I celebrated a milestone recently. Well, I did not celebrate it myself, but with someone else. This past week marked thirty years of marriage. And I am pleased.
My own parents separated after a mere 8 years and were formally divorced after 9. My father remarried and the second attempt brought him 33 years of happiness. I am closing in on his record and, being healthier than he was at my age, I have a good shot at surpassing it.
I did not marry until I was over age 30. In the early years, marriage was not an easy state for me, as I had never really lived under a good example of what it was supposed to look like.
When our three children were young Mrs. JP and I signed up for a marriage retreat. Worldwide Marriage Encounter was (and still is) an organization affiliated with the Catholic Church and is all about taking an average marriage and making it better. It does this, I eventually figured out, by taking average people and making them better.
I learned important things on our weekend retreat – which, by the way, did not involve sitting around in a circle and sharing my feelings with a bunch of strangers. I would never have done that. Instead, the weekend was designed to get spouses to remember why we fell in love with the one we did. I learned things about Mrs. JP that weekend, but learned more about myself.
For example, I learned that not everybody is like me. And even more, that not everybody is supposed to be like me. This sounds stupid staring back from a page online, but each of us grows up in an environment – whatever that environment may be. I was raised in a household where there was right and wrong, good and bad, and where things should be done in a certain way. My mother did not teach these lessons intentionally, but was herself formed by the environment that she was raised in. I was given the gift of looking critically at some of the assumptions and life rules I had unwittingly carried into my marriage. And I found that not all of them were helpful.
I learned how to handle disagreements in non-destructive ways, and to remember that the person I may be disagreeing with was someone I loved. And I learned that I had to learn to trust my wife to not hurt me and to be worthy of the trust she extends in return. Because two people who are always on guard against one another is no way to make a marriage.
Most importantly, I learned that feelings and emotions may ebb and flow, but to love my wife was something that requires a decision each and every day. Most days it is an easy decision, one that comes naturally. Other days it is a challenge, but those are the days when consciously making that decision are the most important. And just as importantly, I learned that she was having to make that same daily decision – a decision that was often just as hard for her as mine could sometimes be for me.
As with anything, we get out of marriage what we put into it. Every newly married couple is on a high. Every newly married couple will settle into reality after awhile. Some deal with it by divorce. Others by living their own lives and only rarely doing things together. The third way (the one we chose) was to lean into it and make it something really good together.
We have had our ups, downs and challenges – and we are still an “us”. I cherish that “us” as a special place where each of us is loved and accepted and encouraged. It is a place safe from the uncertainties that swirl around us.
As Catholics, Mrs. JP and I believe that our marriage is both a sign and a source of divine graces, the kind that have helped us along the way. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I grieve when I see a marriage break apart on the ugly, rocky places in life. I don’t believe it is necessary to possess a religious faith to have a good marriage, but I do believe that it makes a good, lasting marriage more easily attained.
One of our children put a congratulatory posting on social media. We received many messages of congratulations from family and longtime friends, but also from people who didn’t know us but knew our children. Some of those people live halfway around the world. I was struck that even though many of these people had never met us, our marriage had managed to leave a small but significant mark, enough of a mark that people in distant lands who had never met us cared enough to post words of encouragement on our marriage milestone.
I think failed marriages do this too – they leave swirls and ripples that affect far more people than just the two who hang it up. I am not picking on those people, they have enough troubles. I only point this out as one who grew up around it and knows firsthand.
Don’t think I am trying to give any expert advice – I am no expert. I am just a guy who has made some effort and seen some success in this marriage thing. Thirty years can come and go pretty quickly. Time flies when you are having fun.