And We Both Shall Row
A very dear friend of mine is working through the end stages of his relationship with the man he has been with for over twenty years. Because it is a same-sex relationship, there is no legal marriage to dissolve, no messy divorce procedures to endure. The emotional and spiritual suffering is still there, the anguish of the loss is still there, of course. My heart aches for the path he faces. My wife and I are on the eve of our fifteenth anniversary, to be celebrated March third. Our marriage has lasted through significant difficulty. We have sailed through our share of troubled water and now find ourselves with a depth of years beneath us, clear skies ahead and a fresh wind running along side. It could have been otherwise.
As I approach this milestone in our relationship and see the glorious beauty of many other relationships around me, I also the relationships that did not last, my parents, my brother’s marriages, my friend’s, and so many others around us. I see those who struggle to make their relationship work and others who make it seem so effortless. My wife and I have had to work hard, endure much, and with laughter and forgiveness see each other through these past fifteen years. What are the qualities needed to make it work? What are the hallmarks of a good marriage?
When I speak of marriage this morning, I intend it to mean marriage as it will one day be defined. According to the newspaper a State Supreme Court Justice ruled just this past Friday that “the New York State Constitution guarantees basic freedoms to lesbian and gay people – and that those rights are violated when same-sex couples are not allowed to marry.” We’ll have to see how this goes in the Court of Appeals in Albany, but think it is only a matter of time before enough people affirm what it says on the big blue banner outside our front door, that Civil Marriage is a Civil Right! So, when I speak of marriage this morning, I speak of heterosexual marriage as well as what is now called holy union or partnership. I speak of the relationship regardless of the sexual orientation of the partners in that relationship. And so I ask, what are the hallmarks of a good marriage?
As many of you will have noticed, I have appealed to the wisdom of the congregation to help with this sermon, to help me articulate the qualities needed in a good relationship of this sort. I asked you to send me your thoughts and reflections on what has made your marriage or partnership work. I received many wonderful responses considering the lateness of the call, (the newsletter with my request for your participation only got into your hands a few days ago.)
I asked my own children what they thought were the important qualities needed for a good marriage or partnership and Brin answered immediately, “Humor.” Keenan thought a moment and said “Mutual respect, and trust.” They were quite for another moment and Keenan said “Oh, and love.” “Oh, well, yeah.” As if it was an afterthought. As I laughed, Keenan rushed in to clarify, “I mean as opposed to money or looks.” To which Brin said, “Yeah, Love is more important, but we’re doing ok with money!” Someone once said, “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
My wife liked what they offered and added communication to the top of her list. Without open communication little else is possible. She also told me marriage is like a dance where you have to know the steps but also how to improvise. Lindberg had used the same analogy to dancers in the meditation this morning saying we are, “partners in the same pattern.”
Toby Anderson sent this:
Here’s my two cents: Each should give the other room to change and grow, then accept and support the change and growth. In the space provided, affection will flourish.
This advice follows that which was offered by Rainer Maria Rilke who wrote, “A good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude.” Now, the guardian of Toby’s solitude also offered a few words of wisdom. Libby Anderson wrote:
After almost 44 years I think that I’d say: Love, Laughter, and good conversations are really important. The good conversations come from each finding the other to be interesting. When any crisis occurs it is important to hold on to each other. It gives each partner more strength and deepens the love.
I found it fascinating that one suggested the need to give each one space while the other suggested the need to hold on to each other. As Rilke said, we must be guardians of each other’s solitude, but we must likewise let the other in. We must be equally independent but also mutually dependant. It is a strange mix to talk about but a natural thing to experience. I think many people get caught, however, by going overboard with the dependant part. At least if you listen to the music on the radio. So often the love songs talk about you fill me or complete me or lift me up or how I can’t live without you. I do remember a lyric from the sixties or seventies, (I can’t remember the artist now,) but it said, “Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly you’ll loose control.” It is a balance that is needed. Balance seems to have been the watch word of my adult life.
Sara Clavez sent me a wonderful quote that seems to sum this idea up: “Love, like water, can be held only in the open hand.” It is held, but it is also open.
I picked up an e-mail from Kit Hartman yesterday evening that also carries these ideas. She wrote,
Hi Doug, I’m pleased you want to hear from me and have been mulling over in my mind what to say. A cartoon came to mind. George had it pinned to the bulletin board in the kitchen. I think it was Broom Hilda, portrayed in just two panels. One says to the other, “Marriage is when two live together as one,” and the other replies in the second panel, “Yes, but which one?”
I think of two things in regard to marriage. One must place the other above all others, with the exception of a terribly ill child. One must stand sentinel at the gate of the other’s privacy. This second “must” is a steal from a Rilke poem I read long ago. I suppose “must” is a bit stuffy but so be it.
Raney Colvill wrote to me saying, “A solid close relationship with another is one of the most difficult things to achieve.” Raney’s comments covered a lot of ground and I want to share a few of the things she sent me.
I believe that marriage is not 50-50. Each should try to do his/her share but more if needed, esp. if partner is tired, stressed, ill, or hurting in some way. Somewhere I read that a good marriage is when each partner thinks he is fortunate that he married his partner and that his partner does more to make the marriage successful than he does.
Some one mentioned to me (between services during the coffee hour) that she recalled a minister saying that marriage is not 50-50 but 75-75! This certainly fits with what Raney is saying. And she picks up a different point when she writes:
I think it is perhaps more difficult to stay married today because one’s expectations are often higher than when people married years ago. Also, if one has never experienced death or loss of a loved one, failure or at least somewhat difficult times in some way, it may be extremely difficult for them to cope. What I am trying to say as somewhere in one’s life one must develop at least minimal coping skills as far as stress goes before marriage will be successful unless they are a quick study.
