Not long ago I was driving along and I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. I can’t recall exacly what it said but the following is proximal:
“Do not worry about whether or not your children listen to what you say. Worry that your children see what you do.”
I immediately thought of the babies and what they might be learning not from what I say, but from what I do. I thought of what my parents taught me. And when I think back, they really did teach me a lot. And most of it just by going through their daily lives. They weren’t big on the “son, it’s time we had a talk about the birds and bees” pow-wow sessions. In fact, the heart to hearts didn’t really start happening until I was out of college. And usually, I initiated those conversations. But nonetheless, I have learned and am still learning so much from my parents.
They celebrated another wedding anniversary a last June. They’ve been married for 50 years. Contemplating that, I felt a little pride brew up. Not that this accomplishment, if you can or should even call it that, was mine. I just felt like my parents have been able to do something which is difficult. In that moment of pride I posted they’d been married for 50 years on Facebook. The general response was overwhelmingly positive and folks seemed to be “wowed” by it. Which got me to thinking even more. Should a long marriage create such a wow-factor?
My parents don’t have, at least I don’t think they have, any secret formula or overriding philosophy about how to make a marriage last. I’m sure, in fact I know, all their years weren’t wedded bliss. At least not from my perspective. Some of those years were really good. Some were really bad. And some were downright ugly! But I’d bet you’d find few 50 year marriages that aren’t all those things at some point or another, sometimes for long stretches.
I do feel lucky though. Because of my parents, I have no idealized notion of what a marriage is supposed to be or what it is supposed to bring you. Jumping the broom doesn’t transport you to some romantic utopia. Marriage is just not like that. There are no rules. You may naively make some but you will inevitably break them. For better or worse, my parents provided me with some baseline for how to make a marriage work. Something by which I could compare other long relationships. And I’m certainly not saying I would want to emulate all they have done in life and marriage. But I’ve certainly learned.
I had and have the benefit of seeing two people deal with each other and sometimes struggle to find harmony with each other over 40 years of my life. As the Obamas have figured out, it’s not a walk in the park. In fact if you click through to the article featuring the Obamas, you’ll read statements suggesting at times, the Obamas like many couples, don’t like each other. But there are factors and actions taken by a couple that get you through those moments. Some may be as silly as saying hello in the morning no matter the mood you went to bed with. Other solutions may be more involved.
On the other hand, most of my peer group has to literally guess at what a long-lived relationship, let alone marriage, looks like. Having no closely related example to draw from or be influenced by they’ve had to piece together what marriage is and what it brings from Disney movies and The Cosby Show, or worse, Lifetime’s movie of the week. As a consequence I think those folks are prone to flight when things get rough. They don’t recognize it as a normal part of the process and have no emotional tool belt to deal with it.
Perhaps I am biased but this tendency toward flight seems more pervasive amongst women, particularly black women. Typically, ready to end a relationship before it can even get any footing. But let me stop myself there before I get started. Because this is certainly something I’d love to delve into in the future. It’s something that’s been on my mind for a while.
Anyway, I’d thought I’d write a post a week for the next year and share things I learned from my parents, both good and bad, about marriage and life in general. Partly, as a tribute to them, and partly as a way for me to coalesce all my thoughts about all they’ve taught me into some meaningful blueprint for a life well lived.