The Gift of a Long Marriage - Donald & Peggy Shriver
In David Lean’s film version of Doctor Zhivago, a boxcar load of Moscow-fleeing refugees includes an elderly couple in their ‘nineties. Bearded, tired, dislocated, he leans over and kisses her.
It is an image of a long marriage. Married now for 66 years, we identify with that. These days a few friends wonder, “It seems real for you. What makes love last so long?”
We have to be cautious as we attempt to answer. Every marriage is unique. Its meaning for others is not easily analogized. Further, we now know that forms of human affection are so varied that one risks insulting that variety by suggesting that one’s own experience should model anyone else’s. We hope that same-sex marriages, too, can also be gifted with love that lasts. Second marriages, too.
In any case, the question deserves honoring: “What made it work for you?” Our answers should get nested in careful social research. But here are brief answers we are likely to offer if anyone cares to ask about us two. In a time when American young people are well aware that half of marriages seem fated for dissolution, distrust of the promise, “Till death does us part,” has statistics on its side. But a few testimonies to the long-lasting seem in order. Impressive is the fact that most divorced people, having tasted marriage, however short, are hopeful enough to give the adventure another try.
Here are a few of our sources of long loyalty to each other.
1. We two were raised in homes unbroken by divorces, and our wider families were mostly intact, too. Monogamy and fidelity ran in our families, one might say. We are fortunate to be unencumbered with histories of single parenthood. We believe that single parents deserve special recognition for all who maintain loyalty to their offspring in the absence of the partnership that gave birth to them. We think of successful single parenthood as heroic.
2. Secondly, we met each other in the context of the youth organizations of the Protestant churches. Our celebration of marriage concurs with biblical views of the relationship. We both majored in liberal arts in small colleges, with the result that, early on, we enjoyed discussing the dialogues of Plato and how our births in Virginia and Iowa made for different takes on Civil War history. If and when we argued, we searched for the reasons in our disagreements. Early on, we enjoyed each other’s thinking.
3. Which is to testify that we enjoyed several dimensions of our personal communication - physical, intellectual, and emotional. In the dating culture of the 1950s conversation between the two sexes around philosophical issues did not flourish. But politics, world affairs, and theology were not exotic for us. Once, after we acquired a second home on a woody hillside north of New York City, a friend asked, “What do you talk about with all that time on your hands?” Antoine de Saint Exupery said: “Love is not just looking at each other. It is looking outward in the same direction.” For us, books, music, the newspaper, world travel, and those red-turning maples on our hillside furnished many a “same direction.” A rich mix of experience protected us from Freudian reductions of romance to sexual arousal. We came to believe that careful intellectual exchange is also a rich glue of marriage, along with the glues of body and spirit. In his recent book “The Road to Character” David Brooks quotes the poet Spencer Reese: “The more he loved me the more I loved the world.” Brooks adds: “Love expands with use.”
Without talk, romance can become empty. After the death of his first wife and marriage to his second, John Milton defined marriage as “an apt and cheerful conversation.”
4. Romance grows with enjoyment of each other’s various gifts—musical, literary, know ledge of history. To be sure, the work of marriage for us has often concentrated on the rigors of parenthood, so subject to “the thousand natural shocks that flesh and blood are heir to.” Children suffer, and we suffer with them. They get sick, they leave home earlier than we hoped. They have minds and wishes of their own. We are told that, when a child dies, marriages often fall apart. We know that crisis only too well, for we had once to endure it. But we know that it is best endured in a two-parent partnership that survives the rigors of care for children, whether or not that care seems reciprocated.
5. Successful single parenthood really is an achievement. We think that Milton made in mistake in observing that, after their fall into temptation, Adam and Eve left Eden to go “their solitary way.” Not really solitary: The biblical text says that, fallen they may now be, but they leave together! Fortunately for them - in view of the crisis they would soon confront - the murder of their second child Abel by their first, Cain.
6. It meant that they were soon to share each other’s suffering. A member of the staff of the seminary where we lived for two decades commented to one of us, “Around here, there are two things we admire about you, Mr. President: Your marriage and your capacity to absorb hostility.” It may disappoint supporters of religious organizations, but the fact is that theologically learned people have resources for fueling a lot of anger in their disputes. All sides have divine support! For the endurance of this phenomenon an administrator is fortunate to go home every night to a secure love. We suspect that the staff member who made this double observation surmised that the one side helped to make the other possible. Sharing in each other’s troubles is surely a source of long marriage.
In sum, too few they may be, but many we hope, are the long-married. The gift of such love is easy to receive as a gift of the Creator who announced, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) Nor the woman, nor any human. We believe that the rule of shared suffering obtains in same-sex marriages, too.
We wish that the famous text of Genesis 2:18 had read: “I will make them helpers to each other.” That concurs with the requisites as we know them from our 66 years. It concurs also with the theme of Marilynne Robinson’s eloquent essay, “The Givenness of Things.” One of the given things is human love that lasts, “till death does them part.”
We do not believe that “marriages are made in heaven.” But we do believe that a marriage, long lived on earth, is an anticipation of a love worth a heavenly resumption.
We think of the two English students who visited Egypt in the star-punctured shadow of the Sphinx. One asks the other, “If you could have one question for this old wise fellow, what would it be?” The other answered, “I’d ask it: is the universe friendly?”
For the long married, at least one corner of the universe is friendly: the one they have waked up to for hundreds of mornings. It is a truth from the deep beginning of things: “It is not good for the human to be alone.” And we gift of love that is a gift of God.
Donald W. Shriver is President Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary .
Peggy L. Shriver is former Assistant General Secretary, National Council of Churches.