I was a minister for forty years. I must admit, when it came to marriage, by the end of my tenure I was growing pretty cynical. During pre-marriage counselling sessions, I often found myself hoping they might have a few good years. To tell the truth, I frequently looked at the women and thought, “What were you thinking?”
It is common knowledge that divorce is on the rise, and yet there is little genuine effort put into preparing our youth to be married. We simply repeat the ritual, talk about the importance of the vows, and hope for the best. Even the counselling sessions are too short and infrequent to make much of a difference. It would appear that we have grown callus about marriage, and developed a pretty fatalistic attitude.
Why? Because marriage is damn hard work, and requires radical acceptance, compromise, forgiveness, mercy, and change, none of which are celebrated by our culture. We are the culture of the quick fix - My my way or the highway; We've just grown apart; or I'm just no longer in love “love” with you. Suffice it to say, our excuses are myriad, and the culture enables them to be claimed with ease.
The bottom line is that marriage is a friendship first and foremost. Most couples cultivate the romance and sex long before they turn attention to being good friends. This is also complicated by having no time to be intimate, or to build a truly loyal friendship. We have little time to talk, or to share, or to work toward any understanding, let alone carve out a compromise. When success is our idolatry, intimacy is the price we pay. We make a good living, but fail to have the love required to make it a good life.
All marriages are made in heaven, or at least the seed of inspiration is made there. God is involved in at least one of the sparks that fly upward. There's always hope for a happy marriage. However, the efforts of being a couple are demanding, and will devour those who refuse to maturely address the issues. Add the ongoing pursuit of a fairy tale romance, which remains a major factor in the demise of many marriages, and you wonder how anyone can compete with the fantasy perfect partner.
So, what is my advice? Not much, just good old fashioned common sense and the discipline to do it and be it.
Take time to talk. I cannot believe the “ignorance” I find in so many marriages. I don’t know what you think. I don’t know what you feel. I hadn’t a clue you'd gone through that. No openness and sharing, and often with rigorous honesty, most marriages are lost causes. Our parents may have stuck around for the kids, but this is not true of us. Above all else, pay attention to one another. Stop! Look! Listen. Take notice!
I would also recommend fun. Not getting drunk on the weekend fun, but true enjoyment fun. Take some time to play, enjoy one’s home, one’s family, and Life itself. Chase beauty around. Have a gathering of good friends, and share good stories. Make a family scrapbook together. Make ice cream. Worship with folks who matter to you, and with whom you share a deep trust and respect. Make love in a hammock. Hold hands and take a walk. Grow a garden. Canoe or raft down a lazy river.
Create small rituals which encourage claiming all the good stuff in your marriage, family, and life. Not necessarily the big events, like birthdays or anniversaries or a graduation, but the day to day stuff. The ordinary is waiting to be transformed into extraordinary. These tiny rituals can lift us to higher ground, shift our perspective and restore us to a more positive attitude. Two examples I witnessed in my ministry...
I advised one couple to get up an hour earlier every morning, simply to share a cup of coffee and conversation in relative quiet. Yes, the initial resistance to the early wake-up call was pretty formidable, however, the rewards of sharing this time soon picked up the momentum. It felt good to talk and listen, and the sharing of needs, wants, wishes and goals, was a habit they had long ago forfeited. Soon they were thinking and acting and being a team. The badly frayed intimacy was mending. That coffee hour became a daily celebration, a spiritual discipline, a way of getting their marriage off to a good start most mornings.
I once asked a couple to hold hands and pray together. They looked at me as if I had asked them to take out their appendix with a shoehorn. I told them to simply try. The silence was deafening, but yielded amazing anxiety. Suddenly, the husband began to pray, and his honesty was an avalanche of worries and fears. His wife responded with a tidal wave of her own loneliness. The closing of eyes, holding of hands, and speaking to the Higher Power of Grace, had freed both to reveal the raw pain they were in. Prayer works. It works hard.
