In praise of the tenacity of marriage

There was absolutely no way I’d marry young. Raised by a strong mother who endured a difficult marriage and divorce, I was in no rush to entangle my life with someone who might hurt and abandon me.

Image via Stocksy

At the small, religious college I attended, some girls joked that they were there to earn a “Mrs.” degree. I steered clear of them; their preoccupation with finding husbands seemed not only ridiculous but also pathetic to me.

And I had plans. After college, I’d go to grad school, write a novel, and take a job as an acquisitions editor at a publishing house. I’d get around to the “marriage and family” thing later when I was older and wiser and knew more about what to look for in a potential mate.

But then, like it so often does, life took me by surprise.

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At the end of my sophomore year, I broke up with my boyfriend. As much as I loved his intelligence, gentle spirit, and proclivity for faded flannel shirts and worn Levi’s, he had just graduated and began talking about the future. Our future.

“I need space,” I said. “And, anyway, I’m not getting married until I’m thirty. At least.”

Standing in the kitchen at my mother’s house, moments after I spoke those words, the wall phone rang. As my newly ex-boyfriend stood by, I answered. It was a guy I hardly knew asking me out to a movie. Feeling defiant, I spoke clearly into the handset, “Sure, I’d love to!”

The couples who last are the ones who work through the pain to a new place, a place of gratitude for what they really have together.

Three weeks later, my movie date asked me to marry him. The following summer, not long after my 21st birthday, we walked down the aisle.

Don’t worry—despite our whirlwind romance, I am not going to say that the 27 years that have followed have been nothing but wedded bliss. Like all of our long-married friends, my husband and I have our own habitual annoyances (Do you have to eat so fast?), predictable—if insoluble—outbursts (You don’t have any idea how much I’m doing around here!), and shriller moments of hurt and anger (Are you even listening to me?).

We’ve also confronted what has felt like real deadlock a few times over the course of our marriage, times when it has only been our marriage vows—later coupled with the fact that we have children—that have kept us together. One such time came at about the 11-year mark of our marriage. Swaying on a backyard tree swing with my best friend one night, I watched my husband moving around inside our house.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever feel anything for him again,” I said.

Ordinary couples work our marriages out privately—meal by meal, disappointment by disappointment, joy by joy, day by day, year by year. We rest in the security of an exclusive, long-term commitment.

The fact that we had two young sons and had a baby on the way, however, made me resolute: we had to work it out. I insisted that we begin marital counseling. If at all possible, my children would not experience the confusion and pain of their parents’ divorce. I knew how these had cast long shadows over my own life, and I wanted something better for them.

In a time when our identities were shifting and often obscured by the sticky and grueling realities of parenting young children, therapy reminded us of who we were, how our childhood wounds still drove us in our shakiest moments, and, thankfully, how much we loved each other. Therapy was hard work—vulnerable and tear-filled. We went weekly for several months, and I count it one of the wisest decisions I’ve ever made.

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I don’t remember everything our therapist said all those years ago, but his words at one of our sessions have stayed with me.

“We all think our marriages will heal our childhood injuries,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. “In every marriage husbands and wives must learn that instead of healing us, issues with our spouses actually open up our old wounds. The couples who last are the ones who work through that pain to a new place, a place of gratitude for what they really have together.”

That bad time did pass, as have others.

In many cases, staying together is the best solution if the marriage becomes unhappy.

The perhaps aptly named Dr. Carol Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, is the author of The Case for Marriage, a project that grew from a large research study she conducted with the National Institutes of Health.

Waite has said that “in many cases, staying together is the best solution if the marriage becomes unhappy.” She says marriages go through “bad patches” and that “dramatic turnarounds” are typical in marriages when spouses choose to stay and work things out. And why should they? Waite calls marriage a public health issue because married people, according to her research, live longer, are healthier, and have happier lives.

Whether her methodology, as some have suggested, is faulty—given that co-habitating couples often enjoy the same health advantages as married ones (and often wind up marrying each other; see Brad and Angelina)—it’s refreshing to hear good words about marriage in a culture that so often gives it a bad rap.

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The best endorsements for marriage are cold, economic descriptions of its financial advantages. The word itself gets politicized, and the very leaders who seem most ardent in their support of “marriage” and “family values” seem inevitably to be the ones whose ugly, hidden skeletons claw their way out of the cobwebs. We hear of (yet) another leader’s furtive, moral failings and sigh. No wonder marriage is in decline.

Meanwhile, ordinary couples work our marriages out privately—meal by meal, disappointment by disappointment, joy by joy, day by day, year by year. We rest in the security of an exclusive, long-term commitment. We raise children together, laugh over decades’ old jokes and the joy of shared memories and friendships, and open our home to those in need or transition, offering a safe place to land. But those aren’t the stories that make headlines.

It’s an art, not a science, to grow a healthy marriage, but now I know—or at least know more than I did years ago—that dry times pass, that certain topics will always scratch open old wounds in one of us, and that being married is the source of immeasurable growth, happiness, and meaning in my life.

I’m glad I said yes to that movie, so long ago.

Jennifer Grant
Jennifer Grant
Jennifer Grant is a writer and speaker in the Chicago area, the grateful mother of four, wife to bicycle-obsessed David, and the author of five books: Love You More, MOMumental, Disquiet Time, Wholehearted Living, and When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? Find her online at jennifergrant.com and on Twitter @jennifercgrant.

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