It was a golden wedding anniversary reception to which members of the family had come as well as many neighbors, friends, and well-wishers. This elderly couple achieving fifty years of married life were generously congratulated, and at the moment of the formal presentation of numerous gifts and cards a voice from those who gathered around admiringly called forth, “Tell us how you stayed together so long.” There was a moment of silence, and as all eyes focused upon the happy celebrants, the wife reflectively replied, “Our marriage has had its ups and its downs, but we just kept working at it, and here we are.” The veiled humor of this remark evoked a restrained laughter, yet it must have been that many of the guests went home deeply stirred by the quick but truthful summary of staying married.
Students of contemporary life are acutely aware of what can be termed “the crisis of the family.” In the year 1900 one in twelve marriages ended in divorce. In the year 1912, one in eight; and today it can roughly be put at one in four. It is this widespread breakdown in the family and the mounting divorce rate which is causing people everywhere, married and single, to become concerned with this most profound question of our age.
There are many attempted answers, and there is a growing wealth of literature and subject matter becoming available. It shall be the effort of these words to point out some of the many ways in which some people seemingly are making marriage work for the wrong reason, though it is hoped that the conclusion will point to what is frequently overlooked as desperate people struggle with the afflictions of marital discord.
There are many marriages that when confronted with marital problems hang together with force of will attached to the marital vows. In hours of crisis their strength is in the remembered phrase “till death do us part.” There is amazing vitality in a vow when it is properly made, and many make vows as a unilateral pledge, not to each other but to God Himself, in whose presence they repeated the solemn vow. Such a concept of marriage will under the greatest strain and stress preserve the outward unity of marriage. In this sense marriage is a contract unrelated to the actions of either marriage partner. Yet when the inner health of marriage is considered, too frequently just vow-keeping seems to have lost all hope or interest in regaining marital health. It becomes resignation or a test of endurance. It must not be taken that every marriage does not need the strength and power which vow-keeping offers. The common fault is, however, the tendency to be more engrossed with the vow than the marriage. In true perspective it ought to be “the life more than meat,” the life of the marriage more than stoical duty to a vow.
A woman who was resigned to what she termed an unhappy marriage said, “I’d pack up and leave him now if it were not for the children.” There are many marriages experiencing discord which have reached this bitter conclusion. The life of the marriage is gone, but the shell of it remains as a shelter for the children. The tragedy of many divorces is the children, who, broken from normal moorings of childhood, drift into those disturbances of being which destroy personality. It is also common knowledge that the broken home is much in evidence as a major contributing factor to crime among children and youth. To face the problems of staying married, a basic consideration must be given to children. Yet, whereas it is noble to continue a marriage because of hardships incurred upon the children, even this does not come to grips with the neglected life of the marriage. As it has been said, “Our good intentions sometimes keep us from fulfilling our best efforts.”
Others when tempted to break a marriage have clung to economic security which a marriage can afford. Complaining one day, a disturbed wife ended her story of an unhappy marriage by saying, “Well, my husband is a good provider, so I guess I have no kick coming as to what he does otherwise.” Here is another wrong answer in staying married. In most instances this is the wife’s attitude when all other interest in marriage is gone. The need of economic security is a worldwide problem facing not just individuals and families but communities and nations. Certainly one of the functions of the family is to acquire subsistence for economic needs for the present and future; but when economic security becomes the sole factor for marriage, it too misses the words of Jesus, “Is not the life more than meat?” A hard-working husband is a blessing, especially when we consider the growing number of fathers across the nation who are wanted by the courts of law for failure to provide. Yet the security of a steady pay envelope must not be the first concern when faced with the problem of how to stay married.
Other homes are held together by the fear of loneliness. A lonely widow said one day, “It’s too late for me to marry for love; I just want a companion to spend these last years with.” The problem of loneliness is real, and to some people it is the greatest problem. Many marriages today are held together for no other reason than the fear of loneliness. Such homes are mere dwellings, and very little communication exists.
Still other marriages are held together by sex, others on family name or prestige. Others are afraid of what others will think. In each of these reasons are found aspects for staying together, but where any of these or others become the prime motivation in marriage, they are but second-best answers in facing the problem.