Marriage is difficult and demanding. It is daily. It requires incessant communication and forgiveness. It needs strong small support systems, ways of reminding us the relationship matters and we do care, and God does as well. Marriage is a minefield through which many of us slog. It has little support in today’s world, and many critics who are ready to pounce on its flaws.
BUT...this is a good slogging, well worth the effort, the sweat and tears, even the fury and frustrations. This is a slog which will make as mature, and enable us to become kinder, deeper, and far more compassionate souls. The marriage slog does lead to the mountain top. It is a long slow climb. We are seldom even fully aware of the incline. It is only when we arrive at the top, and feel the full satisfaction of the breath taking view, that we sigh and know it was worth every slow determined step.
Right after my father died, I made an upsetting comment to my Mom. I told her that I had never really talked to Dad. She promptly told me I was crazy, and that we talked all of the time. I clarified my remark by pointing out that though we often reminisced, spoke of the Packers or the then Milwaukee Braves, or about my grades in school, we never really talked intimately. She was appalled at the suggestion. I was certain I was being honest and accurate. She brought up her resentment of my remark at least once a year for the remainder of her life.
Still, I WAS telling the truth. We just never spoke of feelings or thoughts or beliefs, all of the stuff which makes us so wonderfully and painfully human. We stayed on the surface. Except for the sentiments he expressed concerning his homeland, England, I never knew what he actually felt about anything. His face and voice were a blank slate. Like the sky on a simmering one hundred degree day in August, his soul appeared to be a pale sickly grey lit only by a small lemon drop of sun. I am not sure there was all that much in there. He was spiritually, well, empty. He was full only when remembering, or when absorbing the love of his family or a few good buddies.
I regret this fact. I wish my relationship had gone much deeper. That our conversations had been longer and fuller, and filled with intimate details. I wish our talks had created tears in my eyes, or ignited gales of laughter. No such luck. It was just a steady drone of data, never anything of substance. There was certainly nothing of any eternal dimension. Ours was a chit chat relationship. It killed the time. Effectively, I might add. I do know I was guilty of never asking him a really good question. I wish I had known to do that back then. I may have known, but I never did it. I have no idea why.
I know now that I will never get that time back. Not ever. I will never recover the chance to get to know my Dad, or for he to get to know me. There will never be a long stroll accompanied by a tender thoughtful stream of words. I will never go on a car journey with him, and be forced to talk for hours on end. I will never get to tell him how I felt about him -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. And, likewise, I will never unpack his heart as to how he felt about me.
These black holes in our lives are damn tough. They are holes where starlight once shined, and a bright possibility flickered against a black velvet backdrop. It hurts to know inside when something is really and totally gone, has vanished, disappeared without a trace. We feel cheated. Empty. We sweat with the burden of an absence often larger than the presence had been. There is a sharp piercing ache of longing, and though it will not leave a scar, we feel punctured, as though we had paid a visit to really bad acupuncturist. That is how the soul feels – almost exactly.
I yearn some days to tell my Dad a good story about my life, my ministry, or his grandson. I have a deep desire to let him know I knew he loved me. I saw it when he wept when I got off the plane my freshman year for my fall break from St. Olaf College. I was so stunned. He pretended to be sneezing or something, but we both knew. I have little clues like that. A few morsels which have helped me locate fragments of my father’s heart.
Still, it is damn hard to admit your father never really knew you, and for the most part, remained anonymous to his son. It is a sad fact but true. That is just the way sometimes. In Life there are no real do overs. No mulligan second chances for the lousy golfers. No instant replay. There is just a shadow slogging by, leaving not a trace. Then it is gone.
There have been times when I have hoped I could follow the shadow down the path and into the woods. But, I know I would lose the trail as quickly as one loses sight of a scampering deer. Then I sigh. So it goes. We will never get it back.
Reverend William R. Grimbol has spent the past 30+ years helping people create and develop strong spiritual connections with loved ones and God. He is also a published author, with over a dozen books to his credit.