For the past twenty-five years on the Shabbat evening in Pesach my congregation has celebrated the Biblical Song of Songs as well as “milestone” wedding anniversaries of members of our community.
I have offered hundreds of blessings – once to a couple married for 70 years, twice to couples married for 65 years each and three times for 60 years. Many have celebrated 55 and 50 years continuing in descending integrals of 5 years each that we arbitrarily designate as “milestone anniversaries.” It is a joyous Shabbat including children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Given the 50% divorce rate among American Jews (now equal to the general American population) I ask each couple as they come forward for a blessing:
“How have you done it? What has sustained you for so long?”
Responses vary; some are hysterically funny and others wise from experience:
“She talks; I listen.”
“I agree with everything he says… especially when I don’t!”
“I let him think that every major decision went her way!”
“We laugh a lot!”
“We’ve learned to be patient and we forgive.”
“We don’t sweat the small stuff!”
“We communicate constantly.”
“We adore our kids, but they know that our marriage has always come first.”
“We love family time!”
“We fight fair – we are never nasty.”
“We value each other’s privacy and know when to leave the other alone!”
“We have our separate interests but we spend a lot of time together.”
“We’ve never let anyone come between us.”
“We share many good friends.”
“We’ve resisted temptation and stayed faithful to each other.”
“We trust each other as we trust no one else.”
One bold forty-something wife announced this past Shabbat before 200 people, “We have great sex!”
Over the years I’ve also learned that long-term happily married couples don’t take each other for granted. They tell each other frequently that they love one another. They hold hands. They bring each other unexpected gifts at unexpected times. They accept each other’s differences and have long since stopped trying to change the other. They don’t harbor resentments and they avoid blame. They respect each other’s talents, viewpoint, opinions, and feelings. They cherish each other in ways large and small. They compromise. They share their economic resources as equal partners (money being just one dimension of their partnership) regardless of who earns the most or who brought the most into the marriage. They give generously to each other and there’s never a quid pro quo.
No marriage, of course, is perfect. No marriage has all the above going for it. Every marriage has challenges, difficulties and moments of tension. However, successful and happy marriages are those in which both partners work hard to understand and accept the other as well as accommodate the other’s needs.
Marriages fail for all kinds of reasons. Some die natural deaths when one or both partners grow apart; when one or the other stops caring; when there is disloyalty and unfaithfulness; when injury is left unaddressed and unresolved; when one or both cannot own and apologize for bad behavior; when spouses are rigid, uncompromising, and insistent that things be their way; when one person must always have the last word.
Marriages fail as well when one or both partners have an untreated personality disorder, suffer from mental illness, are abusive, or are plagued with addiction problems.
When I meet and talk with couples before officiating at their weddings, I try and identify areas where I sense that there may be conflict that could develop into serious trouble if left unaddressed, such as how the couple communicates, what are their shared values, and how each partner approaches sex, power, money, in-laws, and leisure. I remind them that marriage is dynamic and ever-changing, and that honest and open communication is critically important to their marital well-being.
I remind them as well that no matter how much they love each other now and how good their relationship is, they will certainly experience peaks and valleys going forward. However, if they place the well-being of their marriage and each other above all other concerns (e.g. work, in-laws, children, extended family, and finances), then it is likely that they will deepen their bond as the years pass.
Doing so is always worth it. In this spirit Mark Twain captures the wonder and ineffability of the marital bond:
“A marriage...makes of two fractional lives a whole;
it gives to two...lives a work,
and doubles the strength of each to perform it;
it gives to two questioning natures
a reason for living,
and something to live for;
it will give a new gladness to the sunshine,
a new fragrance to the flowers,
a new beauty to the earth,
and a new mystery to life.”