What Four Decades of Marriage Does for You

© Bruce Allen

all you need is loveFour decades of marriage allows the two of you time to weave, with your kids and God’s grace, a family tartan of beliefs, values, standards and stories that will become part of their DNA and which they will, in turn, pass down to their kids.

It allows your relationship the opportunity to bloom, to struggle, and to emerge from struggle tempered, capable of withstanding decades of whatever the world throws at you. [It is during the almost-inevitable struggle stage, as kids arrive, that most marriages fail. To weather those storms requires commitment, which is bolstered by the fact that things tend to get easier as the children age and you can threaten to put them in iPad timeout.]

It allows you time to observe how your spouse likes things, things ranging from morning coffee to after-work drinks on the deck of a summer evening. Unless you’re a fool, you’ll do those things that way; it requires no extra effort.

It allows time to develop a sort of rhythm with your kids as they progress through school, a set of after-school routines that becomes standard and requires little discussion or negotiation. It allows them time to realize that the quality of their lives improves the closer they adhere to those routines. Studying, practice (sports and/or music), dinner together, free time, reading, prayer before bed, the whole deal. After a while they like it that way. Mostly.

It allows a steel bond to form between husband and wife that can withstand serious illness and show no signs of stress. Though the spouses themselves may experience stress, the relationship can shrug it off.

It allows time to influence the lives of grandchildren, should one be so blessed, and the luxury of having them around until bedtime, when it’s time to go bye-bye. Time to do grandparent things–coloring Easter eggs, decorating Christmas cookies, reading, playing on the floor. Getting one’s hair done by a four-year old.

It allows spouses to grow into an attitude where he or she is willing to give 60% in order to get 40% back. No 50/50 division of labor, no counting tasks​, no keeping score​. In a 50/50 relationship each spouse feels put out, as if he or she is doing more to support the family. In a 60/40 relationship each spouse expects to do more, and so it isn’t any big deal.

It allows time for traditions to evolve and get handed down. Our kids approach things like birthdays and holidays in the same basic way today they experienced them as kids. There are numerous variations of family or regional origin, all of which are good, all of which are variations on a theme.

cropped-sunset-lovers.jpgIt allows one time to, if necessary, drag one’s spouse to God. For which the spouse will ultimately be grateful.

It allows time for love to form in such a way that spouses learn to accept one another as imperfect people doing their best. To ascribe good intentions. To respect boundaries. To be happy to say, “You do you.”

Finally, it allows time for both of you to recognize and affirm that you spoke your wedding vows sincerely, believing every word at the time, and that you can gladly continue living them decades later. That you couldn’t imagine having lived without one another. That you did a fine job selecting a spouse.

These idyllic observations generally describe, somehow, our own family circumstances. Many people have far more complicated situations; I get that. People can only control things under their control. We have been greatly blessed. Beyond that, it’s important to keep praying and pray hard.

Marriage Blog Art

 

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So, That was Peaceful

© Denise McGonigal.  October 2015

Family meals have only become more chaotic. Our nightly events with four daughters have evolved into loud and crazy commotions, with three sons-in-law, a boyfriend, and four rambunctious grandchildren added to the mix. As we packed up to leave her home last Sunday night, securing crying babies in car seats, placating over-tired toddlers who pleaded for “just five more minutes, Mommy,” Meghan remarked in her usual irony-laden tone, “So, that was peaceful.”

Ha! Not so much! Yet, when I sounded a family dinner invitation the following Wednesday and again on Sunday, everyone came pouring back together and the whole raucous riot played out again.

You know the “stuff” of typical family dinners. A glass of milk invariably splatters across the table. Twin boys produce messy diapers and bombard the table with sweet potatoes as they practice their new spitting trick. An argument ensues among the girls about who-wore-whose-sweater-last-and-who-should-wash-it-before-returning-it. Mom’s “you look tired” comment gets blown all out of proportion. “Catch the stupid ball” erupts from the family room when a Colt’s receiver misses a pass. And a two-year-old tumbles down the steps – boom, boom, boom – throwing everyone into a panic.

