Tomorrow is our 36th anniversary. We stood together under a gazebo at Signal Point, a little park overlooking a bend in the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, and promised to love each other until death did us part.
I was happy to be married, although it was not nearly as easy as I had hoped. The first ten years were pretty tough, actually. We were young and didn’t know what we were doing. And by the time we had kids I was working too hard—on everything but my marriage.
I knew something about how to love my wife. My dad was a good example, sacrificial and unconditional in his care for my mom. But, like my dad, I tried to do too much. Three jobs, actually, working hard so my wife could stay home with the kids. We were strangers. She was full of fears and I was full of, well, myself.
That’s when we moved to Michigan. I was out of work for a year, and that’s when we fell in love again. Sometimes a man who isn’t working can be underfoot around the house, I guess. But Katie and I, with two small children at the time, found each other again.
I don’t recommend that kind of economic stress as therapy for a strained marriage, but it worked for us. I’m grateful for that year. We took long walks and flew kites with the kids. We took time to listen to each other. And to hold each other. By the time I found work again, at the college where I’ve been teaching 25 years now, we were in love.
I’d like to say I learned my lesson, but I didn’t. Two kids later I was working two jobs and trying to finish my Ph.D., all at the same time. Katie cared for her mother, then our neighbor, and finally my mother until they died and we were often physically and emotionally exhausted.
There were moments of wonder, of course: celebrations and satisfactions, graduations and recitals, weddings and open houses. There were temptations too, to say or do the wrong thing and merely survive in the shadow of regret.
But we are not survivors. We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. The truth is our care for each other has never been stronger, rooted in the things we understand and appreciate about each other rather than all the things for which we have forgiven each other. Katie used to ask, in moments of joy, if it would always be that good.
“No,” I would say. “It will get better.” And it did. A deeper love sustains us, held together now as always by a promise, a covenant, really. This covenant requires us, as Piper describes it in his book This Momentary Marriage,to bend out toward one another the same grace which we both ask and receive from God.
As it turns out, this decade of our marriage, our fourth, is the one in which most marriages in our country fail. Sometimes there is someone else. And sometimes there is something else, a new purpose or passion. The nest empties and people find themselves with strangers, much as Katie and I found ourselves 25 years ago.
When Washington’s showcase couple, Al and Tiper Gore, announced their divorce last week, Jeffery Zaslow wrote that this was the “new normal.” Experts tell us that people are living longer and “less willing to spend their last decades with someone who leaves them unfulfilled,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves if ‘ever after’ is too long,” one divorce lawyer told him.
But as one who has done it a couple of times I can tell you that you never get through the dry spells by focusing on yourself. That was never what we promised. What I promised Katie was “to have and to hold [her] from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance.”
It’s a mouthful. But it’s also a life full. No doubt there are more hard times ahead, perhaps even harder ones. And certainly new joys as well. But tomorrow, if God wills, we will sit on our porch, sipping some special tea, reading to each other, resting in God’s purpose, falling in love all over again.
We used to fall in love every ten years.
Now we try to do it every day.