We just celebrated our nineteenth wedding anniversary. We celebrated by driving fourteen hours, sleeping a few hours, and then having a conversation. It was one of those conversations that starts out, “I want you to know that you made me angry when you…,” followed by the other person saying, “Yeah, well, when you…” It wasn’t a fight, but it wasn’t a steak dinner at a romantic restaurant. That’s the way marriage is. Some celebratory days are marked with strife, and some stressful days turn into occasions for celebration.
I did a couple of weddings recently. The brides were sisters so I had a lot of the same people at both ceremonies. It didn’t stop me from giving the same speech. In the wedding vows there is the part where you pledge to be faithful and true through richer and poorer, sickness and health, and for better or worse. I think the “better or worse” clause is the most over underrated and neglected clause in the whole wedding process. I think we overlook it and almost dismiss it. We know what richer and poorer are. We plan on health, but foresee sickness. We know that the time will come when one of us stands by the hospital bed of the other, over the coffin. It is unpleasant to consider, but we can wrap our heads around it because that is the way life goes.
What we don’t get is ‘the worse.’ When you are in your twenties and in love and healthy, you imagine that sickness and death are the worse. But the worse is not a one time event. The worse is the wolf at the door. If the worse weren’t important it wouldn’t get a clause all to itself. The worse is when you have finally worked out which in-law will be the least angry if you visit the other for this holiday and you are in the drive-through at Burger King with two screaming children, trying to get the order placed while you search through the change holder trying to scrape together enough money to buy supper knowing that the rent is due and you need new tires and your job sucks and Dear Lord if everybody would just hush up for one minute…and how did I get myself into this in the first place and I could just open this door and walk away… That, my friend, is the worse. And the worse creeps in during the sickness and the poorer, and it creeps in during the richer and the health. The worse is the battle against which you must constantly defend if your relationship is going to make it.
To top it all off, sometimes the better ain’t all that much better than the worse. Part of sustaining a relationship is being able to recognize the difference between the better and the worse. You have to be able to see that sitting in that same drive-through next year with the same screaming, and the same stress, and with the rent still due, but WITH new tires is the better.
I have heard people say that their relationship never takes any work and that everything has always been peachy. I mistrust those people.
I’ve been married nineteen years. I expect that nineteen years from now I will have been married to Paula for thirty-eight years. Why? Well, because I love her. And because I made a promise to her and to God and to our parents and our community and, indirectly at the time, to our children. And because I try to finish things I start. Granted, I haven’t finished the bathroom yet, or the door frame in my office, and I still have to put the molding in the kitchen, but I try to finish things I start.
That means that sometimes we are going to fight on our anniversary, or on Christmas, or on our birthdays. It’s part of the deal. We promised each other the worse, and, by God, sometimes we deliver.
We don’t always get along. Sometimes we yell and scream. Sometimes only a promise we made a long time ago sustains us. Do we have a flawless marriage? No. Do we have issues? Certainly.
Do we have a perfect marriage? You know what? Yes. Yes we do have a perfect marriage. We have a perfect marriage because the both of us are perfectly willing to ride out individual storms, to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. We are both perfectly willing to look each other in the eye at the drive-through with the screaming children and the bald tires and think to ourselves, “Right now I would like to shove this box of fries right up your nose and dump this milkshake in your lap…but once I pledged my life-long love to you, so I’ll ride this out. Plus, we’re too poor to buy more fries and I’m starving.”
So, Paula, I am sorry I was unpleasant over the weekend, but I love you and I promise to do better on our twentieth anniversary.