Some years ago, about a week before my wedding, I was at work listening to a radio show on a topic that was understandably on the forefront of my mind: marriage. On this show was a man being touted as the preeminent expert on Holy Matrimony – a guy whose name I can’t remember – but a fellow who’d been studying the institution for decades and could tell with startling accuracy and within minutes of meeting a couple whether they would still be married in five years’ time.
I sat listening with my ears pricked up as this guy was the real deal. Enough to make him the focus of an entire segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation for a solid two hours.
Obviously, Mr. Marriage (as I’ll call him for the sake of this essay) had a lot to say on the topic. He talked about respect being the cornerstone of a lasting relationship, the importance of morality within the confines of a union, the way couples should fight, and how a pair of lovers must always take up the challenge to evolve together. All very sensible and true on an intuitive level.
But what caught my attention most was his assertion that story is an essential element to a lifelong love affair. In other words, what seems to matter in an intrinsic way is not that a couple has gotten together but how a couple has gotten together. The story of us – of how our love takes flight – appears not only to be the spark that ignites the fire we need in order to sustain passion, but the one that foments friendship and trust, and gets us through some of the dark, dark times that visit us during the course of our lives. Things like illness, child-rearing debacles, job loss, snoring, opposing tastes in television shows, and a mother-in-law moving in.
In my interpretation, Mr. Marriage was explaining how courtship – the process of wooing an amour by gestures large and small (i.e. the candy and flowers routine) – plays a vital role in spinning that magic web we call true love. Courtship, like a good story, tantalizes. It promises so much, but threatens to take it away at any time. At its heart, courtship makes a couple earn each other’s affection and intimacy. It is the inverse of a hook-up.
I was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between love and story very recently when a friend – a new friend who I’m just getting to know and with whom I’ve found a lot in common – asked me to share with her the story of how my husband and I got together. She and I are both writers and we also happen to write about love in various ways. Neither one of us are romance writers, per se, but love in its many forms is definitely a shared theme of ours.
She and I are also both happily married, and have confided in one another about how love took us completely by surprise. It’s not like our previous relationships were all that great, and neither of us came from what popular culture would call “happy families.” We had to piece together on our own what we thought a blissful union might look like.
But somehow, as if by osmosis or destiny, it happened for us.
Before I began telling her my love story, I took a deep, meditative breath. It had been a long time since I’d recounted the tale of how my husband, Jack, and I had fallen in love, and in all honesty, I’d put that narrative on the back burner while he and I focused on some pretty big things like having babies and making sure we could feed them.
But damn, we do have one helluva story, and it wasn’t until I told my friend about how we met and went nuts about each other that I realized what a critical subtext our love story has been in getting us through some very challenging episodes. Things I’ve written about on this blog – obvious things like dealing with one of our children being born with a catastrophic illness and surviving the financial roller-coaster that hit a lot of folks from around 2008 to 2011. But also the smaller things like moving from city to city, starting a business and deciding how much autonomy to give our children.
So, yes, I will tell our story. But if you’ll forgive me, I’ll give you the condensed version. The fleshed-out, nitty-gritty version makes me blush and withdraw. It’s also too long for a mere blog post.
It involves a chance visit to a foreign city,
A meeting in a four-hundred year old, candlelit pub,
Some dirty poetry,
Several dozen anonymous postcards,
New Year’s Eve,
A jazz club,
Fried chicken and champagne on a cliff side,
The kind of mushy language most people pretend to despise,
And a belief in destiny.
Of course, after the swashbuckling part, the early wonders of discovery, the heavy breathing, we pretty much replaced our candy and flowers routine with the meat and potatoes of our relationship. Less poetic perhaps, but warm, comforting, sweet. Our nearly twenty year love story has been a very different adventure than our courtship.
It has involved believing against all odds,
Not blaming each other for things that have gone awry,
Doing our part,
Mustering every bit of energy in order to conjure romance amidst ruin,
Ignoring bad moods,
Having sex even when we don’t feel like it,
Bragging about each other’s accomplishments,
Dancing close in our kitchen when it all gets to be too much.
We could’ve never gotten through the latter list without the former. And I guess that’s what Mr. Marriage was talking about. Over and over, his research pointed to how the foundation of a relationship most often requires a sense of transcendence, a belief in the overall good of the love that has bloomed. There is a reason why we call the one we’ve been looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. Right implies virtue, honor, truth. And according to Mr. Marriage’s research, an attraction built on betrayal, for instance, has a hard slog ahead. Such a union has no anchor, and over the long run often devours itself from the inside. After all, what do you say when someone asks you how you met? “Well, my first wife was at Little Gym with our two year-old, and I, uh…well…you know. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.”
Story, it turns out, can sink you as well as save you when it comes to love.
In fact, story is so crucial to the long-term viability of a relationship that it can actually be the determining factor as to whether a troubled marriage can or cannot be salvaged. When asked how he knew when a marriage was definitively over, Mr. Marriage said this, according to my memory: “In my experience, a marriage is beyond repair when you ask the couple how they met, and they cannot conjure any joy, even a smile from recounting that tale. If they can still tell that story with even the tiniest glimmer of fondness, there’s hope.”
That is a powerful truth to behold, and one we might want to consider in the broader context of our lives. As we endeavor to create new stories this coming year – whether it be with spouses, friends, colleagues or acquaintances, we may do well to remember that the promise of love, of what is right, strikes at the core of our very humanity. And the narratives we are spinning today through our actions, words and impulses will have a tremendous influence on our future well-being.