I’ve been overwhelmed by the responses to my previous post – it seems to have tapped into a rich vein of experience for many readers. I was trepidatious about allowing my reflection to go public- it’s the most personal writing I’ve ever shared with any audience. It’s a paradox that what feels unique and singular is oftentimes most universally human.
I’m also sensitive to my awareness that currently in my orbit of friendships and acquaintances, I know seven women whose marriages are in various states of unraveling or separation. That number is not hyperbole. Midlife renegotiation of changing roles and expectations is a treacherous proposition. Those of us who manage to stay the course as the decades mount in our marriages have no high moral ground on which to stand – only humble gratitude to fate or luck in our original choosing.
If maintaining long-term marriages is so difficult, perhaps it’s the institution of marriage as we’ve known it in our lifetime that no longer serves us. This thought is not original to myself, but it’s up close and personal at the moment. As life expectancy has increased and it’s less rare for us to live into our 90’s, the odds of sustaining common ground with another person for 25, 30, 40 years, are truly daunting. Most of our friendships don’t last anywhere near as long, falling away as we grow and change and enter different developmental phases. Perhaps its time to acknowledge that this is true of marriage as well, instead of subscribing to a pressure cooker of impossible and unrealistic expectations. I even wonder if entering a marriage without the vow of a life-long commitment might be a safety valve that helps sustain longevity.
Of course, the scenario becomes complicated when children are involved. We who choose to procreate undertake a sacred trust. Our children do not ask to be born, and we are fastidiously responsible for their tender souls. As adults who decide to parent, it’s incumbent upon us to prioritize our children’s needs above our own and postpone many of our own desires for personal fulfillment. I’m not talking about martyrdom here, but the necessity of honoring and vouchsafing our commitment to creating and nurturing innocent young lives. I wonder what it would be like if marriage was a renewable contract, with the decision to become parents requiring a commitment to stay together until our dependents reach the legal age of adulthood. The one caveat would be that this contractual agreement is null and void in instances of abuse or destructive addictions. Once our obligations as parents of minor children are over, we would be free to stay together, or not, as ever evolving individuals.
If marriage was entered into with this alternative framework, it seems to me that it would have numerous advantages: The decision to have children might be undertaken more consciously. Children would be raised with the knowledge that their parents are a committed partnership until they reach legal adulthood. After that, they would be aware that their parents are not obligated to stay together, having fulfilled their parental contract. Spouses would not feel trapped in a life-long commitment if they naturally grow and change. In midlife partners would be invited to consciously reevaluate their relationship and decide whether or not to stay together, without the stigma of “failing” at marriage. Thoughts?
Nearly 25 years ago I was invited to give the homily at my brother’s wedding. At the time, I myself had been married for 13 years. I’d like to share that homily with you here, because much of my reflection at that time is relevant to what I’ve written this morning. These words are offered in a spirit of continuing curiosity about the mysterious nature of marriage and committed relationships.
I’m a little nervous as I stand before you, two literature majors, and attempt to say something profound, succinct, and original – using correct grammar and syntax of course! – on the occasion of your marriage. I’d like to offer a few thoughts, drawing on my own experience, and the words of some writers and poets who have struggled to articulate the mystery of marriage as a lived relationship between two people.
In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes the creative process of writing. What she says about writing can also be said about marriage – for marriage too is a process. Dillard writes: “First you shape the vision of what the projected work of art will be…It is a glowing thing, a blurred thing of beauty. Its structure is at once luminous and translucent: you can see the world through it. After you receive the initial charge of this imaginary object, you add to it at once several aspects, and incubate it most gingerly as it grows into itself…many aspects of the work are still uncertain. You know that if you proceed you will change and learn things, that the form will grow under your hands and develop new and richer lights. But that will not alter the vision or its deep structures: it will only enrich it. You know that, and you are right.”
Today we celebrate the vision – the deep structures – of the commitment you are making to each other. But many aspects of your life together are still uncertain. A relationship is a living thing; it is a dance, a dance with two partners touching lightly, then letting go; moving forward, then backward, to the music of the universe. It is a dance in several movements.
The first movement of the dance of a relationship is the Dance of Passion. This is a time of overwhelming attraction, of pure passion, what one poet has called “a bright stain on the vision blotting out reason.” Perhaps no other writer has expressed the intensity of this phase of a relationship more colorfully than the ancient poet of the Song of Songs:
O that you would kiss me with
the kisses of your mouth!
For your love is better than wine.
Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples,
for I am sick with love.
Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
behold, you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
You are all fair my love;
there is no flaw in you.
