The lessons we learn

I received a call from a prospective client recently.  While every situation has its unique aspects, the details were depressingly familiar.  Married after a short courtship to a man she’d know since she was a child, she soon discovered he wasn’t the man he represented himself to be: substance abuse issues; spending issues; commitment issues.  Less than a year into her marriage she was ready to end it.  Thankfully there were no children to tie her to this man for the next 18+ years.  She wanted an annulment–“he wasn’t who he said he was”–and I had to explain that if this was a basis to annul a marriage, everyone could annul their marriage.  She wanted to know if she could get “compensation” from him for the disruption this bad marriage had caused her life but there was no marital property to divide and her husband wasn’t a candidate to pay alimony.  What she really wanted was to roll time back to before she married and avoid the marriage altogether; understandable, but something no human could achieve for her.

Well into the conversation, she told me, “I learned my lesson.”  Being curious about her thoughts–I believe The Great American Novel is being created daily in out nation’s divorce courts if only someone had the ability to capture it–I asked her “what lesson is that?”  The cheerless answer from a woman in her early 20’s: “Don’t marry.”

How sad, I thought.  I believed that a better lesson, perhaps, might be to act more mindfully and to vet more thoroughly before choosing one’s life partner.   I suggested to this young lady that she might choose to take that lesson from a marriage which will probably leave her few happy memories and many unhappy ones.  I would prefer she emerge from her bad but not disastrous marriage as a more cautious person rather than a more cynical one: that was the lesson I hoped she’d learn.  However, as I reflected further on her phone call, I began thinking that there might be another, even better, lesson for this woman, a lesson about unconditional love towards those to whom we pledge our troth “until death do us part.”

Can we even imagine a culture in which marriage truly was “until death” and spouses expected to “tough out” bad marriages rather than end them?  Read Western literature from the 16th through 19th century and it appears people were marrying after whirlwind courtships, but even when these marriages went “awful” bad–infidelity, domestic violence, substance abuse, financial disaster–they expected to stay married until one spouse died.  While maleficent actors could certainly take advantage of such a culture, how psychologically comforting it must have been to know that, no matter how troubled one’s life became, one’s life partner was expected to remain supportive?

What if this young lady, rather than looking for a way out of a marriage to a man who–she believes–is delivering much less than he promised, instead decided to love him and encourage him and support him in the hope that he would, in time, reciprocate with love and respect?  It might take months, it might take years or decades; it might never happen: but at least she would live up to her marriage vows to love her husband “until death do us part.”  Further she would help develop a culture in which, when her life wasn’t going as well as expected, she would have every right to expect her mate to remain supportive rather than seeking the exit door.

It took me a long time in my own marriage to truly internalize that marriage-for-life meant that I needed to support my mate although her behavior displeased me–and to support her even when she disappointed herself.  It’s a lesson I have learned imperfectly, and struggle to learn better, but learning that lesson has not only gotten me through 19+ years of marriage (and sustained a romantic relationship two decades longer than any other of my romantic relationships), it has also made me believe that nothing but death will end my marriage.

It’s actually quite liberating to come to the belief that only death will end your marriage.  Once you accept that your marriage will end with death, you come to accept everything about your spouse and decide simply to love her (or him).   Things that bother you about your spouse continue to bother you, but you stop struggling so hard to change what bothers you.  And, as we are often reminded: you can’t change other people, you can only change yourself.

I’d have been a bad divorce lawyer to suggest this to that young lady.  In our culture–in which we are told we don’t have to accept what we don’t like–such advice would be perceived of as patronizing or condescending, and further I would be talking myself out of business.  However, a culture in which I could give that lady that advice, and in which she might be receptive to hearing such advice, could be much more psychologically healthy than a culture in which our mates feel free to leave us when we no longer please them.

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