After my first marriage fell apart in the 1990s, I spent months – no, years – pondering relationships, particularly marriage. I wanted to understand what had happened to mine and what marriage was all about in the first place.
Before I got divorced, I thought marriage, at least for me, would be unbreakable. You picked the right person and if you were committed, it worked out.
My grandparents had long marriages. My parents did, too. They still held hands when they strolled.
So, when my then-husband wanted out, I was stunned. (If I hadn’t had such tunnel vision, I might have seen signs.)
In those early post-divorce years, I read everything I could find about marriage. Understanding it from an anthropological, historical and spiritual perspective became a project for me, in between bouts of crying.
I also read about how to have a “good divorce” as one author suggested, particularly for my two children, who were preschoolers at the time.
While I was confident I could manage an amicable divorce and single motherhood, I was completely befuddled by the concept of wedlock. Had I chosen wrong? Were those vows ultimately meaningless if everything could unravel so quickly?
I wondered if I had been snowed. Maybe marriage was just a relic of patriarchal societies, a business deal. After all, getting divorced seemed to be mostly about money.
I was so confused.
At a wedding shower for one of my cousins, I asked my aunt what she thought made a marriage work. “It’s all physical chemistry,” she said.
“There has to be trust and loyalty,” my mom added. I had heard her say this before.
At a family reunion the following year, I quizzed my maternal grandmother.
“Grandma, do you think marriage is a good thing or a bad thing?” I said, boiling down the complexity of lifelong union to a kindergarten level.
“Well, it all depends on who you’re married to,” she said.
In the midst of this questioning and rumination, I met Bob, a widower with three children. It hadn’t entered my mind that I would fall in love again. But I did.
We dated for nearly five years and then he retrieved a small, velvet box from his breast pocket in a dark restaurant and asked me to marry him.
I hadn’t resolved my questions about marriage, except for understanding that I had less control over it – over anything – than I had once believed. Still, I said yes.
I said yes to a blended family with five children. I said yes to the losses and emotional baggage we all brought with us. I said yes to the bad odds of second marriages.
This month, Bob and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.
If someone were to ask me the questions I posed 25 years ago, I would say, “I really don’t know what makes a marriage work.”
Physical chemistry, loyalty, trust; these are all good. I would also say that it helps if your spouse brings you coffee in the morning and cleans the snow off your car.
Look for someone who asks probing questions about the things that matter to you and then listens intently to your answers. Find someone who is nice to your mother, likes your ex-husband and cries as much as you do when the cat dies.
Find someone who feels familiar, although you can’t pinpoint exactly why; someone who, despite your dormant skepticism, keeps drawing you back to him.