Same scenarios. Different homes. Yours and mine. Every time.

So why do we keep coming back for more? Is there something imperceptible that happens deep down inside the fabric of our families while the symptoms of our brokenness, our humanness, play out when we’re together?

Perhaps it’s…
…the laughter we create that connects our joy with the heavenly chorus.
…the sadness we unload that deepens a bond that forever roots us.
…the forgiveness we extend that forges a trust that can’t be shaken.
…the dreams we weave together that give us courage to face the future.
…the hands we join in prayer that unite our hearts to a love beyond us.
…the story we create as family that connects our lives to the Great Story.
…the peace within our chaos that announces God’s kingdom within our midst.

During his visit to Philadelphia, Pope Francis offered a charming off-the-cuff tribute to the joys of marriage and parenthood, remarking, “Families have difficulties…in families, we quarrel. Sometimes plates can fly. Children bring headaches,” even adding, “I won’t speak about mothers-in-law.” But he also offered the profound prayer, “Holy Family of Nazareth, reawaken in our society the awareness of the sacred and inviolable character of the family, an inestimable and irreplaceable good.”

Let’s all pray that we keep sight of that “inestimable and irreplaceable good” of our families amidst the messiness of flying plates.

Chaos

Do You and Your Spouse Do These Five Things?

CBurrowsphoto #1Huffington Post strikes again, this time in Facebook survey results compiled by staff writer Yagana Shah, who tallied responses from a FB survey that asked married couples what they believe helps them maintain lively, enriching marriages.  Ms. Shah’s interests include, presumably among other things, “health news, bucket lists, and the British royal family.” Not sure where this particular article fits within all that, but there are some suggestions in here that are worth your time.  If these are old news, it means you spend too much time on Facebook.  My guess is that if you read this blog regularly you’re already doing a number of them.  If not, it’s never too late.

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1.  Travel together.  I remember vividly when we were first married and Nancy was flexing her New Jerseyism she told me she thought we ought to take separate vacations. This was back in the day when “open marriage” was a very hip concept and married couples were exploring all sorts of ways to do the same things they did when they were single.  (She also told me she like the idea of deer hunting, which shocks me to this day.)  But couples active on Facebook say traveling together is one of the joys of marriage, and both Nancy and I agree.

Though we do occasionally take separate vacations (she went to Africa with two of our ???????????????????????????????kids and their husbands back in 2013, and I went to Malaysia on a junket last fall) we generally travel together.  If you believe that the only difference between you today and you a year from now is the books you read, the people you meet and the places you go, traveling together is a third of the whole trip.  We have pretty indelible memories of our trips to Ireland, Alaska and Spain, and look forward to more such jaunts in the years to come.  Day trips and weekend getaways have much the same restorative effect, though you may need to take some pictures to capture those memories.

Man-Laughing2.  Laugh together.  I make a conscious effort to give Nancy a good laugh or two every day, as I believe this is one thing that keeps her looking young and, well, beautiful.  She has an active sense of humor too, although I’m not sure why I look so beat up and worn out.  For most couples, the funniest jokes are the inside jokes that only the two of them get.  Our parents had expressions we repeat on a regular basis that make us smile and help us remember them, and they’ve become part of the fabric in our marriage as well as our relationships with our kids.  If your marriage is in good shape it is probably easier to look back over the years and recall the funny episodes than it is the not-so-funny ones.

3.  Keep dating.  This is somewhat trickier than it sounds, based on whether you’re a husband or a wife.  Most husbands, I suspect, equate date night with sex, while fewer wives make the same connection.  One book I read suggested that couples pursue several varieties of date nights:  a) sex dates, b) outings that don’t include sex, and c) the Swiss army knife of dates, a fun outing that includes sex.Wedding

The important point here is that getting married doesn’t/cannot signal the end of dating.  Nor is it necessary that a date be expensive; a bowl of popcorn and a movie after the kids are in bed counts.  For whatever reason, guys are still, I suspect, expected to do the heavy lifting when it comes to arranging non-lame dates, so guys, turn off the TV and gather some fun ideas.  Play your cards right and you may end up enjoying a Swiss army knife.

