Once upon a time, one could make a commitment “til death do us part,” and actually consider it a meaningful promise. Sadly, today the very words that used to represent “lifetime relational security,” now feel more like a fairy tale read in childhood, along the lines of “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
The society that “til death do us part” story was set in did not have a 62% divorce rate. In those long gone days of yore, 51% of adults at any time were not solo and uninvolved in a primary relationship. (This summer, Psychology Today magazine featured an article with that 51% statistic).
Hubert Humphrey once commented that he had been married to many women over the course of his life, all named Muriel–a sweet and genuine reflection on the ways we grow and change over time, including in long-term relationships. People often marry before they know who they really are themselves, and therefore, choose partners for reasons other than what would be sustainable ones long-term.
Too, people lack the skills and tools to engage in long-term relationship. I also believe it takes a village to hold a relationship, just as it takes a village to raise a child. But our village structures have broken down. Too many of us–children and adults, live like feral humans trying to survive on the emotional streets of life.
So, when I read personal growth and social consciousness publishing pioneer Nina Utne’s personal essay on the dissolution of even her marriage in the March-April 2007 issue of Utne magazine, I felt like I needed to do some much deeper reflection on whether anyone can count on sustaining a relationship long-term in today’s world.
Utne writes, “Eric and I both have considered our marriage a spiritual path, and its dissolution…is humbling us and demanding serious spiritual practices.”
“And we, of all people, who have spent most of our lives exploring the nexus of personal growth and social change, who have weathered many of the storms that shipwreck marriages, we should be able to navigate this transition gracefully. But that’s without factoring in ‘shenpa,’ a Tibetan word for the things that trigger us and make us flare up and close down.”
Sadly, we are not given a relational roadmap, that lets us know that after we pass through the neurochemically rich stages of “new relationship energy,” we will enter the shadowlands, where our deeper selves indeed will be triggered. The triggers are an invitation to learn, to grow, to heal–emotionally, spiritually and relationally. But lacking both the roadmap and the tools to navigate the territory, too many relationships break and fail.
Nina Utne cites a conversation someone had with Margaret Mead about how she felt about having failed marriages. “She replied that she didn’t have failed marriages; she had remarkable partnerships that were appropriate for different stages of her life.”
While, for many of us, that may be true, and it is a very compassionate and perhaps useful way to hold breakdowns of partnerships and divorce, part of my heart still feels sad to behold that grain of contemporary truth.
There is a profound value to having another walk beside us throughout our life’s journey. I experienced this with a mentor of mine, who supported my life’s unfolding for 17 years. He was a spiritual father to me, and I can say with full honesty, that our relationship did indeed last til his sudden and unexpected death did we part. While I grieved his death, it was easier to accept because of the richness of our 17 year relationship. I felt I had so much to be thankful for, my tears of sadness were tempered with tears of love.
I am myself a divorced single mom. And I have been so for more years of my life and my son’s life than I could have ever imagined. On the one hand, my ex-husband and I are still “working the pieces” in a way few couples do before never mind after divorce. For just about 9 years, we’ve been working regularly with a family therapist, to help create a safer environment for parenting our now 11 year old son.
People marvel as this commitment we have made. And yet, to me it was more important to me than any other agreement on our divorce contract. Our agreement is to engage in this family therapy until our son is in his early 20’s. I know this is a promise we will keep.
I believe with all my heart that if two people have children together, they have a responsibility to work their relationship with one another for life for the good of their kids. If a couple divorces, they usually have more work to do than a married couple. The issues that caused the divorce don’t magically go away in the courthouse. In fact, they often need more attention so they don’t become things that bump very loudly in the night and in the day.
It seems sadly easy for people to walk away from one another, or even run away, without having looked at the skeletons in the closet, including one’s own personal closet that accompanied us into our committed partnerships. Being given a roadmap, a third party who commits to help the partners succeed, and role models of people who take the time and do the emotional work to sustain and deepen long-term relationships should be a right of passage into adulthood.
I have come to realize that for me, having a close relationship for a period of time, and then not having it, is more painful than a long-term relationship ending with the death of a partner.
I had to confront this very issue head on a number of years ago, when a man I had started seeing as a potential long-term partner was diagnosed with cancer 6 weeks into our relationship. I remember my therapist asking me, “Do you want to continue getting involved with this man who may die?” I found myself saying, “I am not afraid of the fact that he might die. We all die eventually. In fact, I would really like the chance to do til death do us part. I am more afraid that it won’t be death that I lose him to. I am more afraid I won’t get to do til death do us part.”
Sadly, after just about 2 years as partners, integrating our families and our lives, he decided he did not want a long-term partner after all. I did indeed walk beside him through cancer surgeries and treatment. And while the cancer became a long-term chronic condition, our relationship was not something he carried with him long-term.
I find it both sad and paradoxical that I am given the opportunity to use my deeply refined relationship skills to help other couples navigate the shadowlands, and with great success. I have been praying to God to give me a partner ready, willing and able to do this work with me. I have no desire to be the cobbler whose children have no shoes. And I surely apply my relationship skills in parenting my son, sustaining my deep long-term friendships, and just about every other facet of my life.
I really pray I do get a chance to to “til death do us part” and give my son the model of a healthy, sustained, mutual, loving partnership between me and a man I love. This is just much more complex going than I could have ever imagined growing up…and even at this middle-aged time in my life.