Wedding Vows Revisited

 

Marriage Blog Art.pngWe were married in late September 1975 in a small Catholic church in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. It was one of those steamy Indian summer Saturday mornings that hang around, wearing out their welcome, before the brisk, crisp notes of fall arrive in October. The church doors were open, and the bright lights focused on the altar made it even warmer inside.

I clearly remember Gilda Radner’s Rosanne Rossanadanna bit on SNL back in the day, with sweatballs dripping off the end of my nose as I stood, petrified and melting, in front of God and the world and made a bunch of promises for “all the days of my life.” I don’t remember much about the actual promises, vows we wrote ourselves. I’m pretty sure the “…for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…” parts made it in there.

(To lower stress for everyone, I think the standard set of “I do’s” should be changed to, “Lord, I surely hope so.” If things were to fall apart down the road, the person might feel simply disappointed rather than branded for life in the eyes of God.)

With very few twisted exceptions, I cannot imagine a couple entering into marriage, sacramental or otherwise, without a fervent hope that they truly mean the words they are saying. They hope they’re telling the truth. I suspect wedding vows almost always feel like the truth, but the truth, from ground zero, is often difficult to discern.

Standard wedding vows include the “richer and poorer” and “in sickness and in health” clauses for the purposes of form only. Surely, if a couple finds themselves rich and healthy, it makes some things easier. For the poor and sick, who spoke the same vow, things, in general, are far more difficult. This would presumably include staying married, which can be tremendously challenging with little kids in a high stress environment.

Although we cannot know if we are lying or truthing on our wedding day, we get to find out later in our lives. Looking back, for me, proves several things. Nancy was telling the truth during the richer and poorer part, in that, though we’ve never been rich, we’ve been poor, and she never showed any signs of it eating into our marriage. During times in my life when I’ve been sick, she has been there for me. And now, as it turns out, I, too, was telling the truth during the sickness and health part.

In 1975 I’m pretty sure I didn’t give that part much thought. My main concern, if memory serves, was that I would inevitably, inexorably, somehow, someday bungle things up and land us in divorce court, Catholic-style. As to how I might screw up, there were numerous ways, but which one wouldn’t matter–any would do. I was kind of a slouch, marrying up to a woman with high standards and strong moral fiber. My main worry, besides the stifling heat, was that I wouldn’t be able to hold up my end of the deal.

So, 40-some years later, the sickness part arrived.  Since then, I have confirmed to myself that I was telling the truth in 1975. I am ready, willing and able to respond regardless of what sickness brings. I cannot imagine it being otherwise. I haven’t yet been called upon to do much, but I’ve created space in my life I can devote to my caregiver role without advance notice. No one knows how to do the everyday things the way she likes them. No one knows how to manage the home the way she likes it. Our local middle daughter knows and does it all but has her own uber-busy kids and life and job to manage. I am generally the boots on the ground.

Fortunately, my “giving” love language is Acts of Service, which allows me to happily do the numerous small things involved in keeping prescriptions on hand, an empty nest provisioned and financially afloat. We are now both officially on Medicare and Social Security, enmeshed in the safety net of public policy, and doing everything her doctor tells her to do. We are coloring within the lines, and she is exceeding most expectations by being in such good shape at this time.  I would like to take credit for her robust health, but that would be absurd and dishonest. She attributes it to the power of prayer.

So, as it turns out, we were both speaking the truth in 1975 and have lived it, per the terms of our original agreement, in full. It continues to work well. It has allowed us to transition from employed and long-lived to retired and dealing with a serious disease. It has changed the conditions of our relationship, not the content. The content, the essence, comes from decades of struggle and delirium and determination, the fruit being our three daughters, their families, and the privilege of assuming the role of Nanny and PopPop. Fast Eddie was the original PopPop for our kids, and I am but a pale imitation for theirs. Nanny has no such pretenders.

2017 has been, for me, a year of examining feelings, feelings about oncology, feelings about God, feelings about the Church, feelings about myself. And although I rarely feel as if I can hear God speaking to me, I can say that living day-to-day is generally low stress as long as I don’t allow myself to think about Life in the Future. The lesson here, and I’m a slow study, is to ask only for our daily bread and let tomorrow take care of itself which, for me, is virtually impossible, since I have put myself in charge of having tomorrow’s bread on hand today. And some idea of what the next day’s bread will look like. Protein, veg, starch.

