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Writer finds a happy marriage is pretty good


It’s beginning to look like summertime. The lilacs are in bloom, the skies are cloudless and the wedding invitations are trickling in. Other weddings always transport me back to my own wedding day in July 1988 at a Jesuit parish in downtown Detroit. Yesterday I dusted off the photo of my husband and me with our families in our finery on a hotel balcony across the street from the Renaissance Center in a part of Detroit’s that was being reborn. Perhaps the location of our wedding party was auspicious, for, as I’ve discovered in the ensuing 12 years, a marriage must be born again and again.

I think my own marriage is not half bad. (That’s Minnesotan for really good.) Ben, my husband, and I have endured career crises, made children, mourned our dead, felt screaming rage, physical desire, gentle forgiveness -- but never stony indifference -- toward each other. And, God knows, we share a checkbook. I laugh at my husband’s antics (usually); he gets my plays on words (mostly). Despite or maybe because of all that, I think we recognize in each other a sacred intimate, someone John O’Donohue, author of Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, would call a “soul friend.” O’Donohue says the overworked word relationshipas used and abused in popular discourse doesn’t signify what the “sacred language of the soul” refers to as the real need one person has for another, a coming together full circle from “an ancient longing” into “one house of belonging.”

Yet, marriage is not only about the ethereal, it is about the real. Committed couples must persevere through the hard times when the money’s tight, the morning commute intolerable, and the meatloaf and mashed potatoes uninspiring. The hard facts remind us that the B-side of Mendelssohn’s wedding march is a divorce dirge: Half of the marriages in this country end in divorce. It’s a mind-numbing statistic. Divorce isn’t random, but it’s revealing, and it happens even to people who seem to have their act together.

We all know of marriages from hell, and when these die, we may feel only relief. Yet other unions begun with “white lace and promises,” as Karen Carpenter warbled from my AM/FM radio circa 1970, end more ambiguously, with one partner filling cardboard boxes full of paperweights, pillowcases, CDs, and half the silverware and dishes -- and wondering what exactly went wrong.

Some people marry for the wrong reasons: peer pressure, family pressure, wanting to beat the biological clock. Some suffer from abuse or infidelity. Some have divorced a spouse who was incompatible and unwilling to shore up the marriage’s infrastructure, and gone on to make wonderful, life-giving second marriages. But others repeat their mistakes: Many marriages that end in divorce are not first marriages. I guess some couples just don’t have the skills, support or self-knowledge to make a marriage thrive through the dry seasons, so what began with hope ends up dead on the vine. And if the grass seems greener in somebody else’s marriage, it’s probably because it’s better watered and more carefully tended.

I don’t think we do enough to reinforce the reality that a wedding isn’t an end in itself; it’s a beginning. Don’t get me wrong -- I love a good party -- but a wedding and a marriage are two different things. Our current Catholic practice of preparing couples for marriage at least alerts young fiancés in the throes of planning their big bash to the mundane realities of the post-honeymoon stage -- finances, conflict resolution, having children, decision-making. Couples are usually required to complete some kind of preparation course facilitated by professionals and experienced married couples. But after the wedding, we push them out of the nest and say, “Fly. Goodbye and good luck. We’ll look for you again when your first child needs to be baptized.”

Every marriage has its betrayals and reconciliations, its desolations and consolations. And this is where the grace that is present always in the sacramental view of marriage -- even in the most difficult moments -- helps to rebirth that original love that recognized in you what you recognized in me.

I have recently read two takes on the role of religious ceremony in marriage-making. A letter to TheNew York Timesproposed that all civil marriage be abolished and those couples who wish their union blessed by their deity and religious community can do so. And William Stringfellow in his book Instead of Deathsuggested that all couples make a civil union to satisfy the legalities; then those who wish can go and get their unions blessed by their church -- none of this church standing in for state business. Either way, it puts the onus on couples to ask for religious marriage as a blessing, a conscious choice by a couple to invite their community to call them to accountability, and to ask for mentoring and support in their ongoing union. It’s a start not only to completing the circle of belonging, but to widening it as well to include, one hopes, children, friends and family, one’s surrounding community, and the poor and unloved.

In the film “As Good as It Gets,” Jack Nicholson’s mentally ill character says to Helen Hunt’s character that his esteem for her inspires him to take his meds; even though he hates to conform to doctor’s orders, he knows it helps. His explanation is the highest compliment he can think of: “You make me want to be a better man.” My universal wedding wish is that all couples become better people, and the world a better place, for having each other to love and trust as friends and companions for the journey. Trust me, as good as it gets isn’t half bad.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2000