What Does It Take to Live Happily Ever After?

I wrote this post in April but I never published it. It’s interesting to me as insight into what was going on with me then, to what I was thinking and dealing with three months before John died, three months before my breaking point, three months before something had to give (or rather something gave), three months before that fateful weekend where I was a sick and nervous wreck and I just couldn’t take anymore, three months before I told John “I’m scared I don’t want to be married anymore.” I didn’t want to break my vows, I didn’t want my marriage to break up, I didn’t want any of it, but it was happening and something had to be done. I wanted to go to counseling, separately at first, to figure out what I needed to do to get to the point where I could commit to counseling together, because my heart was so hurt and hard I couldn’t do it right then. I needed time. But we never got to that point. John obviously didn’t take any of this well, and in less than two weeks it was all over but not in any way, shape, or form like I could have ever imagined.

April 26, 2010 — A co-worker was recently interviewed for a book, and one of the questions asked in the interview was how this person — married more than 20 years — “made it work.” It’s the question everyone wants the answer to, doesn’t matter if you’re single, divorced or married. What is it that makes a marriage “work.” Why do some marriages succeed and others fail? How can more of us end up on the successful side of that line? What’s the trick?

I hate to disappoint, but there’s not one. On the most basic level, marriages that are still together are together because each person continually chooses to be there. However, that speaks not to the joy in the marriage just to its sheer existence. Plenty of people choose to stay in unhappy marriages, or marriages that are “happy enough.” Does staying together out of obligation count as “making it work”? Maybe. I wouldn’t think so. I’m pretty sure that’s not the ending we all have in mind on our wedding days.

Days after talking about this question, I found this quote by Max Lucado:

“Marriage is both a done deal and a daily development, something you did and something you do.”

Our pastor is doing a sermon series on marriage called “Happily Ever After,” and it couldn’t have come at a better time since I was already pondering these questions. Just two weeks into the series and he’s already taught some simple yet profound principles that have improved my perspective a bit. For one, the Biblical principle that marriage is a covenant not a contract. Contracts are negotiable with set terms and a way out if those terms are broken. Covenants are permanent and irrevocable. I think modern marriages function more like contracts because divorce has become so commonplace nowadays. Most couples don’t really go into marriage that way — I think some couples still truly intend to mean “til death do us part” — but our culture and society has made it easy and desirable and almost expected even for couples to divorce. The statistic my pastor used was 65 percent — I remember not that long ago it was 50 — but now 65 percent of marriages end in divorce. That’s 2 out of 3. According to his stats, another 10 percent will stay together but won’t be happy, they’re just together for the kids or because it’s “the right thing,” etc.

It crushed me the first time a friend of mine went through divorce. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. They vowed and they said til death, just like I did, and they didn’t follow through. Why not? How could they give up? Did they not mean those words? Did they mean them but meaning them actually means nothing? If we both said we meant our vows but then they backed out on theirs, what does that mean about what I said? I thought I meant it too, but did I? I’m an overly rational person, so to make this make sense I rationalized that the only way divorce could be legit is if you didn’t mean those words when you said them.  You may have intended to mean them but you didn’t really because if you had meant them you’d still be there, the “til death” part would still be binding. So in the same way if you did mean them then you’re still married, still bound by the covenant, regardless of what our legal system allows you to do. It’s about the commitment or covenant you made with your heart, not all just a legal transaction recorded by the state.

I’m sure that’s a flawed way of looking at things but it’s the best I could do to make sense of it. Our pastor jokes that in today’s weddings “til death do us part” really means “til you make me mad” or “til you stop meeting my needs.” In “The Invention of Lying,” a movie in which people can’t lie and therefore everything out of their mouth is exactly the way they see things, the question asked of the bride and groom at a wedding is, “Do you promise to stay with (name) for as long as you want to and to protect your offspring for as long as you can?”

Personally, my biggest fear in my own marriage is not that we’ll be the couple who divorces — I think John and I are both committed to each other and the marriage and our family, we both want to be together and we have been married long enough that the divorce risk for us, now, is relatively low. According to Divorcecalculator theres’s an 8% chance people like me (who married at a similar age, who have been married the same amount of time and who have children) will divorce in the next five years. But my biggest fear for us is being the ten percent who stay together but aren’t as happy they could be or as they used to be. We’re so busy right now with our careers and the boys and our hobbies and friends that sometimes it all just seems to be going by too fast. I’m scared we’ll be that couple who, after the kids have moved out, looks at each other and doesn’t know who the other one is; whose interests and personalities have morphed without the other knowing or realizing it because they were both too busy to notice. I hope not. I know it doesn’t have to be that way. We’re working on not letting that happen by continuing to make time for each other, by continuing to date each other (when we can), by working on our issues when they come up. Because it’s just like Lucado said: it’s a daily development, not something to be put on autopilot or cruise control.

Happily Ever After sermon series


3 thoughts on “What Does It Take to Live Happily Ever After?

  1. Roark says:

    Hi, I recently found your blog and I find you messages very thought provoking and often times encouraging. This entry is quite nice (I’m not married) but I think you can find yourself in that 10% of unhappy but just there even in a dating relationship. However hopefully you and your said partner can identify and make those daily developments to make it last. Thanks for the post I enjoyed it!

  2. shaggerty says:

    You’re proving that surviving widowhood and single parenting is a daily development, too. I’m glad to see you’re slowly working through everything. It’s work, but I know you and your boys are going to come out of this as healthy as possible.

    The intro to this post is simply beautiful, by the way, even though the content is heartbreaking.

  3. I got together with some folks from the T-M today, and just heard the news. I’m thinking of and praying for you and your boys. You’re a strong and beautiful person, and I know you’ll come through this.

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