As an outsider, it is probably presumptuous of me to comment on a “good marriage.” On the other hand, outsiders have different eyes.
My experience of good, long-term relationships is that somewhere along the line there comes a tip-over point, a magical abyss into which criticism, praise, analysis, and description fall and become . . . helpful, perhaps, but not entirely relevant. Too much time has passed; too many difficult and wonderful events have come and gone; the fabric is made and comment is not quite adequate. There is a connection. It has rough and smooth edges, its needs are met and unmet, and its corners can be dark or lit. Whatever the case, there is a kind of factualness that confounds the perfect commentary.
Two things seem to me indispensable in a good and lasting relationship. One is laughter and the other is a deep sense of wishing a partner well on his or her own terms.
By laughter I mean perspective. The perfect (fantasy) mate does not exist, so it becomes necessary to forgive what is “missing” and then, if what is “missing” is badly needed, fill in the blank with situations or people outside the relationship.
A woman artist I know has had a series of unsuccessful liaisons with other artists because she thinks a sympathetic hearing on the subject of work is necessary. I said I thought she was missing the point. “Why don’t you try to find someone who is moderately interested in art but who really likes you? You can get your art support outside the house and the security at home.” She laughed and agreed in principle and promptly went out and got herself another artist lover.
The second aspect, wishing a partner well on his or her own terms, may not be so easy. So many relationships in our society are based on quid pro quo that it may be difficult to break the habit in important personal dealings. Of course, you-do-this-for-me-and-I’ll-do-that-for-you or you-don’t-do-this-for-me-so-I-won’t-do-that-for-you may work for a while — perhaps a lifetime — but it strikes me as narrow and unpleasant in the long run. The mercantile approach, sometimes described with the oozingly inaccurate term, “sharing,” is so ingrained at gross and subtle levels that the best a person can manage in some instances is admit it and laugh a little. With luck, a partner will laugh too, recognizing in himself or herself a similar capacity in other circumstances.
To wish someone else well on his/her own terms requires respect, trust, and clarity.
The respect may come in the form of a strange distance — distance in proximity, a willingness to know that another human being is and always will be a secret. Why it is that human beings who are wise enough to know they cannot know themselves persist in thinking that they can adequately or accurately analyze others is one of the nonsensical wonders of the human race.
Trust is too often touted as something to be placed in others. It is better to begin, with care, closer to home.
Clarity seems to me to be the willingness to say “yes” and to say “no” — with affection. I do not mean the socially acceptable “yes” or the much-praised “no.” “They,” even the ones closest, may have very strong and persuasive opinions. Good for them. But, as one fellow put it, “Better your own truth, however weak, than the truth of another, however noble.”
So much for words. So much for formulas. The blessing for the day is that if people had anything to do with formulas we’d all be in the soup and bored silly.
New York, New York
Like Joni Mitchell says, “I don’t need no paper from city hall keeping me tried and true.” We rebel from the state sticking its nose into our private loving affairs because the state is corrupt. It sends children off to die in wars. It. . . . But I don’t have to list all the state’s corruptions. You know them.
So we don’t need the state telling us if we’re married or not, but if we’re on to something, if it’s so good we dream that maybe it would be great if it went on for a long, long time, if we are so blessed and joyous — then we want to proclaim our joining to the world, we want to make it public. “So the hills do answer, and their echo ring,” as Spenser wrote in his poem “Epithalamium,” a gift to his bride.
There is something ineffable about a good marriage. It’s an unexplainable mystery why it works. It just does. Does a tree know why it grows? There’s a Northwest Indian tribe that has a custom of saving a particular word for use only once in a person’s life — that’s when a couple declares their love for each other.
So there is a privacy about love and a good joining, a good marriage. It is a great secret, a great mystery to be possessed, not understood. How can the puny intellectual mind ticking away in words explain a “good marriage”?
We can talk about physical compatibility and intellectual compatibility and spiritual compatibility and honesty and openness and commitment and trust. We can talk about astrological signs and the luck of the stars. We can talk about accepting each other’s faults and being assertive and avoiding sex role stereotypes. We can even talk honestly — now that the economy is in bad shape — about a good marriage as an economic institution, a combining of all kinds of resources, material and spiritual, for the improvement of life. It used to be taboo in the romantic new age to talk about money. So we can talk about these things — we can talk about the whole working art of the machine, constructing schedules and blueprints and rules — but we won’t know what a good marriage is. We will have learned a lot, true, but we won’t know. It just is. When you get it you know you got it and you just pray that it lasts. A gift.
What a delightful notion, good marriage. Next week, I’m going to the local courthouse to get my fourth divorce. Rather than being turned off by the notion of marriage, and hopeless about the possibility of a “good” one, I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been. A good marriage is still one of my most deeply held desires.
