural thing when friendship leads to desire, on its own schedule. If physical desire becomes part of the basic foundation of a relationship, friendship is the footing upon which it rests. Desire can occur instantly or develop over time. It is essential. It is also secondary to the friendship, upon which all else is built, and without which the difficult periods can become impossible to endure.
Desire comes in many shapes and sizes, but healthy desire is often encountered on whatever one thinks of as the road to Stage III, Love. This can take years to develop. Desire is cheap; love is rare. One’s marriage vows are meant to be taken seriously, and it takes time to do a meaningful assessment, to determine that what you feel is love and not some complicated form of lust.
Love, to me, also takes years to really take root. It may show up at first sight, but most simple attractions never become more complex. It shows up, in I-want-to-marry-her strength, once friendship has been established and desire acknowledged. Not until one has had a chance to see how the other handles money, waiters, anger, pain and difficult conversations is there a chance this mutual attraction can become something that lasts, that helps define one and the other, that becomes the sun around which the rest of their lives revolves. It needs to be solid and strong, built on footings and foundation, to withstand the passage about to occur.
- Commitment – I take them…
Welcome to the next 20 years of your life. At least. The commitment to have children and to raise them mindfully is its own set of promises, above and beyond the promises you made to one another at your wedding. These promises, to willfully allow babysitting, changing and schlepping to replace golf, after-work drinks and MNF parties. This is the point at which spouses, as friends, must dig in together. It takes great determination, massive sleep deprivation, high standards and huge hearts to survive that period when the kids are little and the days are long and the years are short.
As the children age, some things become easier and some things become harder. But if your marriage has survived the initial barrage or barrages of passing from spouses to parents, the remaining challenges are likely to seem much more manageable. In a perfect world, anyway.
In the real world, there are minefields which didn’t exist when we were raising our kids, and it seems like there are more ways for kids to go wrong. We are told that, character-wise, the die is cast for children in their first two or three years. So, the mantra that helps get young parents through this trial is that the ‘human capital investments’ they make in their children, at their own expense and exhaustion now, will pay benefits for the kids for the rest of their lives. This trans-generational deferral of gratification and installation of values is what raising kids is all about. And you can’t do it without a real commitment to one another and to your children.
One day, God willing, the children are gone, to colleges or jobs or the military or whatever, and suddenly it’s just the two of you again. Empty nesters, with grown children at arm’s length via Facetime, etc., naturally come to focus more of their attention on their work and one another. This passage, from commitment to devotion, is, as with most things, an act of will. Some marriages break down when the children leave, if the kids were the only things holding the relationship together. Those that survive can move beyond commitment.
- Devotion – I could never leave…
Relatively few couples make it this far. Divorce removes, like, half. There are family disputes andpremature deaths and any number of things that stand between being newlyweds and being an older couple devoted to one another. A couple that has seen much of what the world has to offer and has weathered the storms successfully. A couple with grown kids setting out to start families of their own, using their parents’ marriage as a template. This is a beautiful thing to see. For couples inclined to lean toward one another, this stage can reveal several layers of satisfaction. Retirement occurs somewhere in here. This can be one of the sweet spots in the entire marriage.
In some relationships passing from devotion to the next stage, people like me will trip over the fact that the word ‘cherish’ does not lend itself to being anything other than a verb, available mainly in present and past tenses. How does one make a noun from the word ‘cherish?’ The gerund is lame. I’ll just let it go.
- Cherish – How does one even live alone?…
As we approach the last few innings of our lives, this has become the glue that holds things together once they start trying to fall apart. This is the stage at which the willingness to give 60% to receive 40% in return—another secret to successful marriages—becomes the willingness to give 100% in exchange for simply allowing the other to experience the fullness of life. Old couples who cherish one another are a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing for young children to see and be around. Even, or especially, if one or both is in poor health. A good lesson for children is that love and devotion have nothing to do with physical attractiveness. PopPop may be a fat, lame old wreck but Nanny still loves him.
Aged spouses, so fortunate in many respects, will typically bear a heavy burden as time passes and the inevitable occurs and one finds oneself living alone. This is the price one pays for having loved successfully. Our children will assure us that our dearly departed would have wanted us to be happy and spend time with people. They, in turn, must understand that the person we most enjoyed spending time with may no longer be speaking to us, as it were, and that some of us are reluctant to sub-optimize.
Widows and widowers are not to wallow, but must be permitted to spend their remaining time living on their own terms. Social interaction is good and worthwhile; it shouldn’t matter whether one seeks it out for social or medicinal purposes. Those of us with a tendency toward reclusion must not allow it to claim us. I admit to greatly admiring widows and widowers who can continue to attack life, much as my mother did.
* * *
We’ve listened to countless country and/or rock and roll songs over the years, bemoaning, often in the first person, those stricken with unrequited love. We have clichés about having loved and lost. Shakespeare probably had a hundred catchy couplets on the subject. Rarely, however, do we hear about or discuss those people who have loved and won, only to ultimately lose their best friend and lover after, say, 50 years together. This sense of loss, this epitome of pain is refined and expensive and available only to a select few. It does not lend itself to pop music.
It is generally not interesting to young, euphoric, indestructible couples. It is hard to explain and difficult for young people, trying to get through year six, to relate to easily—the crazy idea of being 70 years old and still together. It seems like the most satisfying relationships result, in the end, in the most thorough loss. It is of much higher quality than the pain of a marriage that ended in, say, year ten, which itself can be indelible. It becomes the point of inflection for one’s entire adult life, the life with, and the life after. For practicing Christians, it parallels one’s spiritual life, decades spent living God’s word, daring to hope for life ever after.
We are reminded, as our former pastor taught me, that God sent his Son to the world to save it from sin, not from suffering. As Catholics, we are left to ponder the great ironies of Christianity. The meek shall inherit the earth. The last shall be first. The richest sacramental marriages ensure the most exquisite mourning. If you love someone you must let them go.
‘Love is a rose
but you better not pick it
It only grows when it’s on the vine.
A handful of thorns and
you’ll know you’ve missed it
You lose your love
when you say the word “mine”.’ – Neil Young, “Love is a Rose”
We’re probably better off listening to rock and roll. Or holiday music. Rock and roll holiday music, that’s the ticket. That, and seeking to understand God’s will in our marriages. I hope He blesses you with peace of mind, united resolve, and loving hearts during this busy season.