Can Marriages Really Last a Lifetime?

My Parents’ Marriage

For the first half century of my life, the end of summer meant one last celebration before summer was officially over –  My parents’ lifetime promise to one another, their wedding anniversary, August 31. They never commemorated it by going out just the two of them, but always at home with their children. As we grew older, my siblings and I would take the planning for the evening into our own hands. My brother John, born twenty months after me, and I took the lead. Our dad was a great cook and John followed in his footsteps. My main task, with the help of over willing younger sibs, was baking and decorating the cake. Because this occasion had always been a family feast, I was a teenager before I wondered why Mom and Dad didn’t chose to celebrate their anniversary in some more romantic manner.

Just you and me

Jule kisses Jay on NYE With few exceptions, from our first anniversary to our fiftieth, my husband Jay and I marked the day of our lifetime promise, December 19, with “just-the-two-of-us” dates.  The first exception was our sixth, the day we brought our second child, our daughter Carrie, home four days following her birth.  That lovely evening was still a quiet, intimate affair, shared only with the baby and her eighteen-month old sister. I sat in a comfy old high-backed upholstered chair, nursing the baby. Jay light the fire in our tiny fireplace and popped the cork on a bottle of champagne. He gathered Kristy in is arms. We sipped our wine and gazed at the fire, content with our laid-back salute to our love, which at that moment seemed best embodied in the reality of the two little girls on our laps.

romantic getaways

Yet, the date continued to be one that over the decades we chose to “get Jule and Jay on cruiseaway” to celebrate.  Sometimes, while the children were very young, the get away was simply dinner at a restaurant with food and ambiance the children couldn’t appreciate. Many years, we extended that into staying overnight in one of Chicago’s better hotels and spending the whole shopping on our beloved Michigan Avenue before dinner and a show.

Jule and Jay in ParisAs the kids and our marriage matured, to celebrate our promises to each other we fled our hometown. We took a train to New Orleans for our tenth anniversary and flew to Paris for our twentieth. Then, we were tragically grounded on our thirtieth by the accidental death of two of our closest friends. A funeral is a sobering way to commemorate an anniversary, but it most definitely strengthened our gratitude that we still had each other and could hope for many more years together.

holding it all together

Jay and I had not consciously decided to observe our anniversaries differently Jule and Jay at breakfastthan my parents had celebrated theirs. We just did. Now, as another summer ends, I remember as I do every late August my parents’ marriage. I suspect that many newlyweds felt as we did when they make that initial lifetime promise.  We see our parents’ marriage as somehow staid and boring. Or maybe, as lifeless and hostile. As kids, maybe we witnessed arguments and saw tears. Young and idealistic, we vow that the romance will never die in their relationship. We will always love one another as completely as we do today and with the same amount of passion.

what exactly is marriage?

Easier said than done, right? Was my marriage really that different than that of my parents? Or do all marriages simply follow a similar pattern of beginning on high hopes that fade as the years go by and we could no more escape that fate than escape the wrinkles and grey hair than came with the ensuing years? Can any promise really last a lifetime?  I don’t have a universal answer to the second question, but I have pondered the first and my honest response is that our marriage has been a very different he experience than the one my parents lived.  At the same time, many aspects of it are not just similar but almost identical.

Marriage is a complex social contract. If we look at the history of marriage, we see that before the modern era, it was an agreement between families rather than between individuals. One of its central purposes was to bring stability to society at large, not to provide happiness or fulfillment of any kind to the couple. I want to avoid swirling down into a sociological/historical treatise here (something I’m easily drawn to). So, I’ll just say, that the marital contract of our time has evolved into two-person covenant, a promise of fidelity and love “until death do us part.”

a social contract

As we go about choosing a mate and promise ourselves to them for a lifetime, that’s the pledge that fills our consciousness. But, just outside our peripheral vision, the ancient social contract remains intact. When we say, “I do,” we are still vowing to contribute to the joining of two families in a manner that will contribute to the stability of society. That is a big task, made even larger because most young couples don’t realize just what they have promised until they are smack in the middle of it. Creating a stable base unit within the social order requires complex time management and careful financial management.

“Adulting,” as it is now popularly called is tough work for any individual human being. It becomes much more complex when two people must manage the multitude of grown-up responsibilities at the same time in the same place.  If this doesn’t sound romantic, it’s because it isn’t.  The couple, who has promised to “love and cherish,” wasn’t thinking of doing dishes and balancing check books. But nonetheless they’ll spend more time on those two activities than they ever will having sex.

My parents could not avoid the move from couple in love, swept along by the At Clinton Inaugurationforce of passion and romance, to married pair, properly feathering a nest – nor could Jay and I. In that way our marriage were similar. Like my parents and like Jay’s, we worked and budgeted our income, we bought and furnished houses, we beget and cared for children. We belonged to communities and made friends. Those everyday activities of the stable base unit of society repeated themselves from one marriage to the next in our families.

mission: intentional commitment

DePaul CentennialIn one important way, our marriage differed from theirs. From the beginning, we strove to keep our relationship intentional. Deep, abiding love for one other person above all others is not easy to maintain for a lifetime. You have to fight for it.  There are far too many reasons promises can slip away or even be snatched from you. Most of us develop other passions over the course of our life.  We love our children to the moon and back. A hobby like gardening or painting absorbs our souls and frees us from stress. Our profession prospers and demands almost constant attention. A volunteer activity desperately needs our help. Some one new and exciting becomes attracted to us.

Marriages, like that of my parents, lasted through the force of society’s will and expectation.  That is no longer true.  Divorce in no longer frowned upon, but considered the reasonable decision in many situations.  If a couple wants to stay in love, they have to choose it against all odds.  They can’t just assume that if it’s good, it will last on its own.  At lease, that’s what we have found. Like any living thing, love thrives on nurture and nurture takes time.

For us, that has meant both a commitment to spend time alone together and to spend time with other couples who value their lifetime promise as much as we value ours. Being alone together out of the house lifts our spirits. It’s fun to put space between ourselves and our responsibilities.  And when someone is your regular companion for having a good time, it’s easy to feel caring toward that person.  Add to that the intention of love – and voila! Romance – even at the garden store. The exercises on “For Better or Worse,” a page on this website address the subject of intentional relationships.

We enjoy a diverse group of friends, married and single, young and older, but CFM meetingthrough the years regularly gathering within our faith community with other couples committed to intentional marriage gives us a chance to talk about love and committed relationships, the ups and the downs in an honest way not available in casual conversations. These deeper dialogues help us work through some of the thorny issues of our own relationship and have served as an anchor for us over the years, especially when we were working our way through some tough times.

To those friends, if any of you are reading this, I say “Thank you so much.”

What do you think? Can the promises made on your wedding day last a lifetime? Why or why not? Let me know. 

  “Some people ask the secret of our long marriage. We take time to go to a restaurant two times a week. A little candlelight, dinner, soft music and dancing. She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays.”
Henny Youngman