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On Marriage

This post is part of our Love Symposium. An introduction to the symposium can be found here; all of the posts written for the symposium can be found here.

My parents divorced when I was six, at a time when divorce among Catholic families was still a rarity. I often felt like a curiosity among my classmates, of whom only a couple of others had experienced the same thing. I never had any fantasies of my parents getting back together. I remembered the fights and I had no interest in reliving those moments. If anything I had hopes my mom would remarry because I worried about her being lonely but she always made us feel as though having her three children was enough. Her love then (and now) for her children seemed to define her. I think she was determined to love us enough for two parents and she did a pretty great job of it.

I made my peace with having divorced parents and actually came to enjoy the opportunity to live a dual life as suburban kid by week and country boy on the weekends. Of course I missed certain things growing up. My father’s love for us was obvious but he had difficulty expressing it at times. We spent less time with him that I would have preferred. I remember sitting on the bench crying at a Little League game because he was supposed to be there and he wasn’t. I also made up an imaginary friend once that was not my age but an adult, also a welder like my dad, and drove a pickup truck. I don’t need a therapist to tell me that this was a coping mechanism. But my sadness came in brief moments and luckily my occasional need for a male presence in my life were filled by a grandfather who was loving, wise, and always there when I needed him.

In my anecdotal experience, children of divorce often go in one of two directions. Some decide that marriage is a waste of time, have commitment issues and find the search for lasting relationships to be difficult. Others come to believe they can succeed where their parents failed. They want to believe they will find the perfect partner and have a lasting marriage. I fell into the second camp.

For as long as I can remember I wanted to be married. Growing up I was girl-crazy. I loved romantic comedies. I watched Friends for all of those years because I was rooting for Ross and Rachel. It’s the same reason I watch The Big Bang Theory now because dammit, Leonard and Penny are going to make it. I simply loved the idea of finding a soul-mate. When my friends began to get married in my 20s I was painfully jealous. When some of them later got divorced it killed me. How could they not make it work? Did they not try hard enough? Why did they give up? Even though I knew the particulars and for them divorce really was the best option, it made me unbelievably sad.

I had my share of serious relationships. My daughter’s mother was my first real girlfriend but ours was one of those drama-filled young romances that make you look back and shudder with gratitude that it is over. That we had a child together complicated things immensely but when things ended it was for the best. I dated several other girls but I had a habit of always assessing them through the lens of whether they were marriage material. When I realized they weren’t and those relationships came to their natural ending, I took it with no regrets. I had one other serious girlfriend before I met my wife and I definitely thought she was ‘the one’ for several years but again the universe was kind and it threw up enough warning signs for me to never pull the trigger on a proposal.

When I met my wife the best analogy I can make is that it was like a fog lifting in my brain. I remember thinking, very early on, “Oh, this is what love is really supposed to feel like.” I never hesitated, never looked back for a second. We had only been dating three months when I began to look for engagement rings. Four months in I had purchased the best ring I could afford and when I told my family and friends of my plans they were understandably reserved in their happiness for me. I think someone used the phrase ‘fools rush in’ and I couldn’t disagree with them because it was indeed happening very fast. But when you know, you know. We were engaged after nine months of dating and married less than a year later.

This year we celebrate our 10-year anniversary. Marriage has indeed been everything I dreamed it would be. The first few years weren’t easy and I always caution new couples that there will be tough moments, but if you make it through these, the payoff is worth it. Our marriage is far from perfect but that is okay because I never expected it to be. I learned through all those years of failed relationships and watching other marriages (successful and unsuccessful) that marriage is about putting in the work. Someone said that a marriage is like a house. You don’t build a house and then expect it to last forever. You have to take care of it every day and fix the things that need fixing. We have spent time in couples therapy and we have learned to talk through problems. We want to be successful.

The thing that I think has served us best though is that we made a commitment, before we ever said our vows, to the concept of marriage being forever. We agreed that the only thing that would ever make us consider a divorce was infidelity (we both have a zero-tolerance policy on that). So when problems come up it reduces the drama factor considerably to know that the other person isn’t going anywhere and that they will be waiting for us on the other side of this thing we are going through.