Couple-planting-tree4. Work toward a goal together.  Not as easy as dialing up dinner and a movie, but the possibilities are virtually endless.  Growing your faith together by taking up a ministry at your church, taking on a project like landscaping the backyard, finding common items on your bucket lists and checking them off together, these things can contribute to a sense of common purpose, especially during the empty nest years.

Certainly, parents with young children have some built-in common goals, i.e., get them kids raised and out of the house. Once they’re gone, though, couples have the freedom, if not the responsibility, to find some common activities that provide a healthy sense of pursuing shared objectives.  HINT:  Our experience shows that taking up tennis, paddling canoes and wallpapering a small room together can have negative outcomes.

5. Hold hands. Always.  Although neither of us are prone to much in the way of PDAs, this is a healthy practice, as it provides a physical connection in a world in which they are increasingly hard to come by.  There’s no way a healthy emotional/spiritual relationship cannot be enhanced by increased physical contact.holding hands

Recall when you were 13 and held someone’s hand for the first time, the jolt of electricity that traveled through you.  25 years later, the physical jolt may be long gone, but the value of the touch itself remains.  This is especially true for spouses whose “receiving” love language is physical touch.  So, when you’re out together, hold hands.  Keep in mind that if some teenager sneers and tells you to “get a room,” you can, without having to tell him to “get a girlfriend.”

The common thread in all of this, I suppose, is that each of these five activities releases endorphins, to a greater or lesser degree.  For married couples in committed relationships, endorphins are rocket fuel–you can’t get too much of them.  If you have additional ideas for releasing endorphins, please comment and share.

God bless you.

Contraception and Marriageability

CBurrowsphoto #2As a convert to the Catholic faith, one of the hurdles I’ve had to deal with, at least intellectually, is the Church’s position on contraception.  As one who was born in the 1950’s and came of age in the 60’s, I always thought the birth control pill was one of the great inventions of the 20th century.  From my point of view, it took away one of the two big perceived risks of sex outside marriage.  That the Catholic church was opposed to it was, I felt at the time, just another symptom of how out of touch Catholic leadership was with the realities of modern life.  As a quasi-radical free spirit in the 70’s, I was far more concerned with the economics of excessive population growth than I was with the dogmatic pronouncements of a bunch of celibate old men in Rome.

Over the years I’ve had to re-visit this opinion, having come to realize that there is so much I don’t understand about our faith that I should probably shut up about subjects on which I’m essentially ignorant.  I suffer from the sin of pride, but at least have come to understand that having an opinion on a subject is not nearly as important as being informed thereon. So I tend to keep more opinions to myself than I used to.  Still, at mass on Sunday mornings, I wonder how many women between the ages of 15 and 40 receiving the eucharist do so in a state of mortal sin.  And how many more might attend mass and receive communion were it not for the fact that they are on oral contraceptives and thus feel unwelcome, or unworthy of receiving the sacrament.

Theology of the Body & my thoughts on contraception.As it turns out, there is some biology at work in all of this.  An article in Scientific American from 2008 explains some of the perils that arise in the collision of oral contraceptives and marriage.  In basic terms, the hormones in birth control pills change a woman’s perception of the marriageability of a man based upon his MHC profile; if you want to understand what that means, you’re going to have to read the article.  The corollary for men has to do with perceptions of a woman’s overall attractiveness according to where she is in her menstrual cycle.  And while the latter is completely natural, the former is synthetic, and the risks it poses far greater.  After all, if a couple has been dating for six months, the man has likely been around the woman during every phase of her cycle.  The risks of the former, however, can go unrecognized for years, as the following true story illustrates.

