I haven’t looked at this essay in years, but after getting word today that it’s going to be recycled in an Oprahworld anthology (O’S LITTLE BOOK OF STARTING OVER, ETA October 2016), I thought I’d take a look. Still one of my favs.
Looking Out for #2
By Lise Funderburg
O the Oprah Magazine
It wasn’t until I decided to marry again that I realized how completely uncertain and illogical marriage is. The second time around, you can’t hide behind romantic innocence. You already know how easy it is to take another person for granted. You know how hard it is to live with someone else: to build intimacy over years, to grow without stealing all the available sunlight and food, or to simply like that other person day in and day out despite chore wars, seat-up/seat-down debates, and other domestic disputes such as appropriate use of mayonnaise in sandwich-making (never versus always). The second time around, you already know how easy it is to fail.
Forget corroborating statistics that show up in print (divorce for almost 50 percent of first marriages and 40 percent of second); anyone can see that failure lurks on the other side of the next financial downturn or conflict in life directions or mountain of careless, bruising words. All around, marriages are crumbling, families are splintering, people are retreating into corners, making do, putting up, shutting off.
And yet even before I met John, even as I combed through the ashes of the first marriage, looking for what to discard and what to salvage, I realized the idea of marriage didn’t repel me. The problem had been in thinking that it marked the arrival at a destination instead of signaling a point of departure. It wasn’t marriage that had failed my first husband and me: By expecting it to maintain itself based on one sunny April afternoon of exchanged vows, we had failed it. For eight years, we left those promises untended, impending ruin masked by compatibility and goodwill.
In its aftermath, people, friends, and acquaintances seemed to anticipate bitterness — they expected bile and brokenness when breaking the news of other people’s nuptials. They got neither. I had a greater respect for the institution. I was humbled by the enterprise I had come to see as demanding courage and hope and a relentless investment of self. I was in awe.
When John and I both recognized the irreversible pull between us—the astounding affinity, the willingness to understand, the tenderness, the fun—we started to consider a future. We fit as a couple; we fit in the larger context of each other’s lives. He actually liked my eccentric family, the forces of nature that they can be. And I was crazy about his l7-year-old son, who lived with him and who stepped off the path of adolescent individuation rites long enough to allow me glimpses of his kind heart and sharp mind, as well as a chance to find my way around that phenomenon I’d never understood— the teenage boy.
John and I shared a striking number of interests (urban living, pork) and traits (bossiness, get-up-and-go). What we didn’t share we admired, and what we didn’t admire we accepted. My brilliant therapist had been telling me all along that a mature love is one in which the beloved can have flaws but still be considered a perfect match. Oh, I thought, I get it now.
After two years of tumbling and inching toward each other, John and I married. It was two summers ago, in my (now our) backyard, with 150 witnesses and 40 slabs of barbecued ribs, a mess of side dishes where a first marriage’s gift table might have been, and a feeling of pleasure that was quiet and sure. In front of a village of loved ones (and platters of pork), we pledged our troth, and I felt with equal conviction that I (a) was doing the right thing and (b) had no idea what I was getting into.
The paradox of those realizations prompted what John calls a BFO: a blinding flash of the obvious. Suddenly, I understood that marriage is, as it has often been said, a leap of faith. I had just made the leap; now came the faith. In that moment, I saw that my best hope for defying statistics and building a strong union was to consider marriage an expression of faith, a spiritual act that requires devotion and practice and the same naked honesty that people seek between themselves and their god(s).
I am not religious in the conventional sense, certainly not what some of my relatives would call churched. I grew up in a religious minority’s minority, a birthright Unitarian, and in my adulthood I have—if it’s possible for Unitarians to do so—lapsed. But I attend weddings and funerals and civil commitments, baby dedications and bat mitzvahs and any number of holidays and ceremonies. My Methodist, African Methodist, and Colored Methodist relatives have not left the church, and so I have had the opportunity over the years to witness the faith of others, a stirring and beautiful thing.
Among the friends and relations whose spirituality I admire, I’ve noted that their practice is not restricted to a particular day of the week but applied to the twists and turns of everyday life. Likewise, my commitment to this marriage is not something I dust off at anniversaries or in the wake of troubles. It is a close and constant touchstone. I am conscious of this promise I’ve made to John to cast my lot with his, to be a guardian of his unguarded heart as I offer up my own.
Consciousness introduces a higher plane on which to relate, retreat, take solace, and find answers, to rise above the petty fray. Unfortunately, it’s not a complete guarantee against quotidian tangles. It would still kill no one to put the toilet seat back down, to know where the vacuum is stored and act upon said knowledge. Or to remember that he has more than once explained to me in assiduous detail the virtues of the Norton 850 Commando, which was one of the fastest production motorcycles you could buy in 1973, when European motorcycles still dominated the market for performance and before Japan’s Honda 750 four cylinder hit and immediately took over, pushing Norton out of business within a few years, followed shortly thereafter by the death of Triumph.
Faith demands belief in what you can’t see. I know, for example, that I must have my own version of the Norton Commando story even if I can’t see it. And believing that allows me to be more patient. When John goes on about some great passion of his that I rank up there with paint drying and software downloading, I remind myself that this is an opportunity I’m being given to challenge my own limits, that it is a gift to share in someone else’s enthusiasm and imagination, and that this is what happens when you live with someone day after day after day. If all else fails, I use the time to reflect on last spring’s trip to France, how perfect the weather was, how wonderful it was to rummage through country flea markets together, and how we kept our sense of humor when all the charming hotels and gites were booked during the week of the Ascension and we ended up in a charmless motor inn overlooking a big-box mall.
Faith is a way to step outside yourself, to remember that this anecdote, too, shall pass; that being a team is more important than which exit he takes off the highway; that you don’t need to balance the checkbook the same way in order to prove that you’re evenly yoked and well suited; and that annoyance and blame are often the result of misplaced anxieties, which, if clearly identified, could most likely be addressed and resolved without leaving open or festering wounds. We are all, as the psychotherapist Deborah Luepnitz writes, porcupines. We seek the warmth of others but soon tangle ourselves in one another’s prickly quills.
Faith, among the faithful I know, is not about perfection. It’s about knowing, as Quakers would put it, that there is an inextinguishable light inside everyone that is holy. It’s about valuing the holy in the face of the flawed, about leaving room to grow, to fall down, then get back up again, all with equal dignity. And so, I find after two years of practicing, is a good marriage.