For years, I've covered the unmistakable churnings and changes in the American family -- from nuclear to blended, from closed to open to international adoptions, interfaith and intercultural marriage, paternity leave and at-home dads, grandparents raising grandchildren, adult children parenting their parents, GenXers opting out of legal unions, gay couples trying to opt in, and the remarkable reality of 70-, even 80-year wedding anniversaries.
All of it fascinated me. None of it affected me personally, or so I thought. The noise under our own roof began years ago, a low rumble we ignored effectively. Kids keep couples busy. Jobs keep couples busy. Societal and familial pressures keep couples busy, and married, too. But as building-better-marriage books and, later, books about a new kind of divorce calling for collaboration and co-parenting crossed my desk for review, I read them in a different light.
As our children grew older and the rumble grew to a roar, we panicked and leaped into a painful and painstaking search for answers to so many questions. Did we just suffer from lousy communication? Was our struggle acute and temporary, or chronic? As one therapist suggested, "Has the milk been out too long?" With no affairs, abuse or addiction to report, did we expect too much? Yet, how long can two good people run on emotional empty before somebody tries to fill up elsewhere? And what about our precious children?
Those who charge that couples like us take marriage vows too lightly, especially when kids are involved, are dead wrong. The reality of stepping out, of handing back the dream and, most horribly, destroying our children, threatened to undo us many times. In the end, we decided that staying was riskier than leaving. So we moved slowly forward, always with an eye on our kids.
And then, last week, this, from the new book by Krista Tippett, host of NPR's Speaking of Faith:
Sometimes I have had a feeling — and I had this in my marriage to Michael — that God throws out the occasional wild card, almost a dare — try this if you will; I will bless it; it is rich with possibility; it will not be easy. And in the case of my marriage, Michael and I failed to carry it through to the end. We lost the dare. That might sound like I experience my marriage as a mistake, and that is most definitely not the case. Our amazing children are the best proof of the blessing, of the real sacrament, that grew from our marriage.
I am now divorced, a word I never thought would apply to me. I did not go into my marriage lightly, and it ended only after years of struggle to repair the brokenness between us. It ended with the end of hope, I suppose, and a conviction that God would not require me to live permanently with disrepair at the center of my life. These years onward, Michael and I have learned to honor and love each other practically as parents to our children.
Reading these experiences by two different women, I can't help wondering: What is it that makes or breaks a marriage? Why did these women's marriages break apart when people like my parents, who have certainly faced their share of hardships, are still together and going strong? I am sure few people ever enter marriage lightly, expecting it to end in divorce. Yet we all know the statistics. And sometimes, the people who end up getting divorced surprise me. A reporter I used to work with in Mississippi had what I imagined to be the perfect marriage, so I was shocked, totally, when I heard they had split. But we cannot know what goes on under the surface. Marriage works in mysterious ways.
For some couples, the culprit is something obvious, like money or religion or sex or addiction or adultry. Some say they are no longer "in love." (Though doesn't the nature of love change over time, and don't we learn that love is also an action?) Some say they grow apart, interests and outlooks diverging until there is no glue left to hold them together. For others, it seems, it is something insidious that lurks beneath the surface for years until it's too late. Gail Rosenblum described it as a "low rumble" that she and her husband were able to ignore. Krista Tippett described it as a sort of "brokenness." I wonder if the seeds of the disrepair began as something so small that they didn't even notice until the seeds took root and grew into something uglier, like the weedy plants that try to worm their way up through our patio cracks every year.
I am really happy with the marriage that Stephen and I have built over the past four years. I think it rests on strong foundations. But we aren't relationship experts, and we aren't saints — and we aren't perfect. Occasionally we disagree, we argue, we accidentally hurt each other's feelings. We make up and talk through it, although sometimes it takes me a few days — several levels of making up — to fully heal and feel like we are back to normal. (I am writing from such a place, though we are mostly back to fine.) And whenever I read accounts like these, it scares me a little. It gets me (over)analyzing the things that occasionally disrupt the good mood of our marriage and wondering if we will look back on them later as the seeds of something larger. Yet I have to remember: My parents argue, too, and every couple has their unique share of conflicts, and the relationship experts say it's how we work out the conflicts that sets the tone of our marriage as much as anything else.
Having a baby requires us to be even more intentional about our relationship, too. It's so easy to fall into our roles as parenting partners and let our other roles — friend, lover, husband, wife, supporter, movie date — take the back seat. It's a balancing act, an adjustment, that Stephen and I are still figuring out as we go along, still early in this journey of parenthood. In that respect, I can see, as Gail Rosenblum points out, how a couple with several children could get along for years without nurturing their marriage and not notice it cracking at the seams.
Of course, I share these stories with Stephen, too, and we talk about them and agree that it's essential to nurture our relationship (even if it means leaving Daniel with babysitters at the height of his stranger anxiety — so hard!) and address any potential "termites" in our marriage before they chew up the foundation. And I think we do a good job of managing conflicts as they arise — baby and all. And yet, and yet ... we are only human, and this thing called marriage seems like such a mystery sometimes — I love the way Krista Tippett describes it as a dare from God. Such a leap of faith, requiring much optimism and not to be taken for granted.