One thing about marriage that is maybe different than what I envisioned when I was a kid is that we each express love differently. I come from big, noisy family where we hug and kiss each other a lot and in a very Irish-Catholic way we over-share our feelings. My wife’s family is no less loving but they are reserved in their words and their public displays of affection. They show their love through less overt actions. My in-laws are incredibly generous with their time and gifts and there is no doubt they love their family. We are both our parents children. I tell my wife I love her several times per day. I hug her and kiss her and take some delight in making her hold my hand as we walk though the mall. My wife shows her love with thoughtful gifts and by running errands and trying her best to take care of me. It works for us.

Having previewed some of the other posts in this symposium I am struck by how many people see love as almost surprising and something less-than-organic. This doesn’t line up with my own experience as love comes to me almost like breathing. I use the word carelessly. Yesterday I told someone I love Cuban food. I am not usually given to hyperbole but clearly in this area I lack self-control. I also understand that the human experience is diverse. There are other actions tied up in emotion which come harder for me. I am not good at sympathy. I struggle with forgiveness. Love comes easily though and for me I have found no greater expression of that love than the voluntary choice to spend the rest of my life with someone whom I adore.

Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky




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12 thoughts on “On Marriage

  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Mike. Particularly about your experiences with divorced parents. I venture to guess I’m a bit younger than you (I’m 30) and my Catholic parents divorced a bit later in my life than did yours (I was about 9) and we were living in the suburbs of liberal NY, but my experience mirrored yours in many ways. I had a couple of friends whose parents were divorced, but still largely felt alone in that regard. I had three siblings (older sis, older bro, younger sis) but was never particularly close to them and they had a very different response to the divorce, something I am still learning about. My older sibs struggled mightily with it — both then and now. They attribute ongoing struggles in their life to the divorce and its consequences.

    I took a very different route. I wasn’t happy about it but I wasn’t particularly unhappy. Ultimately, I recognized it made both of them happy and that seemed like a good thing. I still saw both just as much as I did prior to the split and has the benefit of a reall great stepdad being added to the mix.

    Given all this, it’s not surprising that I am the only one of us married and/or with a child. I never consciously thought about the interconnectedness of all this but it seems reasonable to think that I have a healthier relationship with relationships because of how I understood and reacted to that of my parents. I think alot of this was related to certain hardwired aspects of each of us rather than choice.

    When I think about the students I work with professionally, it still bothers me how little we do to support those who are from divorced homes. Even just letting them know they are not alone is often taboo. I’ve been discouraged (though I ignore it) from talking about my own experiences with students to help normalize what they are experiencing. The assumption that children of divorce are doomed is belied by stories like yours and my own. Sharing them is important. Thanks again.

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  2. This is beautiful, Mike, a testament to love.

    Someone said that a marriage is like a house. You don’t build a house and then expect it to last forever. You have to take care of it every day and fix the things that need fixing. We have spent time in couples therapy and we have learned to talk through problems. We want to be successful.

    This shines. I would only add one thing to it: sometimes, the needed repairs to a marriage aren’t ideal; you’ll have to settle for less then you might like, your partner will have to settle for less. But when you both hold the vision of something lasting, it evens out, and you’re both better for it.

    My sweetie and I have been together since 1977; we married in 1980. Even when we married, I don’t think either of us really expected it to ‘work’ long term; and by that, I don’t mean we expected our marriage to fall apart, we just knew that marriage was fragile. Like you, my parents divorced when I was a child; unlike you, I was skeptical of marriage as an institution; I had little experience of it as something that brought stability, and the only marriages I saw that were stable rested on the wife being subservient. I refused to go there.

    But my sweetie, he’s a wonder. He takes joy in my freedom to be myself instead of a reflection of him. We’ve been through so many rough spots that we know we can get beyond them; we can reverse rolls in a disagreement now, arguing the other’s perspective better then our own, sometimes. The ruts of those conflicts are well worn, and we don’t really need to voice our sides anymore, we know them like knowing the path to the bathroom in the dark of night.

