To Have and to Hold, In Hardship and Unhappiness
Nearly 35 years into my marriage to Bill, our shared commitment to the Lord has given us a life together that has been formed by Scripture. But our story at this point is more about the existential ache found in the book of Ecclesiastes than the youthful passion in the Song of Solomon.
The Bible's instructions to husbands and wives about obeying, serving and submitting to one another do not come with an iron-clad guarantee of happiness, though I daresay a number of people leading Christian marriage seminars don’t focus on that part. They seem to imply that there is a formula that will unlock a state of perpetual wedded bliss.
I thank God Bill and I weren’t exposed to any of those formulas before we married on October 7, 1979. They probably would have been the undoing of us.
The way we spent the day before our wedding turned out to be eerily prophetic. Bill landed in the ER due to what turned out to be a benign tumor in his abdomen. We went on with the wedding but canceled our honeymoon so the doctors could run tests. I remember fiddling with my wedding ring and wondering what I should do with it if I became a widow at the ripe old age of 20. Come to think of it, Ecclesiastes was making a foreshadowing appearance even then.
Like any good couple in the ’70s, my husband Bill and I had written our own vows. When I read them today, they sound pretty lame. We realized years later that the traditional vows captured the reality of the marriage covenant far better than anything we could have concocted at that stage: to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.
As time went on, we recognized that the simplicity of those words best captured what the marriage covenant was all about. Ten years ago, on our 25th anniversary, Bill and I spent the day alone in a rental townhome after a recent move. We’d faced years of health crises. We struggled to process our spiritual disorientation after an experience under misguided church leadership. We bore the deep sorrow of seeing a prodigal child’s life spiral into chaos. Honestly, neither of us felt much like celebrating.
As the rain outside our window fell slow and steady, we marked the day by repeating the words of those traditional vows to one another. Fleeting emotions of happiness didn’t mark that day, but a sense of deeply rooted joy held us then and holds us today though the trials and losses have continued to come at us one after another after another.
It’s been sobering to see a number of our once-married Christian friends divorce at midlife. When they’d finished or nearly finished raising their kids and faced the physical, emotional and spiritual transitions of middle age, one or both parties in the marriage chose to walk away from the vows they made and the life they built together. In a few cases, I learned there was a secret life (addiction, adultery, or abuse) that had persisted behind their closed doors for years. In too many other cases, one partner asked for a divorce with the bald words, “I just don’t love you any more.”
A recent Bowling Green State University study found that “gray divorce” among people over 50 has increased by 52 percent over the last 20 years. We’re living longer, and the specter of spending an additional three or four decades in a tired-out marriage has caused many couples to split.
Researcher Susan Brown noted, “When marriages don’t meet our needs or enhance our own personal well-being, many of us view divorce as acceptable. That mindset is something that now persists across the generations.” Other researchers insist that life-long monogamy is a false religious construct, and insist that we humans are fighting our biology by mating for life.
I sometimes try to imagine what I was hoping for in marriage when my 19-year-old self said yes to Bill’s proposal. I can’t remember. I knew I loved him, and for the first time in my life, I basked in the security of someone who loved me exactly as I was in return. I admired his intelligence, his love for God, and his work ethic.
The years have tamped the crazy-fun fireworks of our newlywed life into slow-burning embers. It may not be the stuff of Hollywood movies or pop songs, but they are the byproduct of a partnership that’s survived great hardship. We cherish the moments of happiness we’ve shared (and hope to continue to discover in the coming years together), but pursuing happiness is not our goal. Continuing to live within the embrace of God’s faithfulness is.
The last movie I saw that accurately reflected what we’ve come to understand marriage to be was this short video making the rounds a couple of years ago featuring the story of Larissa and Ian Murphy, who were recently interviewed on Her.meneutics.
Months into their relationship, Ian suffered a traumatic brain injury. Years later, they married. Larissa explained, “We know that we have made a covenant to each other, just as Christ made to the church. The church that he made that covenant with is so imperfect, and sorrowful, and disabled. Just like our marriage" (Eph. 5:25-33).
And ours. Happy anniversary, Bill. Until death parts us.