To the extent we are discomfited by Nancy’s illness, we are comforted by being able to live day to day without pretense, almost always on the same page when it comes to her health. Trying to make things easier for one another. We are weathering a storm and have ridden out several other storms along the way. We are headed in the same direction.

As it turns out, when we spoke our wedding vows in 1975 we meant every word.  Who knew?

Couples struggling in their marriages might re-read their wedding vows, to see if they can remember how they felt when they originally spoke them. It might only take two minutes. It might take all night. Doing so might be balm on a series of relational wounds inflicted by life lived multi-tasking at 90 mph in the 21st century.

Doing so might remind us how we believed we were telling the truth back in the day.

May God shed His grace on you.

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When God Turns the Tables

Perhaps 15 years into our 42 year marriage, it became pretty clear that Nancy would outlive me. Women generally outlive men. She has always taken better care of herself than I have–better diet, more exercise, meditation, yoga, Sudoku. For me, this natural state of things was always premised on the virtual guarantee that I would, by predeceasing her, leave her to deal with the messy emotional and social fallout.   Similar, in many respects, to my point of view concerning the weddings of our daughters–they just seemed to happen on their own, and all I had to do was show up properly dressed with as few prepared remarks as possible.

Along with the diagnosis of late stage pancreatic cancer came this ridiculous possibility that I would outlive her. A scenario I had literally never considered. I recall having laughed out loud at my father, 14 years older than my mother and with his own cardiologist, who would occasionally wring his hands about what he was going to do when Mom was gone. His worries were, as expected, unfounded.  Mine, perhaps not.

[In fact, my concerns may be misplaced, just like my father’s were.  Nancy is doing remarkably well with chemo, her blood chemistry is all in the green, her weight has stayed up and she shows very little in the way of slowing down.  She doesn’t complain about her neuropathy the way she used to, especially during infusion week. My own health is “OK,” which is to say not perfect but not imminently dangerous.]

As an economist, I’m comfortable around statistics.  As a reformed gambler, I still figure the odds and go with what seems most likely. As (determined by StrengthFinders) someone who practices intellection, these statistics and odds and percentages bounce around in my brain.  I talk to Jesus about them in the Chapel. He reminds me we know not when nor where. I remind him of five year survival rates and the physical effects of long term exposure to chemotherapy.

Since Day One, Nancy has not wanted a prognosis attached to her condition, and has been more or less actively disinterested in her disease other than routine conversations with her oncologist. In this, her approach differs from mine, as I’ve always been more comfortable with a devil I know than one I don’t. But, as a spouse, I have recognized, out loud, that this is her journey, that I am beside her for care and support, that she will make these types of decisions–what and whether to talk about–and I will respect her choices.

old-couple in loveAnd so here is the point. The spouse with the serious illness gets to make these calls, all of them. How much to know and how much to leave unsaid. What to discuss and what not to discuss. The caregiver must willingly include these in the inventory of things about which you will want to talk less. If, as in my case, you find a need to discuss concerns you cannot comfortably share with your spouse, do what I do and talk to a counselor every now and again.

In the most recent ten years of our marriage, when we both worked, we had maybe 30 minutes in the evening to sit together and discuss the day’s events.  Now, we no longer have work, we have a few subjects that are off limits, and instead of 30 minutes we have more like 10 hours. Nancy has been more comfortable with these periods of sustained silence than have I, but I’m getting better. Spouses may want to prepare for these in advance, as they should not be misinterpreted as character flaws or a lack of bonhomie, as it were.

It has taken me awhile to understand God’s will in this radically-altered future of ours. This, what we are living, is God’s will. It is God’s will that Nancy carry on her lifelong interest in learning and teaching, and that she be allotted time to do so. It is God’s will that she can suffer in private and go out socially looking healthy and vibrant. It is God’s will that she have someone like me to hang around and take care of her. And it is God’s will that I have finally found a vocation, after decades of searching, that gives me a feeling of purpose and allows me to express my love language–acts of service–every day.

Life is not a bed of roses, and Christian marriage comes not without costs. But being married, at this stage in our lives, is a blessing beyond measure. If you are struggling in your marriage, it may help you appreciate each other by fast-forwarding the film 25 or 30 years, to an empty nest and a dread disease. For the sick spouse, you are unlikely to be able to purchase such loving care on the open market. For the caregiver, being in a position to uphold the marriage vows you made 40 years earlier is a great honor, likely held in high esteem by God. And no couples get there without weathering some serious storms along the way.cropped-lse-masthead6.jpg

The 10 Commandments of Marriage

Not sure how I found my way to Bridal Guide magazine, but I did, in searchman and woman of something suitable for this site now that my regular second job is on hiatus, leaving some time to work on marriage issues. The article from which these ideas are stolen is one of those multi-page things that most of us hate, but I encourage you to stick with it and read them all. Very sound secular advice.