To actually come to grips with the realities of making marriage work, a wider frame of reference is essential. It is the life of the marriage and what diagnosis must be made not to keep it alive in any one part but to keep it alive in its entirety. Any shorter view will miss the mark, and hence it will miss the true answer. It is not enough to stake the permanence of marriage upon vows which must be kept, or for the sake of the children, or for economic security, or for any other one reason. The wholesome marriages which abound in our day and in days past are those which have been tended in every area. It is the whole life of the marriage, a life which is at once complicated and intricate; but those who with courage will face up to each discord as mature persons in the face of every threat will and do stay married.
The little bride of fifty years had the right answer: “We just kept working at it, and here we are.” To stay married successfully is a matter of working and re-working the problems which occur. There is too much of the senseless illusion that all there is to marriage is falling in love, having vows solemnized, and after the honeymoon somehow it will continue on its own momentum. It cannot be said too strongly that just as there is preparation for marriage there must also be preparation to stay married. No one expects to learn to play a musical instrument in ten easy lessons, and then to play with feeling the great works of the masters. Behind any great musician there are hours of work, hard work; whenever the habit of practice or preparation stops, the touch of skill automatically decreases. If this is true of all other great disciplines, why should it not be true in marriage?
No matter how loving two people in marriage may seem to be, there are continuing adjustments to be made. Sometimes, as is quite common, there are financial problems which do and will arise. There are a multitude of misunderstandings which can plague the most determined husband and wife. Yet it is only by patient working at the problem, a willingness to give and take, to overcome pride and false estimates of a husband’s rights or the prerogatives of a wife. These are but a few of the daily threats which like weeds in a garden can overtake a marriage if there is no working for right marital cultivation. Too often partners in marriage run instead of putting up a good fight. In a premarital conference with his minister, a young man said, “Well, if my marriage doesn’t work, I can always get a divorce.” Unfortunately this is the view of many who already are married. Why take time to make a marriage work when it is so easy to divorce?
A husband whose family life is exemplary before his community was asked the secret of his marriage. Said he thoughtfully, “My wife and I have thought of our marriage relations in terms of building bridges rather than walls.” In such a view it is the accessibility by a bridge of openness which in every area encourages communication and hence understanding. Where there are walls between a marriage, it makes for isolation, and eventually if not destroyed it tends toward spiritual if not actual physical separation.
For a successful marriage there must be a regular and systematic nourishment. Any love relationship will surely die if it is not properly nourished. Street-corner philosophers may advise, “Why chase a streetcar after catching it?” This may be true of streetcars, but in no sense does it compare with marriage. A husband of two years said to his wife after some disputes over finances, “You had better realize, darling, the honeymoon is over and we must settle down to the long grind.” There are stages through which a marriage must pass, but a marriage which has lost all sense of the honeymoon is a marriage in danger. There are many small and inexpensive ways to feed a marriage the necessary vitamins which it needs. This erases the taking for granted of each other, and keeps alive in husband and wife a daily appreciation of love for each other. It is the life of the marriage that is of greater concern than anything else.
Finally, it is observed that the life of any marriage is seen in the character of that marriage. It is fitting that at the end of the vows for marriage there is this wise admonition, the words of Jesus, What . . . God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
This is the matrix of the whole matter. If God has truly joined together a man and his wife, only a sense of God’s character can keep that marriage joined! “I am the . . . life.” It is precisely the life, the life of marriage, which is the key to staying married. The family is the foundation of human society, and God, the maker of all things, imparts His life into the family as nowhere else. A family which shares together God’s knowledge of Himself is a family which is tied together by more than vows or all else.
How to stay married? Work at it within your own heart, searching out every error, the plank in your own eye. Work at it with your marriage partner. Ezekiel by the river Chebar said, “And I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished.” Remember the joy of this work, a work at which we must just keep on working, ten years, twenty-five years, or as the little lady said, fifty years. In all this know that your work is not in vain, that there are resources greater than yours at hand, and there is an eternal love which will never divorce you!
Originally published in Message Magazine’s December 1958 Edition by Hamilton T. Boswell