This Holy Month I feel grateful for many things, but particularly to have a good man around who has put up with me for three decades. Actually, he’s not always good – just a while ago he said, “We’ve been married for almost 32 years but it seems just like two minutes,” and then, outrageously, “two minutes under water, that is!”. Hilarious.
I’m not sure how much that statement had to do with the fact that I realised not long ago, and to my complete surprise, that he dislikes dark chocolate but likes cucumbers. One thing it surely means is that however long you’ve been married you must never stop having a laugh.
A friend recently posted that her marriage had been ‘everything but boring’. I could have made that statement myself and I suspect that most of us who have loped, hopped or even crawled past the 30-year post could claim the same. And yet, there are times when I do actually wonder if there are dream couples, and not just on Netflix, for whom everything goes super smoothly. I suspect not. One young bride who had longed for marriage sighed ecstatically to her mother on the eve of her wedding, “I’m about to be married; I’m at the end of all my troubles.” “Yes,” said the mother, “you just don’t know which end”.
While it would be incorrect to suggest that marriage is all about trouble, it would be absurd to suggest that two complex and utterly different individuals could find life-long happiness without a few problems along the way, sometimes near catastrophes. When I see couples who are still happy after decades together, I wonder about their journey. To me they are like a beautiful painting which you see from a distance, as recommended in a gallery. If you go too close the alarm goes off which is always embarrassing and everyone stares at you as though you were a criminal. But the interesting thing about being closer than the recommended difference is that you see a very different painting.
Instead of bold, decisive shapes and harmonious lines and colour, often all you see is a series of strange even clumsy markings, globs of apparently unworked paint, botched lines, and erased mistakes sometimes repeatedly painted over. You could ask yourself, is this all it is? That doesn’t look right, this can’t be part of it etc. Then you realise just how much work goes in to perfect each part of a complex work, sometimes repeating parts over and over to get it right, and most of all never giving up.
Is marriage comparable to this in some ways? Things definitely do not always go smoothly and many things have to be worked at hard in order to get them right. How much do we want to achieve the beautiful masterpiece because for sure it’s going to include things we’re not happy with at first, things that are upsetting or less than perfect, things that tempt us to think it’s not worth it. If we focus too closely on what’s not quite right rather than keeping in mind the eventual masterpiece that we set out to achieve, might we find ourselves setting the alarm off thinking that ‘wrong’ is actually all there is; that there is nothing of real value, little worth keeping and lots of reasons to abandon it. If the close up view is the only one we were to have, might we be tempted to say it was a worthless mess?
My parents have been interesting role models where marriage is concerned and now I am able to look back and see to some degree how they achieved their happiness. Did they have the picture perfect one — no, because they were about as different as it is possible for two human beings to be, naturally causing occasional friction and disagreement. But that didn’t stop them aiming for the best they could make it every day of their lives and in time their big picture became pretty much a masterpiece. Their secret? I’d call it the 3 L’s of loyalty, laughter and listening.
Woodrow Wilson said: Loyalty means nothing unless it has at its heart the absolute principle of self-sacrifice. I saw that in my parents — uncompromising dedication to each other and the family. I saw it manifest itself in the respect that each one had for the other’s interests and the desire to see the other excel and bloom. I saw it in the equality of partnership and willingness to serve each other’s interests often above their own. I saw it in the way they categorically shunned anything or anyone that might compromise their closeness. I saw them say sorry when they needed to. I saw them treat their marriage for the sacred promise and total commitment it was and I don’t think a single day went by when they weren’t laughing about something.
The most wasted of all days is one without laughter (the 2nd L), so said the author e.e.cummings. Charles Dickens called laughter ‘irresistably contagious’ and Robert Frost, the war poet, may well have been right when he said: If we couldn’t laugh, we’d all go insane. And he must have known. Sometimes the most tragic situations give rise to the funniest moments – it’s called survival.
Do we laugh enough, or even at all, in our relationships? Laughter draws people to us, makes us more attractive; light heartedness and fun makes everyone happier. Studies show that a simple smile has remarkable benefits – it relaxes, it calms, it changes attitudes, but a really good laugh is a game-changer. Looking back on some of the less stellar moments that have inevitably arisen in our relationship, laughter has been a balm, a healer, a defuser; a reminder of what there is to enjoy in life and that it just isn’t cool to be too serious all the time.
Being married is like having a best friend who doesn’t remember anything you say! So said some funny person but, actually, seriously listening (the 3rd L) to your partner can be a make or break aspect of a happy marriage. I like the story of a couple finishing dinner in a Chinese restaurant. Opening their fortune cookies, the wife’s message read: Be quiet for a little while. The husband’s: Talk while you have the chance.
The great Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel pointed out that the word listen contains the same letters as the word Silent. Ernest Hemingway illustrates: When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen, they are thinking about what they are going to say next.
Of course there is the cut and thrust of stimulating conversation where you interject, finish sentences, energetically swoop in and out of subjects and generally enjoy the experience. But when things get serious, real listening is an art that needs to be cultivated.
So, back to the idea of the painting from which you are now standing back at the recommended distance. Isn’t it strange the way all those funny little brush marks and clumsy out of place scribbly markings fit into the whole so harmoniously that you hardly notice them. And what looked like a major mistake now fits perfectly into the composition with strong confident tone and line.
All those apparently imperfect elements are actually essential parts of the finished picture just as the not so perfect days in a marriage may well be essential to our own final masterpiece. The painter didn’t give up, he just worked away through the challenges till he got it right. And so can we. With the 3 L’s of Loyalty, Laughter and Listening, we can make it the most magnificent painting ever. Oh, maybe there should be 4 L’s……did I mention Love?
By Harriet Bushman – Music Director