Not that I suspect I’m going to experience a “good marriage” myself. Indeed, I’ve been told by many people that I should not be married. Nor have I seen much of good marriage in others’ lives.
Yet much encourages me. My parents continue to battle, to grudgingly support each other, and to form that strange pattern of marriage which I have tried to copy so many times, as have my two sisters.
A recent suggestion I heard was disarmingly simple: just love each other more. It doesn’t say anything about how one chooses the person to be with, how one learns what “love” is, or how long and in what form this love is to last.
I have attempted to understand what to do about living so far away from a lady I love very much. So many good and beautiful things have happened for us as a result of our being together that I cannot feel this has not been a good marriage, and I see the same is true of my other marriages.
With changing feelings, changing forms, perhaps even the disruption of our friendship, it is not so easy to continue to love this person. At the same time, it is the most natural thing in the world. These ideals of how it is supposed to be, and my feelings that I have never been “really married,” these things are all just part of the learning. I really have been blessed with good marriages, in a rather odd sort of way. And as I go on living our/my own life, I continue to see more and more people learning this ability to “love each other more” in whatever ways this makes sense for them. So I continue to be encouraged at the possibility of good marriages, whether or not I have any more ahead of me.
Determined to say only words that would help SUN readers I called the most happily married couples I knew (ones with children), and asked them for their brief thoughts about good marriages.
These were couples who displayed obvious respect for one another and whose children bore the fruits of joy and obedience that can only come from an environment of real love.
The answers were unanimous, as one voice. Without Christ they said their marriages would dissolve. With Christ their bond was eternal.
Mark, who was caulking the tile around the tub when I called long distance, said that a good marriage will occur when a third person is in the relationship — Jesus. Wife Diana said the same thing when I talked with her alone later.
Ken, after a sour marriage, made God first in his life. His wife Connie said to me, after I asked her about “good marriages,” “This is the first thing that comes to my mind. My husband has loved me unconditionally — regardless of my emotional state. This has taught me much about God.”
Bob, too, told me that he hadn’t learned to love until he learned of God’s love. “Without Christ in marriage people are destined to misery and failure. With Christ it can be a beautiful experience.” His wife Ann told me when I later spoke with her: “You have to have a common denominator on the good days and the bad days — Jesus.”
Take it or leave it — these are the three best marriages I know of, and these things are what the spouses involved had to say, for better or for worse.
Salem, West Virginia
I visited my uncle Jimmy and my aunt Joan in the summer of 1978, in Concord, California — the last stop on the BART line from San Francisco. I was on my way to the Rainbow Gathering.
Jimmy and Joan were both in their 40’s and both had bright blond hair. My uncle had a big smiling beard and an almost surrealistically large moustache. Joan had the slightly lean, slightly plump female body that one describes as “attractive.” She looked like a secretary, which she was.
As I recall, my uncle picked up a side of beef on his way back from the railroad station. He apologized, knowing I was a vegetarian, but later said something like, “Man does not live by sunflower seeds alone.” He treated me with a mixture of wariness and warmth appropriate to a nephew he hadn’t seen for 10 years.
Part of his ambivalence was due, I think, to his own bohemian years. When he and Joan met, 20 years before, they were both living in tenements, listening to jazz music — their friends were drug dealers and prostitutes. Uncle Jimmy wrote poetry — strange poetry.
Now they lived in an apartment complex on the last stop of the BART line, and Jimmy was preparing to go into business teaching people how to write resumes. (He said the secret was to “sell yourself.”) Resumes are a type of poetry, but a rigid form, stricter even than haiku. Also, Truth doesn’t have the same importance it has in other poetry.
I remember them pouring some wine, putting on the Saturday Night Fever album and dancing sexily around the apartment. (In my memory, I was eating sunflower seeds at the time.) They were in love.
I found all this a little disturbing. I hitched off a few days later, thinking that California really is like everyone says.
Four years later, Jimmy got a brain tumor and started to die. Joan became his nurse. She was close to my parents, and wrote them letters. In them, she talked about watching the man she loved turn into a child, a happy and very sick child. She really respected him — I think she said that he was the person she admired most in the world. His medical expenses were enormous, and the insurance ran out, and she couldn’t both work and take care of him. Most of their friends fell away; they couldn’t handle the situation. Jimmy lost his memory and lived in the eternal Present. In a few lucid moments, he would realize what was happening to him. One by one, his organs began to fail. All this took most of a year. His wife was by his side continually.
Joan survived through a combination of rage and devotion. As for me, I was no longer separated from them by my fear of middle class stability — theirs had vanished. In its absence, I could see their love for what it was.
