This is an open letter to my children.
Kids, probably the most pernicious lie in our culture is the idea that ‘Love conquers all.’ We see it all the time, over and over, so often that it is almost as if we are being brainwashed into believing that as long as we love each other, everything else is unimportant.
If that were true, why would we have to work so hard to make people believe it?
Let’s look at real life. How many of us know a couple that is truly, deeply in love, and despite that love, wind up breaking up? Both of the former partners are devastated by the breakup, and mourn the loss of their other half, but they remain separate. Or they get back together only to break up again.
Heck, the Beatles said that “All You Need is Love” and then they broke up forever.
The idea that love is all you need to have a strong relationship may be the leading cause of divorce in our culture because it creates a false expectation. Couples believe that the first part of the relationship, the honeymoon, will go on forever, and that if it ends, then the relationship must be broken. They place tremendous pressure on themselves and their partner to keep the honeymoon alive, placing it on life support long after they should have moved on into the deeper, more meaningful aspects of their marriage.
Because that is the other damage done by this lie; it prevents couples from moving deeper into their marriage, forging bonds that can withstand the worst of times in favor of a surface commitment that can be swept away like a house built on sand.
Don’t get me wrong; love is important. Love is the only reason y’all survived to become adults. But it is not the only thing a marriage needs and may not even be the most important thing. I’ve known several marriages where love was barely there but the marriage was strong in spite of that lack. It’s not what I wish for me and certainly nor for you; a loveless marriage can be a very empty place. The point is that while love is important, there are other things that are just as important for making a marriage work.
First of all, there’s commitment. If you go into a marriage thinking that if it doesn’t work, you can just get a divorce, save yourself the time and money and don’t get married because it won’t last. If you are already building an escape hatch before you get married, that is a sign that marriage is not the right option. Marriage represents a lifelong commitment, one that doesn’t end when things get rough.
Yes, I know. Your mother and I split up; aren’t I a hypocrite for saying this now? The honest answer is yes, I am. My marriage to your mother failed, and that means that I failed. I’m not going to make any excuses, accusations, or evasions. I failed.
But like every parent, I want you to do better than I did. I want you to understand what it takes from the start and to do better than I did. I don’t want any of you to go through the pain of ending a marriage, of failing to keep a commitment, because when you fail, when you break that vow, you lessen yourself. You lose something precious.
Sometimes it is necessary; I get that. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your partner doesn’t care enough to try. Anytime you are in a relationship with another person, you no longer have any control over the outcome. So I get it; sometimes things happen and marriages have to end. All the same, I want you to know that if your marriage is going to work, you must commit yourself to the marriage without reservation.
I know the question you want to ask; if I could go back and do it all over again, would I fight harder to keep my marriage alive. And the answer is absolutely ‘Yes.’ At the time, I thought I’d tried hard enough, and maybe I did. But while your mother and I did everything we could to protect all of you from the fallout of our divorce, I know you were affected, and not for the better. But it isn’t just for your sakes that I would have tried harder. Like I said, when you make a promise, and then go back on it, regardless of the reasons, you are diminished. A lot of time has gone by, and you have all grown up, and your mother and I have found happiness with new partners, but the single greatest regret in my life is that I made a vow to your mother and I broke it by getting a divorce.
Once you have made that commitment, now comes the work. Being married is not easy, even when you love each other. It takes a lifetime of hard work. You’ve heard people talk about how they got divorced because they ‘just grew apart.’ I’m here to tell you that’s garbage. A couple that is committed to each other will never grow apart because they will consciously make decisions that allow them to grow together. That doesn’t mean that they have to do everything together, or that they have to skip doing things that only one of them wants to do. That is a path leading directly to bitterness, resentment, and divorce. Growing together means including each other in your choices. If you want to go sky diving, invite your spouse. If they don’t want to go, and don’t want you to go because they are afraid you’ll get hurt, consider what is more important to you, the adventure and the rush, or keeping your spouse free from worry. By the same token, your spouse should evaluate their fear compared to your desire and decide which is more important to them. This is where commitment comes in to play. Make your commitment a priority and your spouse’s wants will become as important to you as yours are.
And vice versa.
Compromise is not a four letter word when it comes to marriage. In fact, a willingness to compromise may actually be the most important ingredient in a successful marriage. In the example above, a good compromise may be parasailing or hang gliding. They don’t give the same adrenalin rush as parachuting, but by the same token, you aren’t as likely to end up in the starring role at a funeral either.
But compromise is hard; it takes communication and pretty much, we all stink at communicating. Oh sure, we can talk all day long, and we know exactly what we mean when we say something, but if the other person isn’t listening, then we aren’t really communicating. We’re all good talkers but we could all use some practice listening. And listening isn’t just waiting your turn before you speak, and it isn’t composing a response to the other person while they are talking. Listening requires that you not only hear what they are saying, but you relate it to yourself. They are trying to present a point of view, and the only way you are going to understand is if you adopt that point of view, if only temporarily. You have to see things the way they do in order to truly hear what they are saying.
Only after achieving that understanding can you respond in a meaningful way.
The other piece to that is you have to say what you mean. Don’t be cruel, but be honest. If you are hurt, say so, and say why. You have to open yourself up and be vulnerable. For us guys, that’s tough, but I’ve come to suspect that, as much as they want to talk about feelings and such, it isn’t any easier for the girls. All the jokes about how “I’m fine,” or “Nothing’s wrong,” hide a kernel of truth. Girls can have just as much trouble expressing their emotions as boys, and that means that we all really have to practice the listening part even more.
But it would be nice if we could make things easier on our partners and just say what we mean, plainly, openly, and honestly.
So yeah, as usual, Dad has gone on and on endlessly and you have stuff to do and you want me close this up, and I will. I just have one more thing to tell you.
If you fully commit to doing the hard work that a successful marriage requires, if you make your marriage your top priority, then you will reap a tremendous reward. Because when the honeymoon is over, and the biochemical rush recedes, you will be left with something far deeper, stronger, and more satisfying. Your love will mature and you will become, as the Bible tells us, truly one flesh and one heart.
And that’s a good place to be.
UPDATE: Great minds think alike! NY Times blogger Jane E. Brody Posted yesterday “That Loving Feeling Takes a Lot of Work”