1. Thou shalt be fun.
2. Thou shalt be sexy.
3. Thou shalt be financially honest.
4. Thou shalt be grateful.
5. Thou shalt keep confidences.
6. Thou shalt keep thine own lives.
7. Thou shalt be an extended family.
8. Thou shalt let bygones be bygones.
9. Thou shalt be faithful in every way.
10. Thou shalt live a healthy lifestyle.

Had this article been prepared with a more spiritual outlook, it probably would have dropped a couple of these in favor of, say, “practicing thine faith together” or “thou shalt respect the sanctity of the marital bed.” Actually, it’s not too hard to imagine a Catholic magazine publishing this same article and replacing items #1 and 2 with these two directives.

Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleWhich, in my opinion, would be a mistake. The first two items on the list deserve their place of prominence not just because they apply to young brides and grooms, but moreover because they enable couples to navigate the waters from “newlywed” to “golden anniversary.” Being fun, or funny, is one of the failsafe techniques for keeping relationships blooming. I like to think that my wife of 40 years has laugh lines around her eyes partially due to me; lacking any number of social graces, I’ve always tried to at least keep her smiling, if not laughing out loud.

Item #2 is, likewise, important during the entire course of our marriages. old-couple in loveAs we age, our sexual abilities, wants and desires change.   However, these changes do nothing to our ability to be interesting, perhaps playful, to show interest, to initiate intimacy, to be clean, shaved and fresh, to put clean sheets on the bed, light a few candles, put on some music, etc. Sexual encounters, once a couple is empty nesters, are fairly simple to arrange, but sometimes difficult to execute in the conventional way, or ways. With young kids in the house, it takes real commitment to intimacy to find time—or even a place—to enjoy each other’s presence. There’s some frustration built into each scenario—having the ability and not the time, or having the time with diminished skills—but it remains important to keep fun and physical intimacy in your relationship, else couples risk ending up living together as brother and sister, polite and considerate with nothing resembling passion ar mutual engagement. This is NOT how to keep a marriage strong and healthy.

I think items #3-10 are pretty intuitive. Gratitude, forgiveness, faith, maintenance of self are all qualities that we easily maintain with our friends, but not always so easily with our spouses. The one commandment that is REALLY missing, the one that is more important than perhaps any of the others, goes something like this:

Thou shalt be friends first, foremost and forever.

holding handsAs we have remarked often in this space, couples have a much better chance to make it to their golden anniversary—roughly 2-3% of married couples accomplish this—if they are friends as well as lovers. Friends don’t cash in their relationship because of a fight or disagreement. Friends tend to usually fight fairly with their friends; spouses perhaps not so much. John Gottman, in his book we have virtually worn the cover off of in this blog, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, states unequivocally that friendship before and during marriage is one of the great predictors of a couple’s likelihood of staying together, happy and content.

God bless all married couples during this busy and exhausting season of joy.

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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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Pillow Talk

In 2008, when we were first discussing the creation of a ministry at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel dedicated to fostering a community that supports married couples in our parish, I recall commenting to Denise McGonigal that this could not simply be about “the theory of marriage.”  That, in order to be successful, grow, and attract married couples from every demographic in the parish, it needed to focus on real-life issues, and to include concrete examples of how happily married couples make marriage work.  This stance would be leavened with a strong dose of Catholic spirituality, keeping in mind our mission to celebrate the joy of sacramental marriage, as eloquently expressed in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

So, here we are on Valentine’s Day, preparing for our monthly Marriage on Tap event tonight at which over 60 couples will be receiving eucharist, renewing their marriage vows, enjoying a date night meal together, and sharing thoughts and ideas around Denise’s presentation about marriages made in Heaven.  An intimate, non-commercial celebration of what marriage CAN be when spouses allow the Holy Spirit to enter their relationship and commit to each other to be the best husbands, wives and parents they can be.

