A lot can happen in 40 years.
You can wander the desert looking for the promised land until you find it.
You can reinvent yourself so many times until you can’t even remember what it felt like to be 19, standing in your childhood church, and saying “I do” without any actual idea of what it takes to make a marriage work, a vague promise you vow to keep until “death do you part.”
You can bring four children into the world and wonder how you lived without them, only to discover that your job as a parent is to “do no harm” and to make sure they have the skill set to successfully live without you.
Before you give birth, the plan is to do everything your parents didn’t do but should have, replicate all the things that made you happy, and win a Mother of the Year medal one day.
Forty years later you are still looking for the flux capacitor as you entertain the ghosts of parenting past that haunt you.
In 40 years you forge a lot of friendships that ebb and flow. Some of them last a lifetime; others last just long enough to leave you with something valuable you otherwise might have missed along the way.
That’s because unlike marriage, friendships are not contractual. There is great freedom in knowing that if a friend screws up, hurts you, seems to care more about themselves than you, or cheats on you by going out with other friends, you can move on to greener friendship pastures.
Sometimes friendships help you through your own marriage hurdles. Misery loves company, but misery can also be cured with the help of a compassionate friend. Other times friendships get in the way of an otherwise solid marriage. You don’t always like the friends your spouse collects, and whether it’s jealousy or disdain, couples can suffer from the wedge of friendships.
All of the above comes from 40 years in the trenches of experience. I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot. Some of it is actual experience, but most of it is from a social science perspective.
In 40 years Jim and I have seen lots of couples call it quits. If marriage is a marathon, then where we are today — and we have no idea how close we are to the finish line — has required endurance. It has required determination. It has required commitment.
It requires a will to stay in the race.
Historically, marriage was not anything like it is today. I give you cavemen with clubs, harems, the dark ages, dowries, marriages of convenience. In some cultures, marriages are still “arranged” — parents select a suitable mate who has good genes and a prominent family with economic means. A solid prenup, not love, was the only requirement.
In the year 2019 nothing seems to last forever. You’re lucky to get seven good years out of a washing machine. When two people say “I do” today, there’s a fifty-fifty chance they will be saying “I shouldn’t have,” as they file for divorce.
Forty years ago today Jim and I swapped rings and said “I do,” because at 19, we had just enough life experience to feel like we could do anything, and not enough life experience to realize what we were saying. Seemed pretty straightforward — love each other, raise a family and work hard at it until you die.
But now I can understand why it took the Jews 40 years to reach the promised land. I looked it up on a map and it should have taken them about 170 hours to walk from Pharaoh’s house to the land of milk and honey. That translates to a 3-hour flight from Cairo to Tel-Aviv.
Forty years of wandering sounds like more of a philosophical journey to me. For one thing, they didn’t know exactly where it was they were heading, and I think that’s the point.
When we say “I do,” there is no human way possible to know what the fine print is because it hasn’t been written yet, like disappearing ink in reverse. The destination — marriage — is actually the beginning of everything that’s about to happen to you, and the things that are about to happen to you are impossible to predict, unless you have that Delorean with a flux capacitor.
You think your marriage will not be foiled by parenthood, imagining it’s going to be more like a scripted sitcom than a reality TV show. But it turns out it’s more of a Ninja Warrior challenge that leaves many well-intentioned warriors slipping off the ropes and into the loser pool, taking their marriage down with it.
For one thing, we all have our individual baggage packed for us by our own parents, which we carry with us into marriage and unpack slowly and painfully as we sort through it for the stuff that still fits when we attempt to raise our own children. Obviously, there are things in the suitcase you can’t believe you held on to, and things you need that aren’t there. If you’re lucky, your spouse has some of the things you’re missing in his suitcase. But when he tries to squeeze you into the stuff his parents gave him, or when you offer him the ugly sweater you inherited from your dad, your collective parenting skills resemble the sale rack at a Goodwill store, and your children end up dressed like orphans.
That’s a sloppy metaphor for what we call assimilation. Every good marriage requires that his stuff and her stuff become their stuff. Unfortunately, the “stuff” is not always easy to sort through. Some of the most significant stuff is trapped in the fiber of our being, like DNA and emotional scars.
And let’s not forget that marriage is a lifelong commitment between two total strangers who met one day — at work, at school, at a bar, on a dating website, at a party — and in some relatively short amount of time agreed to sign a legal and binding contract with only one escape clause: death.
In 40 years Jim and I have been around the proverbial block so many times we should be dizzy. Back in 1979, I couldn’t have told you where the promised land was, or how I’d know it when I found it.
But with 40 years comes a bit of enlightenment.
Today I can tell you that in the best of times and worst of times, we’ve stayed the course, even when we were lost. There have been obstacles. We’ve tripped and fallen. We’ve lost sight of each other a few times, but always, we find our way back to one another. Believe me, there have been challenges that even the greatest Ninja Warrior could not have mastered because not all challenges can be met with physical strength.
Marriage is photosynthesis. It’s the absorption of light (good and necessary stuff) which constantly and organically turns carbon dioxide (all that can kill a marriage) into the thing that feeds and perpetuates it.
Marriage is a garden. You plant things that you think are beautiful, but they don’t survive without watering, fertilizing, weeding and nurturing. An untended garden, over time, is no longer a garden.
Marriage is a journey with no particular destination. It’s the actual trip of a literal lifetime, so make sure you enjoy long trips and pack accordingly. Most of the baggage you carry into marriage should be abandoned as quickly as possible. It will only weigh you down.
Be prepared to improvise, because it’s uncharted territory. You have to create the map as you go and come up with travel strategies as you discover the terrain. A journey changes you. Be open and ready for that.
If you’re lucky, kids happen. And when they do, realize they are only yours in the strictest sense of the word. Beyond their DNA, you have only a short time to make a lasting impression, so don’t squander it.
After 40 years, I can only say that there is no other travel buddy on earth who I can imagine sharing a sleeping bag with other than Jim. We’ve assimilated and photosynthesized. We’ve planted and weeded, reaped and sown. We’ve risen to the challenges like ninja warriors. We’ve laughed and cried, pushed and prodded, shared the burdens, and carried one another at times, without complaint, because we all fall short.
When I look into his eyes I still see the dream we both dreamed at 19. And when I wake up each morning next to him, I am in the promised land. These days I am acutely aware that life is too short to waste on bad times. And when the escape clause kicks in, it will prove what we both knew in our hearts before the journey began, that even a lifetime of love is not quite enough.
Carol Robidoux is publisher and Chief Instigating Officer for Manchester Ink Link.