We were once asked by a young college student what we thought the “secret” was. There are always humorous answers to such a question. “Yes, dear.” Is what I could have answered.
Instead, this time, Susan and I looked at each other and answered: “keeping a promise.” I think it was the way the young student asked the question. The look, the tenor of her voice. It was as if there was something in her life that had been different. She was serious. It was not a frivolous question.
So, we answered seriously, with a singular perspective: “Keeping a promise.” Or what we call a “sacred promise.”
Marriage is a process and a journey. At some point in romantic relationships the people involved discover attractions – some are intellectual, some are sensual, some are undefinable.
There are rituals of getting to know each other and developing intimacy. “Knowing” each other – intimately. Discovery of the other: How do you see the world, what do you value, how do you think and what do you like, what makes you happy, afraid? The rituals occur over time and can be mysterious. That is, knowledge discovered after the fact.
In the middle of all this we – the individuals who make up the couple -- are different people with different skills and experiences. Each will create a unique experience and life, while all the time becoming more intimate.
It is complicated.
As the relationship builds with the other, each person struggles with their own identity and meaning. We have our own personalities and we keep learning about ourselves.
All this complexity and then one-night, for us it happened when we were 21 (me) and 20 (Susan) years old, you stand together and promise to love the other in sickness and health, in good times and bad and to do so for as long as each shall live. At least that is what Susan and I did. On August 23, 1966.
My focus on Valentine’s Day 2018, was going to be on the question of what happens when something goes wrong in a marriage. What does it mean to when we say: “I do.” (By the way, I said “Yes.”) and then something goes wrong. And by the way, in every marriage over time many things will go wrong.
A sacred promise doesn’t mean that it cannot ever be broken. Divorce is an important and necessary institution in society in the modern era. A vital escape valve to an improvident marriage, or one that turns improvident over time. There is a myriad of reasons that will come up and make the dissolution of the marriage, the ending of the agreement or contract, necessary.
This Valentine’s day, until the Parkland shooting, the public focus was on a different kind of violence, “domestic violence.”
As complicated is the concept of a sacred promise to love and live with someone your entire life so too is complicated the fact that during that time one partner can treat the other badly, and violently. It is never okay to do so, and yet it happens.
Even to us, Susan and me. In the more than 51 years of marriage I have never struck Susan. And yes, over the 51 plus years there were incidents when I came close and in fact Susan was fearful. There were periods of time when I was mean and said and did things that were demeaning and hurtful. And I should not have done so. In each incident and the periods over which they happened, I know and understand the fault was entirely mine. I learned that more deeply over time. And she has as well. She is NOT and never has been the cause of my faults.
The glue that has kept us together even in those times or even through those incidents involves coming back to the promise. What makes it sacred is that knowing we must work through it. In the situations that I am talking here, my impulsive angry and threatening emotional outbursts, these were about me. There is no doubt that I have in the past hurt Susan, her self-image, her happiness, her self-confidence. I think in every marriage there are times when each partner wonders if life would be better apart. And then we think about the promise and figure out how to give each other the space and time to be apart, even while together.
If this blog post is getting uncomfortable to read. Good. I note too that this is being written by me and does not speak to or for Susan. It is my reflection on my behavior and my understanding of what has kept us together.
Most of these struggles between intimate partners occur in private. We don’t show those faces very often. Many people value The Actual Dance, the play because, they say, it reveals the unspoken thoughts that most people have during these existential moments. I have hesitated in publishing this blog because I do think it is uncomfortable to talk about, and I hope it is accepted with the same spirit as the play.
The headlines about White House aide Rob Porter a few weeks ago put a spotlight on the cases where things turn out differently. It is apparent from the reports that Rob Porter has trouble keeping his temper with intimate partners. It is apparent too that he used physical violence against two women. What I don’t understand is his response.
He seems to view this history as simply something to get out of his way. Non-disclosure and financial pay-offs to keep misconduct out of the public eye seems to be the tactic of choice by many powerful men. Porter continues to dispute the undisputable and show no regret or sorrow. In that he needs to "handled with care" in private relationships and in employment.
However, I think that those who have engaged in that behavior can be redeemed and can change. I know it is not easy and that there are often repeat offenders. Indeed, failure to accept responsibility is an indicator that the behavior will be repeated. I also know that there is meaningful therapy and remorse that can be successfully addressed, and that people can change. They must be willing to do so, and it often takes a great deal of humility.
What I was going to say on Valentine’s Day of 2018, before something terrible happened, is that I reflect on my own behaviors over the years and stand in awe of Susan’s capacity to forgive and teach and hold me through those times and how hard I will continue to work to never do it again. I think that is part of the sacred promise – on both our parts.
Maybe Valentines Day can begin to be a day of confession and forgiveness. I once participated in a program called “Last Words.” People were asked to spend 5 minutes on whatever that phrase meant to them. I still remember, because this was after 2000, the year she almost died, and my first, "last words" were, “I’m sorry.” My last, "last words" were “I love you.”