Raney’s thoughts about needing coping skills to deal with stress reminded me of a saying. “Marriages are made in heaven. But, again, so are thunder, lightning, tornados and hail.” There will be difficulty and trouble. There will be struggles, and it is important to have adequate coping skills and a solid foundation for your relationship to weather the storms.
Ron Kissick spoke with me on the phone yesterday and the first question he asked me was, “Do you want me to avoid a lot of technical phrases and jargon?” Ron works with couples for a career. He told me that he had learned that the most basic behavior that makes for a quality relationship is a consistent pattern of appreciation. He told me it works in his relationship and in the council he gives to others. To develop a consistent pattern of appreciation with your partner is to develop habits and rituals that call attention to the relationship you share and to the love you build together. It calls for a positive outlook and sharing your wishes, hopes, and dreams with each other. Ron told me this was the core basic foundation of a relationship. If you could hold the positive outlook by sharing your hopes and dreams with each other, and maintain the consistent pattern of appreciation, then, he said, “It makes the struggles doable; not easy, just doable.”
Jeff Donahue reflected on his relationship with his wife, Kay Glasgow and wrote to me:
I don’t think I have anything profound to tell you about successful relationships … the only thing I can think of that’s helped Kay & me is to take the time to have fun and to explore. Concerts, dinners with friends, playing with our pets, and traveling to new places have all contributed to our successful relationship. We have fun together as well as apart — each of us has interests we pursue independently, and I think that keeps us energized, intrigued, and vital.
One couple from our congregation who has been together for almost nine years, reflecting on what it takes to make a relationship work, responded by saying, “Well it’s probably cliché, but the key is communication and mutual respect.” If I were to go back through what everyone sent to me or mentioned to me I think she would be right, it probably is cliché, but there it is: communication and mutual respect. She picked up on another theme as well when she said that she and her partner “are not joined at the hip. We are not like some of those couples who can’t do anything apart. We each have our own interests and passions.” She talked about how they each have their own interests, but they have found ways to enjoy each other’s interests; not because they are interested in the same things, but because they are interested in each other. Another facet of the success of their relationship is in how they deal with problems. “We don’t hide from our disagreements or go off in a huff and then pretend like it never happened. We always discuss it, especially if it is a recurring theme.”
In all of the reading I had done in leading up to this sermon, there was only one piece I wanted to lift up alongside all the wonderful comments all of you had to offer. The piece is one of the essays in the book my colleague Scott Alexander edited about five years ago entitled Everyday Spiritual Practice. The essay I’m thinking of is entitled “Partnership as Spiritual Practice” by Brian Kiely, a UU minister from Alberta Canada. Kiely writes, “I have to work hard to find the elusive equilibrium between me, thee, and us. In fact, for me, partnership has become a spiritual discipline, practiced habitually, intentionally, and with the awareness that the reward is not in the mystical moments of perfect union, but in the journey through the years together.”
This, I believe, is the crux of so much of what has been offered by so many of you. A spiritual practice is something you work at. It caught up in the concept of intentionality. Shoveling the driveway or chasing after a toddler may be good for your physical health but it is not akin to jogging or maintaining an exercise routine. What is missing in the former is the intentionality of a practice or discipline. A marriage can have moments where the behaviors and qualities we have mentioned appear, and it may be enough to hold the relationship together. You may give gifts on anniversaries and birthdays or have tender moments while making up after a fight. But without the regular attention given to the relationship on a day to day level, there will be little reserve built up to get you through the turmoil, mistakes, lapses of judgment, and changes that pervade every relationship.
A common wedding and holy union element these days is a unity candle. This is a ritual where there are two taper candles lit ahead of time. These two candles represent the individuals joining their lives together. A third candle, usually a large pillar candle, is in the center. As the couple uses the two smaller candles to lit the big center candle I tell them it represents the new life into which they now enter. It represents a new way of being for them, a way of being together. I always tell them before hand to not extinguish the two taper candles because they represent their individuality which does not cease to exist with the creation of their marriage bond. And because there was one time I didn’t tell them this and it took all my control to not stop the wedding and relight the two small candles the bride and groom had blown out after lighting the center candle.
Kiely said he has to “work hard to find the elusive equilibrium between me, thee, and us.” The spiritual disciplines he uses enhance his experience of what the third candle represents. This third piece is the relationship itself and it requires as much attention as the two participants involved. And, of course, any relationship carries this element. A relationship between siblings, parent and child, best friends, or lovers will have the elements of me and thee and that which is between us, that which is us. Marriages and same-sex partnerships have, however, a distinction from all other relationships in the depth of intimacy. And perhaps you have heard that the deepest most personal levels of intimacy are also connected to the highest levels of ultimacy. And as such, marriage can be yet another path to God. After fifteen years, I feel I am getting close.
If we can look at our marriages like spiritual practices requiring patience and ritual and attention, we may find the return is like that which any other spiritual practice offers. We will see and understand more about ourselves as individuals and about the world around us, we will grow and deepen and be strengthen. Like yoga or prayer or journaling, with practice and attention on a daily level, your significant relationships can become a vessel for intimacy and growth. With practice, your marriage can be as a boat that will help you weather the storms and carry you into the most intimate heart of life and blessing.
In a world without end,
May it be so.