Those of us raised in the Evangelical church have seen countless books titled like this post. Authors think that they have figured out a part of life and are qualified to write a book about it. Every book takes the same approach; follow these steps, follow this formula, do what I did, and you will have success. After all, isn’t it the American dream to be considered s-u-c-c-e-s-s-f-u-l?
Looks can be deceiving. One woman who attended a church I pastored had been married for 40 years. That’s a long time. Surely this woman and her husband had a successful marriage, right?
One day I decided to pay a visit to this couple’s home. When I got there the husband was nowhere to be found. I said, your husband isn’t home? The woman replied, oh no, he’s here, and she hollered up the stairs for her husband. Come to find out, he had been living in the upstairs for 25 years and they RARELY spoke to each other. Their marriage was anything BUT happy and successful.
But, then again, maybe it was.How do we even define what a happy or successful marriage is? What is the objective standard for happiness or success? Should we even try to judge whether a person or a couple is happy or a success?
When we look at a marriage from the outside it is almost impossible to judge whether the couple is happy and the marriage is a success. Recently, my counselor told me that most everything he learned in college 35 years about marriage was wrong. For example…he was taught that couples who fight a lot are unhappy and have a troubled/bad marriage. He said, this is completely untrue. Now researchers are finding out that the level of arguing plays very little part in the happiness of the couple or the success of the marriage. He told me that some of the most happy and successful marriages are ones where the couple frequently argue.
As Evangelicals, Polly and I were taught to NEVER argue. After all, the Bible says, never let the sun go down on your wrath. Anger is a sin and a person who is a devoted follower of Jesus never gets angry, right? Or if they do it better be the classic Christian anger ass-covering, RIGHTEOUS ANGER. You know the anger displayed by the preacher when he is angrily shouting and railing and s in his sermon against this or that sin.
The truth is…we all get angry and we all argue. Some couples argue more than others, but they all argue. The style, length, and level of arguing is different from couple to couple, but every couple argues. (and anyone who says they NEVER argue or gets angry is taking way too much Prozac or lying)
Polly and I have been married for 35 years, 5 months,10 days, 14 hours, and 37 minutes. During this time, we have had a fair number of fights and arguments. I am hotheaded and bullheaded. Polly is quite passive, yet inwardly defiant. Every so often, almost always over nothing, we will have an argument. For a few moments, our marriage becomes like heating a cup of water with a blow torch. It heats up quickly but with a quick turn of the blow torch knob off goes the flame and the heat quickly dies down. Our arguments tend to last a few moments, maybe for a few hours, but NEVER for a day. Neither of us hold a grudge and we usually realize quickly that what we are fighting over is stupid. (even if we mentally think the OTHER is MORE stupid)
We both recognize that arguments are about two people wanting to be right. Sometimes, Polly and I argue because we have a difference of opinion. Other times, one of us is right and the other is wrong. If someone who didn’t know us stumbled upon us having an argument they would “think” that we had a troubled marriage or that we needed marriage counseling. Their judgment of the quality of our marriage would be dead wrong. We argue, and just like that it is over. We may be arguing at 5:00 P.M. and sitting in a restaurant 3 hours later having a wonderful time. The arguments mean little to us. (and there seems to be no cumulative effect)
Here are some observations I have made about my marriage to Polly. These observations are not a road map to marital success or a blueprint for a long, happy marriage. I recognize that Polly and I being married for all these years took a lot of work AND luck. We know more than a few happy and successful couples who are now divorced and married to someone else. In the first few years of marriage, Polly and I could have easily become a statistic, thus proving Polly’s mom’s right, that divorce is hereditary. (a commonly held belief among their generation)
Polly and I did not marry for love. In fact, we had no idea what real love was. Oh we told ourselves we were in love, but what we really were was mutually infatuated with each other. We had romantic feelings for each other, but LOVE? Love came over time. As we grew and matured, so did love.
Americans have many foolish notions about love. They think the proof of love is expensive gifts, jewelry, flowers,special nights out at fancy restaurants, and/or hot sex. Yes, all of these things are nice, but they have little to do with love. Love is all about commitment and endurance. True, lasting love takes time to plant and grow. I think the writer of 1 Corinthians 13 got it right when they wrote about the lasting qualities of love; things like patience, kindness, and being long-suffering.
Polly and I deeply love one another, yet we know that we still have the capacity to love each other more. We know that every marriage has its exciting moments and it also has long dry, monotonous spells. (and dry takes on a life of its own after menopause) Married life can become boring or predictable and this is not necessarily bad. No marriage can survive every day and night being like the first night of their honeymoon. Understanding this has kept Polly and I from having unreasonable expectations and making demands that the other person can not fulfill.
In the midst of normalcy, we try to have some unpredictability. Some times it is small things like Polly buying me a king size candy bar and leaving it in the desk. Other times, it is me tying a big dildo to the front door knob so it will smack Polly when she comes home from work at 1:30 A.M. Since we have left Christianity, our banter has become more sexual and Polly is mastering the art of the double meaning. We have fun this way…and o-t-h-e-r ways. (and all my kids are saying TMI)
Every year, we try to do a couple of big things like take a weekend trip or go on vacation. Now that our children are grown and 5 of them are out of the house, we are free to travel and do a lot more things as a couple. And here is the key for us…we LIKE each other. We like being together and doing things together. We like each other’s company. We have, over the years, become best friends. This was not the case when we were first married.
Both of us have annoying character traits that drives the other nuts. And guess what…35 years later those traits are still there. When we first married we ignored these traits or thought they would go away in time. Now we recognize that these irritating character traits are part of who we are. We STILL fight about them and we STILL irritate the hell out of each other, but we recognize that both of us are flawed and we are not going to change. I will still want perfect order and Polly still won’t be able to figure out where we are going even with a map, a Google map print out and a GPS. We fuss, fume, and then laugh. We are who we are.
We now know that we are not completely compatible. We each like things the other dislikes. And…that’s OK. While in many ways we are very different from one another, we do share many of the same likes, wants, and desires. Polly knows that when she makes a gourmet meal and then asks me what I think…that when I say, please don’t make THAT again…it is not a personal attack. I know that when I buy her a gift and she doesn’t like it that it is not Polly rejecting me. She just doesn’t like what I bought her. End of story. Then we go get her want she wants and she writes in her cookbook, don’t make again.
We both have our own space and we are free to do our own thing. We don’t need the approval of the other. Polly reads fiction and I don’t. There are certain shows on TV that I love and Polly rolls her eyes every time I watch them. We still care about what the other thinks, but we have learned that each other’s approval is not needed. So much of life is made up of things that don’t matter, so why spend a lot of time fussing and fighting over inconsequential things? Accept each other as they are and learn to keep your distance when they are driving you nuts.
We are becoming more and more comfortable in our skin. We no longer let others, including our family, define for us, what a “good” marriage is. We stay married because we love each other and like each other. I may not be the most demonstrative of husbands, and this irritates the hell out of some of my children, but I more than make up for it when and where it matters. All those noises in the night are Polly singing out her approval. (our daughter Laura now knows that there is NOT an owl living outside our house, an explanation I gave her when she was a child)
Here’s the bottom line. It works for us and that is all that matters. We are not our parents and we don’t want our children to emulate our marriage. Each couple must find their own way. Maybe their marriage will last a lifetime…maybe it won’t. For Polly and I, we have come too far to turn back now.