One of my wife’s friends growing up was in a live-in relationship with her boyfriend for, literally, 15 years.  Then, in rapid succession, they got married, had a child, and got divorced.  This amazing sequence, I think, demonstrates the power of the MHC profile thing.  Before she was ready to commit to having children with him and on the pill, she found him attractive and desirable.  When they decided to have a child, she went off the pill, and soon he wasn’t nearly as attractive or desirable.  In fact, her perception of him changed so much that they ended the relationship, making an unintended victim of their daughter, who would grow up in a single parent home.Stained Glass

So, are we to think that the Church’s position on oral contraceptives is based upon some science that Catholic thinkers were aware of centuries before modern science proved them right?  No.  Are we to think that a number of the Church’s teachings with which we disagree or fail to understand could possibly have some merit?  Yes.  Is there a lesson in all of this for couples considering marriage?  I think so.  If the woman has been on birth control pills since before they met, it would probably be a good idea for her to go off the pill for several months before stepping up to the marriage altar.  Doing so might be inconvenient, or messy, or a drag, but it might also save both the woman and the man years of unhappiness and disappointment.

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The Beta Marriage: How Millennials Approach ‘I Do’

I’m about to do something here I’ve not done before.  I am cutting and pasting an entire article from Time magazine into this space.  The reason is that I’m so completely appalled by the content that I fear readers of this blog might not click on the link and actually read the article.  Here goes.  I’ll have a few observations at the end of the article.

We are a generation reared on technology and choice. Why wouldn’t we want to test a lifelong relationship first? How millennials are redefining “forever.”

You could say I beta-tested my relationship.​

It began with a platform migration ​(a cross-country move) and a bandwidth challenge (cohabitation in a 450-sq.-ft. apartment). There was a false start (botched marriage proposal). Then, an emergency de-glitching (couples therapy). We tried to take the product public before we were ready (I wrote about our relationship in Newsweek). And then, finally, we abandoned launch. There were simply too many bugs.

It’s a joke, kind of — except that when it comes to millennials and marriage, the beta test may be par for the course. And really, why wouldn’t it be? For a generation reared on technology, overwhelmed by choice, feedback and constant FOMO (fear of missing out), isn’t testing a marriage, like we test a username, simply … well, logical?

The findings of a new survey certainly reveal so. In conjunction with a new television dramaSatisfaction, which premiered on USA Network last week, trend researchers asked 1,000 people about their attitudes toward marriage. They found all sorts of things: among them, that people cheat on the Internet (uh huh), that young people don’t think their relationships are like their parents’ (of course), and that everyone seems to have taken to the term uncoupling (yuck).

They also uncovered a surprising gem. Buried in the data was the revelation that almost half of millennials (43%, and higher among the youngest subset) said they would support a marriage model that involved a two-year trial — at which point the union could be either formalized or dissolved, no divorce or paperwork required. Thirty-three percent said they’d be open to trying what researchers dubbed the “real estate” approach — marriage licenses granted on a five-, seven-, 10- or 30-year ARM, after which the terms must be renegotiated. And 21% said they’d give the “presidential” method a try, whereby marriage vows last for four years but after eight you can elect to choose a new partner.

marriageIn total, nearly half of all of those surveyed, ages 18 to 49 — and 53% of millennials — thought marriage vows should be renewed, and nearly 40% said they believed the “till death do us part” vow should be abolished. In other words: Beta marriages! Unions you can test and deglitch, work out kinks or simply abandon course without consequence. “This is a generation that is used to this idea that everything is in beta, that life is a work in progress, so the idea of a beta marriage makes sense,” the study’s author, Melissa Lavigne-Delville, tells me. “It’s not that they’re entirely noncommittal, it’s just that they’re nimble and open to change.”

It’s not a new concept, entirely. In the 1970s, the anthropologist Margaret Mead predicted the growing popularity of “serial monogamy,” involving a string of monogamous marriages. Helen Fisher, the biological anthropologist, has advocated for much of the same: she believes humans aren’t meant to be together forever, but in short-term, monogamous relationships of three or four years. Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage: A History, has advised a marriage contract “re-up” every five years — or before every major transition in life — “with a new set of vows that reflect what the couple has learned.”

More recently, Mexico City lawmakers proposed (unsuccessfully) a “renewable” marriage concept, whereby couples could simply renew or dissolve their unions after a period of two years. It’s not so unlike the setup described by a young writer in a Modern Love column in the New York Times last month, about how she overcomes “marriage anxiety” by renewing her vows with her husband every year like clockwork. “I think people are indeed trying to avoid failure,” says Andrew Cherlin, the author of The Marriage-Go-Round.

