In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I would gush on about my husband just a bit, share the adventure of our marriage and a bit about a conversation that grew from listening to a podcast.
A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were on a long drive listening to podcasts as we often do. Podcasts are one way we get to learn things that we never knew we wanted to learn. We have a short list of favorites that feed us tidbits of magic while we’re driving that then give us conversation starters for weeks to come. One we listened to happened to give us a lot of food for thought about our marriage.
Hidden Brain’s podcast on “When did marriage become so hard” was served up to us like serendipitously seeing a long lost friend in a market in a foreign country. This podcast, this conversation is about what we strive for, the gold star, in marriages. Of course, we want our marriage to be of this rare sort.
Just a bit about our family: we think we are special. We are special. We don’t do anything ordinary, according to us. We have our own special brand, our own flare, our own approach to life. And we think everyone should think they’re special. We think everyone is special. And we love to see and hear and experience other people’s specialness. We have other people’s gorgeous art all over our walls. We love stories. Music. Food. Out of the way special events. Anything weird, odd, unique, you. We love to share it. Special.
And in our world of special, building a special marriage is not easy. An everyday marriage might be fine, but we don’t know how to define that. We can’t understand it. So for us, marriage is a bumpy, hilly, winding road where parts have seemed to erode away faster than both of us could build berms. And at the same time, something has kept us together. My husband is incredibly handsome and funny, and smart and kind. He is dedicated and loyal. He is just a really really good person.
When we met it took only three months before I was ready to marry him. I knew he was worth the commitment the first time we talked. He was working as a mortgage consultant and commercial banker in our small town. I was a single mom with a four year old. Someone convinced me to talk to him and see if he could help me get into my own home. I finally agreed and walked into his office with no appointment. After a few minutes of talking, and me blushing each time he smiled, he finally said that I could not qualify for a mortgage. I tried to maintain my composure, but his next statement was “but I’d like to buy you a cup of coffee.” From there we joke that I didn’t get a mortgage, but I got a house and a husband from that meeting. He got a wife and a son. All in one year.
Back to the podcast . . . the point of it was that in fact, there’s evidence marriage is getting harder. Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, argues that’s because our expectations of marriage have increased dramatically in recent decades. “marriage that would have been acceptable to us in the 1950s is a disappointment to us today because of those high expectations,” he says. Finkel, author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.
In the podcast, Finkel talked about marriage like a mountain climber. As you get to the top of a mountain air gets thin, and you bring supplemental oxygen, warmer clothes. You have to train your body and mind to be ready for the climb. They try to make sure that they have enough resources so they can actually enjoy the view from the summit and not suffocate or freeze. They have to be in good enough shape to actually reach the top. The analogy to marriage is for those of us who are trying to reach the summit: we also have to train and prepare for the marriage we want. Finkel says marriages get in trouble and suffocate when they try to get to the summit and don’t have enough oxygen to get there. What a beautiful metaphor for being off road!
For my husband and I, we have never considered not being at the summit. But we’ve gotta talk about the challenges of the trail itself. And in real life that is a super complicated conversation. Even finding the trail. Bushwacking is tiring, but sometimes, when the trail is unclear or overgrown, it is the only way. So we just keep on.
In the fifteen years of our relationship, my husband and I have actually spent three years living apart. People have assumed that we were divorcing. But circumstances just called for it, and it made sense to us. Our families at different points told us to move on, and we finally realized that it is our journey and ours alone. We have kept working at it and trying to understand each other. We have also kept on trying to understand ourselves. We’ve had to train individually in order to be married. We had to understand as individuals how we were better people together. This requires great care and attention. Continually. And we have barely scratched the surface of figuring it out.
There have been times that each of us wanted to quit. But more times we wanted to keep on. And we’ve had courage. Loving takes courage. It truly is a courageous act to keep loving. Actively. And it is an awesome and life-giving gift to have the courage to do so.
At this point in our climb, my husband and I have learned that trusting each other is a choice that we make willingly every day. And we can do it without influence of those around us. About a year ago we decided to say “I trust you” instead of “I love you.” And this has made all the difference in the world. Love has never been an issue. But trust is a lesson for both of us. And at this point, that’s where our emotional energy is directed. Reminding each other to trust gives us permission to back off, give space and let go.
Who knows what the next lesson or training session will bring? But what I do know is that once we committed to being prepared for the summit, we both got it. It is hard work. Really hard work, but we have never been a family to shy away from something hard. Or from something exceptional. So in every way, it is a no-brainer for us. We just had to figure out how to get on our path.
There’s something really special that happens when you’re on a long hike. You begin to forget how long you’ve been hiking or how far you have to go. You begin to focus on the beauty around you at the moment. You begin to take in what’s right in front of you. You don’t really lose sight of the summit, but it takes on less immediate importance. The wildflowers or stepping stones or wind in your hair have an elevated status in comparison, and the trail itself is the destination. The walk itself is the place of special. I hope that this is what Finkel was talking about in the podcast, because this is what Ric and I get. We get that, on a fifty-year hike, it is really quite reasonable for it to take more than a few years to find a solid path to the summit. Perspective is everything.