Monday, May 30, 2005

What does it take to stay married 50 years?

In a blog written some days ago, I quoted the response of a friend to my question “what does it take to remain married for 50 years?”. “It ain’t easy” the this wise octogenarian lady responded. When I recently mentioned to my counselor that I was attending a 50th wedding anniversary celebration, she remarked, “…one of the few marriages that survived the 60s.”

I think I may have discovered the secret of long marriages and it is quite simple. Virtually all marriage ceremonies include a solemn vow that this is a lifetime commitment. The most widely used vows (in protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic church) also include the phrases “for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, until death do us part.” Young men and women who repeat these vows to seal their first marriage rarely have the slightest idea what they really mean – how could they. The have not experienced the moments of “…for worse” that with certainty lie ahead for them. When those moments hit, one or both partners, in about 50 per-cent of US marriages abjure their vows.

A colleague of mine, titled a recent book: Second Marriage: The triumph of love over experience. Those who marry a second time should at least know what their “lifetime” vows mean – though many of these marriages too, end in divorce. A women friend of mine, still enduring a bad marriage (her second) but contributing nothing to changing it, once described her marriage certificate and the vows it recorded as “nothing more than a scrap of paper.”

But for those whose marriages survive fifty years, their vows have proved to be ‘more than a scrap of paper.’ For whatever reason, they have created a space within which the two “partners” have chosen to make the accommodations that staying married required. Honoring the “for worse” and “until death do us part” clauses in marriage vows is obviously the first – and simple – answer to the question “What does it take to stay married 50 years?” It takes the commitment on both sides, for whatever reasons, to stay married, “for better or for worse.”

Of course that commitment does not guarantee that all marriages surviving 50 years are “good marriages”. Survival (mere survival) says little about the quality of the relationship.

Psychologist Judith Wallerstein studied 50 marriages, self characterized by both partners as “good” and tried to capture what as essential about them in her book The Good Marriage. The essence of her description, as well as the yearning for a genuinely good marriage most of us share is captured in the following quotation.

“In every study in which Americans are asked what they value most in assessing the quality of their lives, marriage comes first – ahead of friends, jobs and money. In our fast paced world, men and women need each other more, not less. We want and need erotic love, sympathetic love, passionate love, tender, nurturing love all our adult lives. We desire friendship, compassion, encouragement, a sense of being understood and appreciated, not only for what we do but for what we try to do and fail at. We want a relationship in which we can test our half baked ideas without shame or pretense and give voice to our deepest fears. We want a partner who sees us as unique and irreplaceable.

“A good marriage can offset the loneliness of life in crowded cities and provide a refuge from the hammering pressures of the competitive workplace. It can counter the anomie of an increasingly impersonal world, where so many people interact with machines rather than fellow workers. In a good marriage, each person can find sustenance we all feel in the face of frustrations about having to yield to other people’s wishes and rights. Marriage provides an oasis where sex, humor and play can flourish.

What is required for a "good marriage?" Minimally, I believe, it requires that both partners make their commitment to the marriage a priority. They have to work at it, but not too hard, – and play at it too. When people marry, they often assume that the marriage part of their lives is ‘handled,’ by virtue of their marriage vows, giving them license to move on to other priorities – career, good works, a passionately followed hobby or avocation, children, other relationships and the like. In my entire life, I have only witnessed one marriage that rose to the level described in Wallerstein’s book, though I believe my parents 50+ year marriage may have approached it, at times. I am no longer close enough to my friends in Cleveland to judge, after a short visit, where their marriage fits on the continuum between mere survival and a good – even great – marriage.

Actuarial realities make it highly unlikely that my own second marriage will endure to celebrate a 50th anniversary. And I don’t regret that my first marriage did not. All in all, I am ambivalent about 50 year marriages, though the very best of them appear to have repaid the couples who invested in them with substantial dividends. Perhaps only those who have had the experience are in a position to judge thoughtfully.

32 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John -

Thanks for this post. Nice and thought provoking. It always helps to be reminded. Taking partners for granted is too common.

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Anonymous Keisha B. said...

This post is extemely relevent to me, although i am only 17 years of age. I plan on joining my boyfriend of 9mths in marraige in April,when become of "legal" age. The commitment,respect and desire to be loved and wanted is relevent to having a relationship with a boyfriend, as well as one with a husband. I think people go through life marrying and engaging in relationships just for the feeling of being wanted, and once this feeling is gone, they try to leave that person, in hopes of finding another person that wants them, and unfortunatly, they label this feeling of lust as love, and make commiments such as marriage only to reak them,once the "want" is gone. However, i believe it takes a mature person to realize that love is when you know you make your significant other happy and healthy, and you thrive and are happy when he/she is happy. I agree that marriage is being abused,unfortunately for the fact that couples feel they can simply sign a "legal" paper to terminate their vows to each other. I feel that if a person can sign away their promises to each other, then from the beginning, marriage to them was meerly a title,not a true commitment at all. I wish the best for all those married and engaged,and those still trying to find "the one". People just remember, WHAT GOD JOINS,MEN MUST NOT DIVIDE. so be sure you mean your "i do's" before you say them. God Bless.

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