And, why wouldn’t they? The U.S. has the highest divorce rate in the Western world. The data show clearly that the longer we wait to get married the more successful our marriages will be. And it’s not like we can’t move in together in the meantime: the rate of unmarried cohabitation has risen 1,000% over the past four decades. Not all of our marriages will work, no — but when they do, they’ll work better than at any other time in history, say scholars. And when they don’t, why not simply avoid the hassle of a drawn-out divorce?

“Millennials aren’t scared of commitment — we’re just trying to do commitment more wisely,” says Cristen Conger, a 29-year-old unmarried but cohabitating podcast host in Atlanta. “We rigorously craft our social media and online dating profiles to maximize our chances of getting a first date, and ‘beta testing’ is just an extension of us trying to strategize for future romantic success.”

In an era where, according to the survey, 56% of women and men think a marriage can be successful even if it doesn’t last forever, that might just make sense. Scholars have observed for some time that attitudes toward divorce have become more favorable over the past decade. Millennials in particular are more likely to view divorce as a good solution to matrimonial strife, according to the sociologist Philip Cohen — and more likely to believe it should be easier to obtain.

And, of course, it’s easy to understand why. We’re cynical. We are a generation raised on a wedding industry that could fund a small nation, but marriages that end before the ink has dried. (As one 29-year-old survey respondent put it: “We don’t trust that institution.”) We are also less religious than any other generation, meaning we don’t enter (or stay) committed simply for God. We feel less bound to tradition as a whole (no bouquet tosses here).

And while we have among the highest standards when it comes to a partner — we want somebody who can be a best friend, a business partner, a soul mate — we are a generation that is overwhelmed by options, in everything from college and first jobs to who we should choose for a partner. “This is a generation who has not had to make as many long-term commitments as previous generations, so the idea of not having an out feels a little stringent,” says Lavigne-Delville. “Divorce has happened for a long time. Maybe we should rethink the rules.”

Indeed, at the end of the day, whatever you want to say about the hookup generation, or millennials’ inability to commit, the vast majority (69%, according to Pew) of millennials still want to get married. We simply need a little extra time to work out the kinks.

“Getting married is so much more weighted today, I get the impulse to want to test it,” says Hannah Seligson, the 31-year-old married author of A Little Bit Married, about 20-somethings and long-term unmarried relationships. At the same time, she adds, “I wonder if this is a false control study in a way. Yes, marriage terrifying, it’s probably the biggest leap of faith you’ll ever make. But you’ll never be able to peer into a crystal ball — or map it out on a spreadsheet.”

Jessica Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is also a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. 

So, what are the likely consequences of these attitudes toward marriage?  How likely will couples be to have children in these models?  How likely is it that when these folks finally grow old (not necessarily up) and inconvenient that they will have someone there to care for them?  Where is the discernment, the rapture of discovering your life partner, when there is always some greener grass on a distant hill?  The concept of commitment has been displaced, and instead we see people kicking tires and going for 18 month test drives, constantly on the lookout for the Next Great Hookup. 

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all of this is that this generation, as described herein, is accustomed to having the new product or the new release be a radical improvement over the previous one, creating a mentality of “commitment aversion” tied to the FOMO.  Who wants to get stuck with Jennifer 3.0 when Caroline 4.0 might be waiting at the next Starbucks?

We boomers have, admittedly, a pretty terrible track record of making lifelong commitments that provide happiness, stability, well-adjusted children and tenderness that lasts “until death do us part.”  We are aware of how human life has become disposable, though we generally don’t discuss abortion or euthanasia in those terms.  We seem to be seeing marriage being added to the growing list of institutions that have outlived their utility.

Our next post will excerpt some comforting ideas from couples who have been married forever and share their secrets of making love last.

 

Happiness, too, is often an act of will

Busy-ParentsMy friends and I have been doing a terrible job keeping up with this blog this summer.  No excuses.  As fall approaches, we hope to revive this site and bring some new energy to our ministry and our marriages.

