American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930
By Mark Regnerus in the December 4, 2014 issue of First Things. Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.
I have a good marriage. Is it a great marriage? I don’t know. Do we squabble? Plenty. Do either of us feel shortchanged? With regularity. Might we be happier had we married other people twenty-one years ago? It’s certainly possible. Should I reconsider my marriage? Heavens no.
Amid well-intentioned efforts to reinforce or rebuild a disappearing marriage culture, there remains a persistent hazard— that in belaboring the ‘beauty of marriage’, many people in challenging unions will feel more discouraged, not less. Their marriages haven’t felt wonderful for a very long time. Or the dismal follows the wonderful in a predictably cyclical fashion. Or misunderstanding seems chronic. Bedrooms become battlegrounds. It’s not how marriage was intended to be, but it is how many turn and how some remain.
A measure of relational trial is, of course, endemic to the human condition. “Interaction breeds conflict” is as close as sociologists can come to identifying a ‘Law of the Social Universe.’ And yet conflict can be productively harnessed. Marital difficulty and challenge can, as the recent Humanum film series illustrates, reveal a “hidden sweetness” (see link below)…
I have documented the long-term benefits of having grown up with a married mother and father who have hung in there, in comparison to every other combination. (Even the death of a parent proved far less consequential than a divorce.) And I didn’t evaluate marital happiness in my surveys and analyses, only marital status. Some stable households were no doubt more blissful than others. But an unsightly building can still provide shelter.
A friend of mine recently left his wife after nearly thirty years of marriage, reinforcing the dismal data on “gray divorce.” While I don’t know the particulars, and his exit seems to have no obvious logic, I know theirs was neither a simple nor an easy marriage, and that both spouses had high expectations for it. One observer lamented this human habit, which extends well beyond marital hopes to simpler ones about work, health, material goods, vacations, even tonight’s dinner:
That happens with so many things in life. We inject them with poetry in our imaginations, we idealize them, and come to believe they are the epitome of happiness and beauty. But then when we have them in front of us, and see them just as they are, our hearts sink to our boots.
I and a few other friends of his got together in an effort to ask him to reconsider his departure. One of us wondered aloud, “Wouldn’t it be better to limp to the finish line, with the help of others, than quit the race?” After all, if marriage is a marathon, our friend was probably nearing the twenty-mile mark. The rest of us concurred, but to no avail.
My late colleague Norval Glenn discovered that even so-called “good” divorces are consequential. Amicable divorces, he noted, foster disorientation in children, who feel at a loss to explain what they’ve witnessed, much less improve upon it themselves someday. Such divorces, he concluded, are worse than maintaining a mediocre marriage.
I maintain that my friend was wrong about his decision to exit his “good enough” marriage. Perhaps new information would change my mind, but it’s unlikely. There are precious few scenarios in which his children would be better off for his having left. Perhaps my confidence seems the height of arrogance. All I know is that his wife would like him to come home.
What should we do? A trio of simple commitments is a good start.
First, be wary of taking sides. Remember that when we offer comfort by belittling someone else’s spouse, we do damage to their marriage— an entity that we did not create, and one that exists independently of each. The temptation to do this is very strong (and often fed by one of the spouses). I myself am guilty. To be sure, some marriages must end— but not so many as we’ve witnessed.
Second, be gentle. We harm our brothers and sisters not when we display affection, respect, and sacrifice for our own spouses— they need to see that. We do harm when we fail to esteem others’ unions, fragile though they may be. Praise those aspects of others’ marriages that merit it. A bruised reed we ought not break.
Third, be observant and courageous. If in fact many mediocre marriages don’t deserve the death penalty, then you must speak up. Twenty percent of married Americans report having thought about leaving their spouse in the past year. Undisciplined children seldom turn out well; so too the marriages in our social orbits. It is a vigil of love that we must keep.
See HUMANUM FILM SERIES (part 4); “A Hidden Sweetness: The Power of Marriage Amid Hardship” (12 minutes):
Isaiah 42:3-4a — A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged.
Mark 10:6-9 — (Jesus said), “At the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
I Corinthians 13:4-7 — Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Temple Gairdner (1873-1928), before his marriage:
O Lord, Jesus Christ: that I may come near to her, draw me nearer to Thee than to her; that I may know her, make me to know Thee more than her; that I may love her with the perfect love, cause me to love Thee more than her. Be Thou between us, O Lord, every moment, so that nothing else may be between me and her. Amen.