By now you have probably seen the photo (like the one here) of a very old couple with some version of the following question and response inscribed across it: “How did you manage to stay together for 65 years?” “We were born in a time when if something was broken we would fix it.”
There is so much implied in this statement. That all those couples that managed to stay together for all those years actually had good marriages, “fixing” whatever didn’t work. That for those of us who didn’t manage to “fix” our marriages that we never tried or that we didn’t try hard enough, left on a whim. It assumes there was something fixable or worth fixing. That we failed, maybe even that we were failures. I certainly know enough people, including me at one time, who took failure on as part of self-identity.
I don’t know many people who have left a marriage or other long standing relationship on a whim, without a great deal of reflection, pain or agony. Without understanding that an individual’s or couple’s decision has far reaching ramifications for their children, their parents, for other extended family, for friendships, for all the financial and asset unraveling, to legal procedures and more. It is not a simple thing to leave a marriage. Not the first time. Not even the second time for those of us who have been through it twice. (Can’t speak for more than twice but I’m sure others could.)
Every time I see that particular image, it gives me a quirky little pause. Lots of thoughts register. So much is implied, intentionally or not. Mostly I think about appliances and gadgets like televisions and radios that used to last “forever” and could be fixed that now seem to be designed for obsolescence, fixing them often costing more than replacing them. But marriages are not appliances. And the word “fix” always seems to need quotation marks as I think about it the context of relationship.
I find myself wondering, “Really? People ‘fixed’ broken marriages “back then”? All of those couples that made it to 30 years, 40 years, 50 years, longer?” I’m sure some of them did and I’m sure many of them didn’t actually “fix” their marriage but they found ways to stay in it – healthy or otherwise. How many of them lived in pain and hurt that was never addressed? Learned to co-exist because divorce would be a failure worse than death? Stayed together because of obligation or religion? Died inside and lived as hollowed out shells of former selves because it was the only way to stay?
Many of us have a keen sense and eye for the state of relationships. It is pretty easy to tell when couples are happy together, connected, loving each other, supporting each other, when they are working it out, appreciating each other or co-existing, living separate lives under the same roof, sleeping in separate rooms or when they are not happy, not working it out, hating each other, dying inside. The energetics and dynamics of physical interaction conveys loud and clear the state of the union, even to untrained eyes. Whether individuals speak about a significant other or not when they are in relationship also speaks volumes and what they say about their significant other is another indicator.
While one person can influence whether a relationship works or not or how it works, it really takes two people to want to be in the work of relationship together for healthy relationship to thrive. Healthy relationship needs healthy individuals. If one person or both have to “disappear” to keep the relationship together, is that “fixing” it? The dynamic give and take of relationship is hard work. Not all relationships are “fixable”.
Twice divorced, I’ve given a lot of thought to marriage and relationship. Had I known more in my first marriage, maybe it could have been “fixable”. By the time I allowed myself to see how bad it was, how unhappy it was, it was beyond repair. I thought my second marriage would be a dream and it was more challenging than I could have anticipated. And this one, this second marriage, I, and we, tried hard to “fix”. But for many reasons it was not fixable and the “cost” of staying together was rising as time went by.
We discovered we were each being invited into our own individual reflection and journey, which in the end did not bring us together but showed us the need to go our separate ways. We became aware that our relationship had come to a place of completion, that we had learned with each other some things we might not have learned otherwise. For me it was embracing the stranger in me – embracing all those elements of myself – the ones that wanted to make me small and the ones that wanted me to fly – to come to wholeness; to open my heart fully through strength and vulnerability and to find compassion for myself and for others in the journey; which is an ongoing daily practice.
With continued reflection and in conversation with friends also going through separation and divorce, I began to ponder the notion of vows and particularly the vow of “til death do us part”. I wondered about death taking forms other than physical death – like death of relationship, death of marriage, death of aspects of ourselves. And I wondered if the vow is not actually “until completion” instead of “until death”? Which then raised the possibility for me that completion might be something that happens in one lifetime – in minutes, over months or years or until physical death. And maybe it could also be something that crosses lifetimes – that some relationships and some patterns are not completed in one lifetime. Perhaps some of the things we are completing now are from previous lifetimes and some of the things we are in at the moment might not be completed until another life time – if you believe we have other life times. A long time ago a soul friend of mine offered to me one of the most heart wrenching but true things I had ever heard, “Kathy, some things are not meant to be completed in this life time.” And, it would seem, some things are.
I am not anti-marriage. I celebrate and see great hope in enduring couples that clearly have a healthy, loving, mutual relationship. And I am sad every time a relationship ends, even when it is clear that it needs to. And I bow to the journey of those who stay in marriages, able to make things work out with varying degrees of success and challenge; and to those who do make great sacrifice, if that is their path – who am I to judge?
These are the cycles of life, of relationship, of marriage. Would it have been that I could have been married for 30 years or 50 years, but not at the cost of dying a little every day, of losing myself, of never really living life to the fullest in the way my soul kept – keeps – calling me to. I followed the path that called me into difficult life choices because this was the path that called me to integration and calls me into living in the fullest authenticity I know how to live every day to varying degrees of success – in this moment and the next and the next.