I was happy to meet with the couple. They were looking ahead to their wedding anniversary. They wanted to do something special.
When they first got married, they didn’t have a great deal of money. Complicating matters, one family didn’t approve of the union. They had a small ceremony and went to a favorite restaurant for dinner afterwards. For their anniversary, they wanted to renew their vows and have a party to celebrate their relationship. They asked if I would officiate. I agreed.
As we worked out the details of the ceremony, they said that they wanted traditional vows, but with a few changes. They would “love and honor” but weren’t comfortable with a promise to “obey.” That wasn’t very surprising. Even when this happened, around 1985, many couples avoided obedience as a wedding vow. What surprised me was another change they wanted. It was clear to me that they had discussed it and came to this decision very deliberately. They would not make a promise to be together “as long as we both shall live.” Instead, their commitment would be “as long as we both shall love.” This was the first time I worked with a couple who was clear with each other that their marriage may not be permanent. In fact, they were allowing for a significant condition in the vows: romantic love.
The truth is that most couples go into marriage with conditions. When doing premarital counseling, I always ask about the conditions. The most common one is sexual fidelity. Sometimes, physical abuse is stated as a deal breaker. That’s often true if a member of the couple came from a family in which physical abuse occurred. Over recent years, it’s become more common for couples to include love as a condition for marriage, and by this many seem to mean romantic love.
I want to be clear that I’m not attempting to take a moral high ground on this topic. I am not saying that couples should stay together no matter what. My position is definitely not one of sexism: that a woman should stand by her man come what may. Instead, I’m attempting to articulate what seems to me to be a clear change in values about long-term marriage. With approximately half of marriages in the United States ending in divorce within seven years, many people enter marriage with an expectation or, perhaps, a suspicion that the union won’t be permanent. My experience in working with couples is that at least one member has a condition that must be met in order for the marriage to continue. As someone who prepares couples for marriage, I think it’s important that such conditions be acknowledged so that no one is surprised when the conditional line is crossed.
In the face of conditions, my question is this: how do couples stay together for the long haul? What makes a marriage last and endure?
My mother had what seemed to me to be sound advice. She was married twice. Her first marriage was turbulent. On several occasions, she went back to her parent’s home and thought about leaving her first husband. That would have been in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when divorce was not socially accepted. Her first husband died unexpectedly in a work-related accident. Some years later, she married my father. Later in life, my mother shared with me that she and my father had one rule in their marriage: never say the “d” word. In other words, divorce was not an option. They agreed that no matter what problem they experienced, they would not look to divorce as a solution. Instead, their commitment was to work for a solution to problems together.
While I’ve only been in a long term relationship for ten years, I recognize that we’ve beat the statistical odds for longevity among American couples. Most couples today don’t last this long. We’ve had significant obstacles that several people assured me would be practically impossible to overcome: differences in age, culture, family background, and citizenship. We each also have some very different areas of interest, so we also spend time apart. These things have been challenges at times. But our commitment is to work together to find solutions to our problems, to make our way through life together. That’s not always easy. We’re both strong willed people who are convinced as individuals that we’re each always right – and we’ll both let you know that without much hesitation. That means that accommodation for the other is very deliberate. But we believe that we’re better together than separate. It’s also not about romance. (Those who know us would never call us a romantic couple.) However, there’s a deep commitment to each other that is very real. For my part, I think I learned of this kind of commitment from my parents.
Because one isn’t in a long term relationship or marriage doesn’t mean that there is a failure. At the same time, one needs to be clear what conditions are placed on the relationship and whether there is an expectation about its endurance. It seems to me that people often live up to their commitments, including when they say a commitment is limited by a particular condition.
That was the case of the couple who wanted to renew their marriage vows for their anniversary. It was a great day of celebration. But a few years later, they broke up. I ran into each member of the couple separately after the break-up. One said, “I realized we just didn’t love each other, so it was time to move one.” But the other one told me, “I still can’t believe she left me after all these years.” Perhaps the change in vows to “as long as we both shall love” wasn’t noticed by most people. Yet, looking at the relationship as not needing to last appears to me to have set the conditions for a break-up.
The lesson here? Perhaps it not very profound. But there does seem to be a fair amount of discussion in society about the divorce rate, wondering why it’s so high. I think it’s pretty simple: people generally don’t expect marriages to last and so marriages don’t last. While there are many sociological factors that shape this reality, ultimately the social values about long-term relationships have changed. From my perspective, it’s not so much about being good or bad; it’s simply something that is. Yet, within the context of evolving social values, when making commitments to others, it helps to be clear of our intentions and limitations.
© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.