As one of the more secular voices on this blog, I’m always searching mainstream media online for articles and ideas I can steal borrow to share with our readers.  Today I discovered a cheat sheet useful for facilitating conversation in the marital bed.  Why many of us are more comfortable conducting these conversations in our living rooms than in our bedrooms is a mystery.  My own theory, what Nancy would call “the story I’m telling myself,” is that these conversations will either lead to sex or NOT lead to sex, depending on which spouse is more inclined in which direction, comprising one of the worst sentences ever to grace these pages.  She, I suspect, would say it has nothing to do with any of that, that it’s probably due to more practical considerations; in our case, I wear a CPAP mask, which makes it practically impossible to talk, and works, for her, like talking with an astronaut.

Enough.  Here is the Pillow Talk piece borrowed from TheDatingDivas.com:

PIllow Talk

 

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Well said, Dr. Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford bills herself as a “Clinical Psychologist, Mental Health/Midlife Blogger.”  (She also provides a handy response to the challenge of naming one good thing about Arkansas.)  Just kidding.  At any rate, I thought this post was so good, and so well-written, that I would just copy and paste it herein.  I’ve taken the liberty of bolding those items that speak to me loudly.

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24 years of marriage.

That’s what September 15th meant for me.

We had celebrated earlier so I didn’t remember until I was driving to work. I called him. Told him I loved him. I got grocery store flowers when I got home. Beautifully arranged by the way.

What ever did we do without grocery store flowers?

Between being a marital therapist and my own experience, I have learned a few things. Since I am on year #24, I’ve divided them into 12’s. Just to be cute.

12 Things That Marriage Is Not:

1. Marriage is not for sissies. It’s hard work.

2. Marriage is not about getting what you want all the time. It’s not a dictatorship. It’s not wanting to win all the time because that would mean the other person would lose all the time. May be OK for you. Not good for the marriage.

3. Marriage is not rocket science. The principles it’s based on are really pretty simple. Kindness. Respect. Loyalty. That kind of thing.

4. Marriage is not unfashionable. It stays vital. Even Brangelina must think so.

5. Marriage is not in and of itself stimulating. Since you are with the same person over a long time, the two of you can get in a rut. You have to keep things fresh.

6. Marriage is not about collecting things. The joys of marriage aren’t tangible. You live them. That’s what makes them so very special.

7. Marriage is not for the impatient. Some of the best stuff takes a while to develop. You have to stick around to find that out.

8. Marriage is not the place for criticism. Or abuse. If it is found there, it will ruin any chance of true intimacy or trust and dissolve the hope that once might have existed.

9. Marriage is not a 24-hour repair shop. Your marital partner is not supposed to meet your every need. Some of those needs you may have to take care of yourself. Through your friendships or other activities.

10. Marriage is not self-sustaining. It does not thrive on its own. If all you focus on is the kids, you are making a mistake.

11. Marriage is not boring. Two lives woven together can be quite exciting! There’s just something about watching someone very different from you, living their life in an extremely different way. Up close and personal. You learn from that.

12. Marriage is not without conflict. Knowing how to disagree and work through anger and disappointment is probably the key to lots of stuff going well. Getting to that cooperating, mentioned in #2.

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12 Things That Marriage Is:

1. Marriage is the potential for an intense, deep and diverse intimacy. Sexual. Emotional. Relational.

2. Marriage is knowing someone has your back. Always. You have theirs. It’s about interdependence.

3. Marriage is realizing that you have been seen in your worst times, and that you are still loved. There’s an overriding sense of gratitude and security.

4. Marriage is sharing old jokes. Or some story that may be told over and over but it still makes you laugh ’til you are left gasping for breath.

5. Marriage is getting teary-eyed together.

6. Marriage is thinking about the other one not being there anymore. And not being able to think about it.

7. Marriage is getting irritated by the things that always irritate you. Have irritated you for 24 years. Will irritate you for 24 more. And tolerating it because it is way overbalanced by the good stuff.

8. Marriage is not being able to wait to get home to share some little something.

9. Marriage is wishing you were the one having the operation. Or the illness. Not him.

10. Marriage is sometimes fighting. Trying to slowly learn to fight more fairly. To apologize. To listen. To learn. To find resolution.

11. Marriage is about vulnerability. Giving someone the right to hurt or disappoint you. While simultaneously giving that someone the opportunity to bring you tremendous joy and laughter.

12. Marriage is a promise. A vow. To try the hardest you have ever tried in your life. Marriage is a place for the achievement of a personal integrity like no other.

I’m now living year #25.

So far. So good. Thanks for reading! You can find more from Dr. Margaret at http://drmargaretrutherford.com!

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