    Getting to this place, where we can comfortably agree to disagree with respect, frees us. We can focus on what we love, celebrate our growth and our interests. The roughness is always there, but it’s comfortable and familiar, and the spice comes from the new each of us pursues and brings back to us. This last, it’s another key to a good marriage; it’s like redecorating the house — it freshens things up. But here’s the most important part: it means taking risks. Trying new things, meeting new people. It opens the marriage up to other attractions and distractions, setting aside comfort and habit and security for the risk of a job or a move, a lower salary for a better opportunity. It means (at least to me,) taking risks from the security of the relationship, not to escape the confines of the relationship.

    After 37 years together, I can tell you this: the best is yet to come. There will be times of boredom and frustration, but with each, the knowledge that you will get beyond and have the means to reinvigorate grows, particularly if you’re willing to risk being whole people in your own right, if you’re willing to ever grow and learn.

    At what was our darkest time, the time we were both ready to call it quits, he looked at me, and burst into tears. “We’re like trees, he said. There’s you. There’s me. But there’s another tree, another life, and that’s you and me together. Right now, I don’t like you. I don’t like myself. But the thought of cutting down the tree that is us, together, breaks my heart.” I started crying then, too; I felt the same way. It took a long, long time to get over the hurts that had brought us to that point; I’m not sure that we did get over them, so much as we decided we could live with them, because the shade and shelter and fruit of the tree of us is home.

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  3. On the FP lede, Mike writes

    Growing up I had no bigger dream than to be a husband.

    I have a question for our gay contributors:

    If your a gay male, while growing up, did you imagine being a husband, in a true and loving relationship with a man? And I don’t mean husband in the legal sense, but husband in a deep and committed relationship sense, a family.

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  4. I am glad that you have found love, and I think its wonderful to hear about the commitment you and your wife have made, but I would like to share something that molded me when I was a kid.

    My mother cheated on my dad. My dad is not in any way an intellectual. He is as simple a man as I know. And he made the choice to forgive my mom and to fight for her. They fought a lot and it wasn’t the happiest home. But I remember when I was a 14 year old boy riding in the truck with my dad one day. I asked him: “Dad, why did you or do you stay with mom? She cheated on you, nags you, and doesn’t seem to respect you.” In his own simple way he simply looked at me and said: “Because I told God that I would stay with her through thick and thin.” And that was it, end of conversation.

    Personally, that’s the Christianity I prefer, but that’s another point. There is a certain child-likeness that I find beautiful.

    But that comment by my day stuck with me and I began to realize that love is not easy, and it is hard for me to understand you when you say that it is. It seems to me that you are equating love with emotional feelings, or sensual pleasures. But when I think of the test of strong love I think of forgiveness, and sacrifice, and many of the uncomfortable things. I think of the love of God and how it cost the shedding of His Son’s blood. If love comes so easy why would the only two commandments be to love God and to love each other?

    It seems because as humans we don’t know how to love. Love is easy when the object we are loving conforms to our preferences. But really, isn’t this more us expressing not love for the other, but pleasure from the other. But what about when the object of love stops conforming or pleasing? What about when that person begins to hurt us. The animal would say to run away and to preserve yourself. And I certainly think there could be situations when this is so. But the higher Divine nature says to die for the other. This is at least what I have found about love. Loving the lovable can be beautiful and healthy and good. But it is loving the unlovable that is truly Divine, if not then we would all be damned in the end.

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  5. I’m glad that things are working out with you and your wife. Talk to me in 20 years. Because my ex and I made all the same noises. I was with my ex for about a total of 25 years, married for about 15, when she told me “I’m moving out” and that she was no longer in love with me. I watched the previous 5 years of our marriage as our friends and relatives all got divorced and thought “Our marriage is a rock” until that one day when she walked in from work….

    Don’t be complacent…

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