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Staying Married Isn’t Always Easy

We went to a small engagement party last weekend. By happy and improbable coincidence, the granddaughter of friends here in New Jersey is engaged to the son of my former business partner and his wife who live in California.

I like happy, and I like improbable. That sort of describes the way I fell in love with Patti exactly sixty-two years ago today—November 3, 1959. I had dropped by the apartment Patti shared with several other young teachers that had become a magnet for my buddies and me. That particular night, she and I found ourselves alone together. Only slightly acquainted at the time, we fell into a happy and improbable conversation that somehow plunged directly into exploring the meaning of life, expressing our most sacred values, and revealing our dearest hopes for our own lives. We had tumbled headlong into baring our souls to each other--pretty tender territory for twenty-three year-olds. Lost in the depths of our discoveries and revelations, we were oblivious to anything until the eventual realization that it was getting light outside. We had talked all night long, and suddenly it was time to stumble off for work, bereft of sleep but buoyed by each other’s spirit and visions.

Happily and improbably, we resumed the conversation the next night, and it, too, ran nearly all night long. Same thing the next night. And the night after that. And the night after that. And the night after that. And the night after that. And the night after that.

Yes. Eight nights straight. And somewhere on that eighth night I said to Patti, “You know we’re going to get married, don’t you?” And she replied, “Of course.” Three months later, we wed.

I delighted in what I saw in that newly-engaged young couple last weekend, and I found myself imagining the scintillating years ahead of them. Clearly, they are destined for limitless days of delight together. Oh, the joy that awaits them!

But that is the easy part. There will also be the days when they are tested as a couple, when their marital destiny will be on the line.

Early in my career, I was a college chaplain and parish minister who was sometimes asked to officiate at a wedding. On those occasions, I led the couple through in-depth pre-marital counseling sessions to ensure they really understood what lay before them. At the final session, I told them I would proceed to officiate at their wedding only on one non-negotiable condition: each one must pledge to the other, aloud right then, that if either of them ever expressed a request that they get marital counseling, the other would instantly agree, without any further discussion or conditions. No ifs, ands, or buts. The request alone was sufficient to justify picking up the phone and scheduling an appointment.

I don’t know how any couple can remain married for (as in our case) sixty-one years without some help. We have been surrounded for some fifty years by our “gang” of which I wrote recently (“Re-Friending Your Life”), couples who were equally committed to sustaining their marriages almost no matter what. But despite the modeling of our closest friends who, like us, regarded marriage and family as a sacred treasure, and the constantly sustaining support of Patti’s and my deeply held shared values, and our mutual devotion to the vows we spoke about for better or for worse, we have also found it essential on several occasions over the years to turn to professional counselors to help us understand why we weren’t getting what we wanted from each other and our marriage. And there’s no reason why anyone should be shocked by those disquieting periods, either.

Over the course of sixty-one years together, each of us has progressed through half a dozen phases as an individual. I’m not the same person at eighty-four that I was as a hustling young twenty-something, or an in-over-my-head CEO in my early thirties, or a risk-taking entrepreneur in my forties…not to mention being a father to three wondrous children who themselves were proceeding through thrilling and sometimes perplexing phases in their own lives. And did I mention that Patti herself enjoyed multiple chapters in which her own focus and her own professional career evolved as well? No wonder I realized some time ago that it was a little silly to expect so many dynamic variables to remain in perpetual harmony by themselves. They need coaxing.

During a weekend-long gathering of our gang at the time we were all entering our retirement years, we shared thoughts and images of how we were feeling about the changes we were experiencing. One friend created an image of a double helix, in which two independent strands intertwine in proximity to each other but are separate, linked together by something called base pairs at certain intervals. While only one of the twelve of us actually comprehended such scientific stuff, we all instinctively nodded in rudimentary understanding that the double helix is a pretty good depiction of a longtime marriage. Those strands elongate as we evolve into different people as individuals, and we do not and cannot continue to be linked by those base pairs unless we keep on reinforcing them by some combination of intuitive adaptation, cohort modeling, professional counseling, and dumb luck.

I don’t cite dumb luck cavalierly. Our gang originally comprised eight couples. One didn’t make it. Despite their both being supremely well versed in the dynamics of relationships, despite their both being seriously in love with each other, despite their having spent significant time with therapists working to save their marriage, they just kept evolving into two vibrant individuals no longer compatible as husband and wife. In what I would call a good divorce, they both eventually found wholly satisfying new life partners.

And so I do not discount dumb luck as a factor that carried Patti and me and the rest of the gang over the chasms not otherwise spanned by love, sincere efforts, and outside support. The rest of us never became perfect, but never became incompatible, either. I hope, pray, and expect the same will be true for the beautiful young couple we beheld last weekend.

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