Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Marriage, revisited

I recently had a conversation with Julie about marriage. Her question was whether we should reverence long-term marriages. It's a good post and a good conversation. Check it out if you haven't already.

My take, much distilled, is that marriage shouldn't be reverenced at all, but relationships need to be supported and nurtured. I also pointed out that for whatever reason, people still want/need long-term, committed relationships. We seem to be built that way. Whether it's family, friends, or lovers, we want people who will be in our lives for the long haul, and ending those relationships is extrememly painful.

Last night while I lounged on the bed sporadically reading my book, Iturned on the TV and caught part of a movie titled Shall We Dance? The movie is so-so, but it has an interesting message about marriage, midlife changes, and "finding yourself." (How cliche is that?) The character played by Susan Sarandon hires a private investigator because she thinks her husband is having an affair. The PI asks a rhetorical question at one point- "Why do people still want to get married?" Sarandon's character gives this answer, "People get married to have a witness for their life." She goes on to expand on that thought in a short monologue that I think is full of truth and insight. We live on a crowded planet. Marriage, or any long-term relationship, helps give our life continuity and meaning. Having someone witness our life helps validate it. I know as I get older the people who have known me for 10, 15, or even 20 years hold a special place in my life. They have the back story, they know the score, and they are still there. Witnessing my life, giving it meaning, supporting and loving me. In a society where other long-term relationships are fragile- community, friends, extended family- we want to think someone is committed to being there, not leaving, not moving away, but always there giving continuity to our days. Our lives are like art masterpieces that need viewers to appreciate them. What do they matter if no one is there to share the joy, beauty, and pain? Lovers, friends, families, communities all give our lives that shared meaning.

Why do people still hope and pray marriage works? At least partly because we want someone there to witness our life so we know it matters; that we matter.


Kansas Bob said...

Thought provoking for sure Carrie.

Maybe the focus on we in..
"we want someone there to witness our life so we know it matters; that we matter."
..is part of the problem. I think that, in a marriage, love either becomes selfless and sacrificial in nature or it fails altogether.

carrie said...

Kansas Bob- I was more addressing the motivations behind why people have a desire to marry, even when statistics may say marriage doesn't work well. I don't think we marry for selfless reasons overall. Honestly, if we married to be selfless and self-sacrificing, we would probably end up marrying very different people than we do. We marry to share a life with someone. In the out-working of that life, our love certainly has to be selfless or it becomes only self-serving.

On the other hand, I can honestly say loving Will isn't painful, sacrificial, or even all that selfless. He completes me, and loving him is loving myself and the family we've created. (I'm not just talking about children here, we're a family even without the children.) Loving him is the healthiest thing I can do for myself. If the situation happens that either of us has to give more outwardly in the relationship due to illness, accident, or other circumstances, there would certainly be a more sacrificial element to it. But even then I think it would be an outflow of what has gone before, like drawing on a well we've filled over the years.

I wanted to get married because I wanted to matter to someone. being important to someone helped me see my life had meaning. Maybe that's not PC. Maybe someone would say I don't have a healthy view of myself as a person. I don't know. I wanted a witness for my life, and I wanted to be a witness for someone else's life.

I realize the way I view this has everything to do with my own experiences. Those experiences include my previous marriage, my parent's marriage, and more tangentially, those of siblings and friends. Here at mid-life, I'm looking around trying to figure out why some marriages make it and some don't, and it's a lot more complicated than I ever imagined.

Thanks for taking the time to read and respond!

Kansas Bob said...

Nice response Carrie. I especially liked:
"He completes me, and loving him is loving myself and the family we've created. (I'm not just talking about children here, we're a family even without the children.) Loving him is the healthiest thing I can do for myself."
I have similar feelings.

So what do you say to the one that doesn't feel that way? Or what would you do if you stopped feeling that way? Is it possible to (re)capture that kind of love or do you just have to luck into it :)

carrie said...

Well, you asked the million dollar questions, and I don't know the answers. That's what's been on my mind lately.

Today I've been thinking about marriage the way I've been thinking about my faith journey, and actually the way I've been thinking about parenting and education as well. We start out with rules and they tend to be very black and white. It's okay to teach a child that they should never go out in the street by themselves. Then we teach them how to cross the street and they practice that skill. Then we allow them to make the decisions themselves about when and where they cross the street. (humor me)

I've been thinking my faith life has been similar. (This is worth of another post, really. It's a huge thing in my head these days.) We start with the rules, the black-and-white of God (the ten commandments, etc.). Then we move on to learning the virtues or disciplines: devotions, study, prayer, etc. (And this is where people get stuck, and when you get stuck here it's difficult to see God as anything more than a parent or teacher who you have to please.) Hopefully, we can move past the disciplines alone into the vast gray areas where God doesn't make sense or fit into boxes, and personal behavior isn't neatly regulated into easily defined actions: this is right and this is wrong. We learn to think ethically and morally and...gasp... differently depending on the situation.

Marriage is perhaps similar. It's right and good to start off with "rules." Good communication, selflessness, learning to give and take, learning to argue, setting aside specific time for evaluating, resolving issues relatively quickly, trusting, expecting the best, avoiding the blame-game, etc. Then as foundations are laid, you move into practicing the rules. A couple may want/need to seek counseling, marriage retreats, or other ways to help them understand and apply the concepts of good communication, etc. And again, hopefully a couple with move beyond the rules and practice to the place where security and trust are the cornerstone, and the relationship is like a dynamic dance instead of a by-the-numbers game.

Just as I think faith gets stuck easily in steps one and two, I think relationships do, as well. It seems people find comfort in patterns, routines, and rules. Add to that the complications of differing family background, personalities, hang-ups, ways of dealing with stress, etc., and many couples can't seem to make it. Sometimes patterns of behavior seem just too ingrained, and a couple can't get past them.

But I think there might also be something even more going on here. I think, just as with faith and education, we aren't always given the tools to go any further along the course to health and success. Are we actively teaching our children how to think about the world in all it's contradictions and complications? Are we actively teaching our young Christians how to ask questions without fear of reprisal and how to think through difficult issues of faith and/or morals? Are we actively teaching our children how to be successful in relationships? What it means to be in a healthy two-way relationship? How to give, take, argue, be selfless, protect themselves emotionally while also reaching out and being vulnerable? How to build trust and having expectations of that trust being returned?

Quite simply, we don't do a very good job of teaching our children how to behave as one of a couple.

As I watch (up close and personal) my daughter and son-in-law fuss and fume, and argue and make up, I realize you are quite right. Love is a sacrifice of self. But as much as I'd like them to treat each other the way Will and I do, I also feel they need to start with the baby steps, the "rules" as it were, and then live the rules until they become second nature. They can't skip them. So I advise Hannah on how to understand, give and forgive, and I advise Erik on how to understand, give and forgive. And I hope they practice that until it's a easy for them as it is for Will and I.

carrie said...

So I haven't answered your question, only brought up more questions. Every marriage that faces challenges will have a different answer. For some, it will be to work harder, go backwards, try to start over, or learn the skills. For others it will be time to stop and forgive and let go.


Sometimes I think it is all "luck,": like being born western, white and wealthy by world standards. And Lord help me, that scares me senseless. Not because I want to take credit for it, but because I want to think I can help my kids get here, too. And I'm so very, very grateful, and so aware that I need to pass on as much as possible the blessings I've been given.

Kansas Bob said...

Thanks for the great feedback Carrie. I like your thoughts about the journey from childhood to adulthood. I think that how a child loves is different from how an adult loves.. unfortunately many marriages are not reflective of adult love.