New York, New York
I won’t try to generalize about what constitutes a good marriage. For me, it is the knowledge that my mate’s needs and happiness are just as important as my own. I cannot be happy if he is not. Having been before in what was not a good marriage, I realize also that two people who are not sure of themselves alone will have a hard time being together.
In my previous marriage, the relationship began with an extreme dependence on my mate. Two children and seven years later the tables were turned and I was stifled by the pressure of his need for me. Now, in my “good” marriage, we each are well aware of our ability to be without the other, but also realize that our preference is to be together. Having had our own “space” and independence was rewarding in many ways, with the opportunity to delve into our creative selves musically, in writing, and for him in solitude (something I as a mother could rarely enjoy!).
With this freedom and independence also came loneliness, a price worth paying to some, not so for us. Our love grew out of a friendship, with the music we played together, the time and thoughts we shared, until finally after a year of separate spaces and dwelling places we realized an extreme change must come.
That change involved the commitment to a life together, helping each other along the path no matter how much we stumble. Taking the load as it comes, not counting the times we fall, or feeling any debts or need for repayment. We know why we need each other, and why we don’t.
Good marriages — immediately I wonder what is “good”? and what is “marriage”? I smile as all the definitions flow past, for mine are likely to be quite different from the next person’s. “Good marriage” is strictly an individual matter.
On the one hand I am totally dumbfounded by the news of an apparently “perfect marriage” of 30 years being ended; on the other hand I can see a solidarity between two seemingly unlikely individuals living as though married, joined by a bond not documented or “anniversaried.”
Good marriage seems to have something to do with the mutual commitment to give priority to nurturing the relationship — any growing thing needs food and care. It has to do with being willing to accept, without fear, the changes that result from growth. It has to do with learning when to talk and when to keep silent, when to express anger and when to put it on the back burner. And it has to do with the recognition of a divine creator, whose light shines through in myriad ways, to help in healing, to celebrate in joy.
To honor the desires, the hopes, the faults, the needs — the whole being of one’s partner with equal importance as we honor our own, not more and not less — ah, there’s a goal! Where there is mutual love and respect between partners, no matter what ups and downs happen over time, the miracle of a “good marriage” can happen.
P.S. With a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye my husband Pete adds: “All you gotta do is to find somebody to help you hunt for ‘the answer.’ ”
The Birds Nest
Chatham County, N.C.
It is not easy to know the specifics of a good marriage. All the elements of similar unions seem to be there: the daily divisions of love and hate, work and play, give and take. There are the complexities of commitment. The willingness to be vulnerable. When one partner falls, the other becomes strong. There is joking, laughing, crying, tenderness. Then, at times, the whole grand cosmic interplay appears to focus its designs on marriage, trying to wring the last drop of heaven from our lives. No wonder we train ourselves to believe good partner-sense is a miracle.
The compensating joys of my good marriage have some drawbacks. Not insurmountable, but they do rankle. One is that most of my best, my dearest, my most loving friends and relations have not fashioned their lives to include good marriages. They have either not been successful or have wisely avoided the risk. I can relate to them, communicate with them, talk around our differences, but often I am lonely, set apart. I can rationalize the tradeoffs and I understand this is my own problem, my own difficult creature. The feelings, however, are yet to be resolved.
I enjoy my marriage and am aware of the emotional and physical energies invested toward making it a good one. Meanwhile, a certain assumption has motivated much of this process: some people need roles and other people accept lots in life. Society continues to suffer from assigning destinies, such as rich and poor, breadwinners and homemakers, priests and flocks. A dilemma to share.
I continue to suspect that some of the forces driving people into and through marriage are quite beyond control. Why are some unions good? Arguments and answers fail to convince me. I don’t know. I simply don’t know.
Marie H. Baldwin
This arrived too late for last month’s US deadline on Brothers and Sisters. Nonetheless . . .
My brother was waiting for me when I arrived into this lifetime. He had already begun setting the stage on which I would encounter many of the major lessons of my life.
My brother was my hero — a star in my skies, distant and bright; a star in my eyes, funny and warm.
As children, we were voyagers together in the strange world of our family. It was immeasurably comforting to have an ally in those murky seas of the Adults’ Relationships.
And as adults, realizing that the seas were still murky, we remained allies, learning a new vocabulary for a new age, but retaining the old needs for a lasting relationship.
It has been a karmic joy that my brother has been my brother and not “just a man.” No other vehicle could have taken us so far, so smoothly.
My brother and I live 150 miles apart now, but the light in his eyes is a beacon in the dark for me. We understand each other’s weaknesses (having the courtesy to overlook them) and help rekindle each other’s faith during the ever-present growing pains of life.
I grew up to be a teacher and he grew up to be an editor. I share my lesson plans on life with him, and he publishes my words when I can make his deadline . . .
I love you, Sy.