A Truly Great Marriage

This blog is going to be a little different. Back in the spring I read David Brook’s book, The Second Mountain. A section of the book was on marriage and I thought it was exceptional. In this blog I will share several nuggets of wisdom from the marriage section in Brook’s book.

This first one really touched my soul. I will probably share it at my children’s after-rehearsal dinners, when that time comes.

In his novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières described this last best stop on the journey of heart. An old guy is talking to his daughter about his love for his late wife. He tells her, “Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree not two.”


Who you marry is the most important decision you will ever make. Marriage colors your life and everything in it. George Washington had a rather interesting life, but still concluded, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.”


Marriage comes as a revolution. To have lived as a one and then suddenly become a two – that is an invasion. And yet there is a prize. People in long, happy marriages have won the lottery of life. They are the happy ones, the blessed ones. And that is the dream of marital union that lures us on. “What greater thing is there for two human souls,” George Eliot wrote in Adam Bede, “Than to feel that they are joined for life – to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of last parting?”


Passion peaks among the young, but marriage is the thing that peaks in old age. What really defines the happy marriage is the completeness of a couple who have been together for decades. Gabriel Garcia Marquez captured it when describing an old couple in Love in the time of Cholera:

In the end they knew each other so well that by the time they had been married for thirty years they were like a single divided being, and they felt uncomfortable at the frequency with which they guessed each other’s thoughts . . . It was the time when they loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other mortal trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the shore.


The maximal marriage is something you hurl yourself into, burning the boats behind you. “We must return to an attitude of total abandonment,” Mike Mason writes in The Mystery of Marriage, “of throwing all our natural caution and defensiveness to the winds and putting ourselves entirely in the hands of love by an act of will. Instead of falling into love, we may now have to march into it.”


When you choose to marry someone, you had better choose someone you’ll enjoy talking with for the rest of your life. It doesn’t work unless two people can fall into a state of fluid conversational flow.


Marriage starts as a joy and ends up an education. It starts as a joy because at first you get to spend every day with the person you care about most in the world, the one who makes you happiest just to be around. But then it turns into something else. When you agree to marry, you are agreeing to be completely known, a scary prospect.


The quality of the conversation is the quality of the marriage. Good conversation creates warmth and peace, and bad conversation creates frigidity and stasis. Conversation is how marriage partners rub off on each other.


Brooks quotes this last piece from Tim and Kathy Keller’s wonderful book, The Meaning of Marriage.

Tim and Kathy Keller describe how the process of improvement and elevation happens. First, you marry a person who seems completely wonderful and mostly perfect. Then, after a little while – maybe a month or two, maybe a year or two – you realize that the person you thought was so wonderful is actually imperfect, selfish, and flawed in many ways. As you are discovering this about your spouse, your spouse is making the exact same discovery about you.

The natural tendency in this situation is to acknowledge that of course you are a little selfish and flawed, but in fact it is your spouse’s selfishness that is the main problem here. Both spouses will also come to this conclusion at about the same time.

Then comes a fork in the road. Some couples will decide that they don’t want all the stress and conflict that will come with addressing the truths they have discovered about each other and themselves. They’ll make a truce, the Kellers say. Some subjects will not be talked about. You agree to not mention some of your spouse’s shortcomings so long as she agrees not to mention some of yours. The result is a truce-marriage, which is static, at least over the short term, but which gradually deteriorates over the long one.

“The alternative to this truce-marriage is to determine to see your own selfishness as a fundamental problem and to treat it more seriously than you do your spouse’s. Why? Only you have complete access to your own selfishness, and only you have complete responsibility for it.” The Kellers write. “If two spouses each say, ‘I’m going to treat my self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,’ you have the prospect of a truly great marriage.”

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.


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