There is no flaw in you! If only what the poet says to his love were true! But we would be less than honest if we didn’t admit that, along with the comfort and joy of a relationship, there are also times of tension, conflict and ambivalence. There comes a time in every relationship when we dance the Dance of Disillusionment. We begin to wonder if we made the right choice, if we married the right person. We experience the death of romantic expectations, as described in the poem “Les Sylphides” by Louis McNeice. In this poem two lovers marry, dreaming of flowers and flowing rivers and satin and waltzing trees:
So they were married – to be the more together
And found they were never again so much together,
Divided by the morning tea.
By the evening paper,
By children and tradesmen’s bills.
Waking at times in the night she found assurance
In his regular breathing but wondered whether
It was really worth it and where
The river had flowed away
And where were the white flowers.
Anthropologist Bronislav Malinowski has written: “Marriage presents one of the most difficult problems in human life; the most emotional as well as the most romantic of all human dreams has to be consolidated into an ordinary working relationship.” And so if we can adjust and adapt and compromise, we waltz our way clumsily through the Dance of Disillusionment into the next movement, the Dance of Stability.
As this movement begins, we bring into our relationship many of the unconscious longings and unfinished business of our own past. Prompted by our past, we make demands on our marriage, often unaware that we do. If we’re honest with ourselves during this ripening season of marriage, we may realize that many of our struggles with our partner really reflect unresolved conflicts within ourselves. Marriage therapists Prather and Prather put it this way: “We do not pick our perfect match, because we ourselves are not perfect. The universe hands us a flawless diamond, in the rough. Only if we are willing to polish off every part of ourselves that cannot join, do we end up with a soul mate.”
D. H. Lawrence is a bit more blunt about the need to confront our own rough edges in his poem “Intimates:”
Don’t you care for me my love? she said bitterly.
I handed her the mirror, and said:
Please address these questions to the proper person!
If we work hard enough at it, and are faithful to the vision of our original commitment – if we are willing to look into the mirror at ourselves and our own unpolished parts – eventually we will come to a place of “at-home-ness” in our relationship which feeds our spirit. Amy Lowell captures the essence of the Dance of Stability in her poem “A Decade:”
When you came you were like red wine and honey
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with your sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savor,
But I am completely nourished.
So nourished, we can tentatively learn the steps of the next movement, the Dance of Commitment. The Dance of Commitment is like a web. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh tells us: “…it is a web made of loyalties and interdependencies and shared experiences. It is woven of memories and meetings and conflicts, of triumphs and disappointments. It is a web of communication, a common language, and the acceptance of a lack of language, too; a knowledge of likes and dislikes, of habits and reactions, both physical and mental. It is a web of instincts and intuitions, of known and unknown exchanges.”
During this time in our relationship, we no longer cling to the other. We accept the reality that our partner cannot – and should not be expected to – meet all of our needs. Secure in our commitment, we are truly free to be an individual, to embrace our uniqueness and our solitude, and yet be moored by our fidelity to one another. Hugo Williams describes this aspect of the Dance of Commitment in his poem “Tides:”
The evening advances, then withdraws again,
Leaving our cups and books like islands on the floor.
We are drifting, you and I,
As far from one another as the young heroes
Of these two novels we have just laid down.
For that is happiness: to wander alone
Surrounded by the same moon, whose tides remind us of ourselves,
Our distances, and what we leave behind.
The lamp left on, the curtains letting in the light.
These things were promises. No doubt we will
Come back to them.
Finally, having danced the Dance of Passion, having danced through the dance of Disillusionment to Stability and Commitment, we come to celebrate the Dance of Joy. We sense in our love for each other, in our joys and in our sorrows, that we are enfolded in and reflect a Mystery that is much greater than ourselves. As Annie Dillard says, “We feel each breeze as the merest puff, but sail headlong and breathless under the gale force of spirit.”
In a reverie on his relationship with his wife, poet Wendell Berry expresses this sense of our connectedness with the Divine:
In a crease of the hill
under the light,
out of the wind,
as warmth, bloom, and song
return, lady, I think of you
and of myself with you.
What are we but forms
of the self-acknowledging
light that brings us
warmth and song from time
to time? Lip and flower,
hand and leaf, tongue
and song, what are we but welcomers
of that ancient joy, always
coming, always passing?
out of old time, leaves
folded down around
the stems, as if for flight,
flower bud folded in
unfolding leaves, what
are we but hosts
of times, all
the Sabbath morning shows,
the light that finds it good.
Today we celebrate the vision – the deep structures- of the commitment that you are making to each other. May your life together be a glowing thing, a blurred thing of beauty, luminous and translucent. May you incubate your relationship most gingerly as it grows into itself. May you change things and learn things. May your marriage grow under your hands into new and richer lights. May your life together be a dance – a Dance of Passion, a Dance through Disillusionment to Stability and Commitment, a Dance of Joy.