In the past few weeks, many people have asked my beloved and me for the secret of staying married. My husband likes to tell the story of the couple being interviewed on the occasion of the their 60th wedding anniversary. Asked for the secret of a successful marriage, the husband says: “Two words. ‘Yes, dear.’ ” The wife is horrified. “You can’t say that,” she objects. “That’s a terrible thing to say. Tell the people that you’re joking.” The husband smiles sweetly at her, and says, “Yes, dear.”
And I prefer the story of the elderly lady in like circumstances, asked if she has ever considered divorce. She smiles, and replies, “Divorce? No, never. Murder, sometimes, but never divorce.”
After 40 years, we can’t claim to know it all, but we think we’ve figured out what worked for us. We think it boils down to three things: a shared set of foundational values, mutual respect, and sheer stubborness.
A shared set of foundational values: by this, I mean wanting and being prepared to work and sacrifice for the same things. In our case, we shared a commitment to having and raising children, to making those children a priority in our lives. We agreed on putting our own relationship with one another ahead of our relationships with friends, other family, and adult children. We both believed in working through the hard patches. We shared a faith in God and in His self-revelation in Christ.
There were lots of things we didn’t agree on: I loved ballet; he loved opera. My idea of a good time was a cup of hot chocolate and a new book; his was a marathon through hill country. I read sf; he read biographies. I ate whitebait, which he abhorred; he ate broad beans, which made me feel ill. I was an Anglican; he was a Catholic. I dithered over decisions; he plumped straight for one thing or another. I was a daydreamer; he was intensely practical.
None of these were deal breakers. Though – as we learned to know each other – they were sources of many of our fights.
That’s where point two came in. Mutual respect. Simcha Fischer recently did a post called What is this thing called love? in which she describes what I’m talking about.
But gradually, over the years, we started to learn how to love. As we did, we both began to bend a little—to stop trying to change or work against each other, and instead to look for value in traits that were foreign to us. And in doing so, we both have changed—and we’re both better parents because of it.
Now I’m often the one who pushes, and he’s the one who wants to think twice. But our disagreements aren’t contentious—they’re almost pleasant, as we feel our way forward in foreign, interesting terrain. We’re both facing the same way: not squared off against each other, but standing side by side, squinting into the light, pointing out different landmarks on the horizon, trying to figure out the best road to take.
The term respect is often used to mean some sort of wishy-washy tolerance – “you’re wrong but I’m going to let you be wrong”. I don’t think that’s respect at all. As Simcha says in the passage above, it’s not just about recognising that the other person has reasons for what they say and do, but also about assuming that there is value in that position, trying to understand what it is, and trusting in the other person whether you can see the value or not. Mutual respect is vital for marriage.
Finally, sheer pigheadedness has its place, too. There have been times when we’ve clung onto our marriage by the skin of our fingernails – wanting the peace of being separate, in despair over the pain of being together, but convinced despite it all that we couldn’t be apart. No matter how bad the mutual wounding got, we knew the bleeding of the amputation of a separation would be worse. Each time we’ve come through such a passage to the other side, we’ve fallen in love all over again, and each time the bond has been stronger and more durable. Yes, we’ve sometimes stubbornly clung to one another against reason and comfort. In time, that clinging has brought us more comfort than separation ever could have; the results are reason enough.