Recently, our community was shaken by a murder-suicide that took the daughter of one of our most prominent and generous families.  Events like this, which drastically change the trajectories of numerous lives are, mercifully, pretty rare.  I pray virtually every day that God’s will for me and my family does not include a tragedy like this.  For the grieving family, most of what follows will seem like empty words; their solace will come from God and leaning into one another.  For others, I hope you can find some useful ideas below.

As we have pointed out numerous times on this site, love is an action, not a feeling. Feelings come and go, while the actions of our wills are up to us; we are in control of our wills.  Thus, we have the ability to be in control of our relationships.  Much the same can be said for happiness.  We have the ability to create our own happiness.  Heck, there are even exercises we can do to upgrade our own happiness.

In her book The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, CBurrowsphoto #1author Sonja Lyubomirsky takes a clinical approach to examining the subject of happiness. This study is briefly summarized in one of my favorite blogs, The Generous Husband. As blogger Paul Byerly observes, this is an important subject, as happy, effective, successful people have better marriages.

Pleasing God, if Only for a Moment

TOn Saturday, February 8, roughly 60 couples renewed their wedding vows at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.  The event, organized by the Love’s Sacred Embrace ministry, was lightly publicized, yet the response was robust, and included a number of couples that had not previously attended Marriage on Tap or any of the annual retreats.  Those renewing their vows spanned a wide range, from friends married for five months to others married more than five decades.  Father Doerr and Father Arbuckle sounded a bit hoarse when the blessings were finally concluded.  God’s grace was present in great abundance last night.

After dinner, Denise McGonigal and I were chatting about the evening.  She and Joe are young-weddingfacilitating a day-long marriage prep day today at church, prompting us to marvel at the general lack of awareness with which most young couples approach the sacrament of marriage.  Although the demographics of couples getting married for the first time are changing (trending to older and more affluent, while the overall numbers shrink), it’s still true that the vast majority of couples entering into the sacrament have absolutely no idea what they are in for, no idea of the scope and depth of the promises they are making. Generally, they are far more aware of the atmospherics–planning, invitations, seating charts, cakes, rehearsals–than they are of the promises they are exchanging, ostensibly until one of them dies.  Even if they are exceptionally aware and alert, there is no practical way to describe how the entry of children into the equation changes things.  Add to all of this the weight of a popular culture that is generally scornful and corrosive toward the institution of marriage, and it’s no wonder so many marriages fail within the first ten years. In fact, it may be a wonder that so many survive.

The only possible explanation behind the marriages that actually make it until the death of a spouse is God’s grace.  Yet, as Catholics, we are taught that grace cannot be earned, that our only hope of receiving something approaching “our share” is to be open to His Spirit.  Active practice of our faith–attending Mass, prayer, studying scripture, serving the poor and those less fortunate than ourselves–may put us in a favorable position with God, but guarantee nothing insofar as gaining grace is concerned.  Is it, then, simply the luck of the draw?

Perhaps.  But there are things we can do to improve our chances.  As Anne and Pete Slamkowski shared with us last night, we can love our spouses intentionally.  We can read and learn from folks like John Gottman and Art and Laraine Bennettwho have written about the secrets of highly successful marriages.  We can commit to BEING the right person, rather than SEARCHING for the right person, when it comes to marriage.  We can focus on fixing our own flaws, rather than harping on the flaws of our mate.  We can approach the challenges of keeping a home and raising children in a spirit of equality, of shared duties, rather than the common practice (engaged in by many men) of relegating these functions to the wife, an anachronistic vestige of the “women’s work” mentality of the 19th century.  Finally, we can enlist God’s help, through prayers of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication, to see us through the difficult times, and help us appreciate the good.

WeddingLast night, 60 couples said, in effect, “I chose well when I married you the first time, and I am blessed and happy to be able to marry you again.”  In an age of rampant materialism, obscene popular culture, shameful income inequality, global strife and a planet seemingly dedicated to contravening God’s word, in a small, quiet snowy community in central Indiana, a few of us gave God reason to celebrate His creation.  It was an honor to be a part of it.

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