Marriage as a Discipline…


Happy Valentine’s Day!

I want to take this opportunity to write something about marriage that you do will not read about in the superficial and unrealistic cards that have to be plowed through in order to find one (if you are lucky) that you are not embarrassed to give. You will never see mentioned the fact that  marriage needs to be a discipline if it is going to last; sounds so unromantic.

While it is true that only 7% of marriages today reach the 50 year mark, there are certainly a lot of things that necessitate against long-term marriages, not the least of which is death. However, one factor rarely considered is the lack of a disciplined commitment. I write this blog cognizant that many of my divorced sisters and brothers may feel discouraged by what they read. Please understand that my intention is to challenge all of us (especially myself) to recognize the seriousness of our marriage vows, even if we have been divorced and remarried. Sadly, our culture has undermined such seriousness.

Karl A. Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University and professor of gerontology in medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College, has done research examining how people develop and change throughout their lives. In a recent set of studies, Pillemer decided to find out what older people know about life that the rest of us don’t. This project led to the book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans (Penguin/Hudson Street Press, November 2011). Much of this advice had to do with marriage. I have distilled his findings as follows:

In my efforts to understand the elders’ view on commitment, I came to a revelation. They were talking about marriage as a discipline As that word is used in fields from spiritual development to business management, it does not have anything to do with the idea of punishment– far from it. Rather, a discipline, is a developmental path where you get better at something by mindfully attending to it and by continual practice. Most important, it is a lifelong process—you don’t “arrive” at success, but rather you spend your life mastering the discipline. In all disciplines—from learning a martial art, to running a marathon, to meditating—short-term sacrifice is required to reap the long-term rewards from your effort.

When the elders talked about commitment, it’s this kind of discipline they have in mind: persevering, working out creative solutions for problems, and seeking help when necessary. The mental image of a lifelong commitment—where it is not easy to get out—makes partners work intensely to overcome challenges. Lora, 70, told me:

“My generation was not accepting of divorce, and my husband and I were of that mindset. Because that wasn’t an option in our mind to separate, you really figured things out. It wasn’t, ‘Well, it’s not working out and I’m not happy right now. Let’s give up.’ It wasn’t an option, so therefore we needed to figure things out.”

Sheldon, 88, whose marriage went through difficult periods, agreed:

“We have had some pretty hard arguments, believe me. You’ve got to deal with it and not to have in the back of your head that you’re going to split. You’ve got to get that out of your head. That whatever it is that goes on, you’re going to stay together and work it out.”

And the elders are clear that no one can make a commitment at a single point in their lives, then simply relax and forget about it. Commitment is enacted every single day, as part of the discipline of marriage. Mae Powers, 70, also had a rocky road in marriage, but chose to remain in the relationship for 42 years. She eloquently summed up the meaning of commitment this way:

“It’s continually committing, actively deciding to stay together. During the rough times, you have to decide to recommit yourself to the relationship. My husband and I joke about having ‘gotten married’ many times. Things happen that cause people to question their relationships, and then they have to make a decision to recommit or not recommit, and how to recommit if they decide to do so. So when I recommit to staying together today after a huge blow-up, it’s with the knowledge of all of those limitations and what I have decided I’m willing to live with.”

Searching for a way to characterize this attitude among the elders, I found myself using the word spirit. That is, many of them have a spirited approach to the discipline of marriage, to get better, to forgive, and to innovate. There’s a spirit of initiative to overcome problems and an indomitable attitude to move on despite problems.

Sound idealistic? For me, seeing was believing. Nothing convinces you of the value of making a lifelong commitment like being in the presence of couples who have done just that. Most people who make good on the “marriage is for life” assumption freely admit having considered splitting up at least once over the decades (and often more than once). They’ve lived through sloughs of unfulfillment, periods where passion waned and nothing appeared to replace it, and bouts of simmering resentment. But they hung in, they endured, they worked feverishly on the relationship – and they won out in the end.

They won out by reaching a level of fulfillment that is difficult to describe. I’ve introduced you to a number of such partners in this book, and perhaps you have seen it in an older couple you know. When you are in the presence of two people who have weathered life’s predictable and unpredictable storms together and emerged as true and inseparable partners at the end of life, there’s a feeling of “Ahhh, so that’s what it’s all about…” I had the opportunity to observe this apotheosis of married life many times, and each time I came away inspired and enriched.

Because when people make it the whole way, it’s so good that it’s better than almost anything else you can imagine. It’s better than the titillating excitement of dating, better than the heart-pounding passion of a new relationship; yes, even better than the mid-life lure of trading the old spouse in for a new model. It’s good enough that it may inspire you to give your marriage a second, third, or fourth chance. Because to wind up at the last years of life in the arms of someone you fell in love with 60 or 70 years ago is sublime. It’s a part of a well-lived life that is so transcendental that for many elders who are there, it defies description. I learned this from the elders: there are some life experiences for which you need the whole thing to reap the benefits – marriage is one of them.

I believe that such a perspective exemplifies God’s meaning for marriage–it is a faith commitment that excludes all alternatives. However, there is an additional layer that we need to speak about as Christians. I believe that the overriding reason for me staying in my marriage together is because I want to please the God who made me and loves me in Christ, and who said “I hate divorce.” (Malachi 2:16)

Thus my continuing commitment to my wife of 44.5 years is not just to provide a stable example for my kids and grandkids or to maintain my ordination and the ability for me to minister in a church, but because it is my duty and responsibility before God and a gospel witness to the world that Christ will never divorce the one who trusts in Him.

Gary Thomas in his excellent book Sacred Marriage (Zondervan, 2000) issues this challenge: In a society where relationships are discarded with a frightening regularity, Christians can command attention simply by staying married. And when asked why, we can offer a platform of God’s message of reconciliation, followed by an invitation: Would you like to hear more about that good news of reconciliation?