The late poet Seamus Heaney wrote that his parents’ solid marriage was built upon “a love that’s proved by steady gazing, not at each other, but in the same direction.” (Read more about Heaney’s life and work here.) These days, millions of Americans are wondering what defines a marriage—and what makes good marriages work. Popular author and columnist Benjamin Pratt has spent a long time consulting with his wife Judith Pratt on what they have learned in their half century. And—don’t miss the blessing Benjamin offers at the conclusion of this column!
Love Is What You Go Through With Someone
By BENJAMIN PRATT
Judith and I are in our 12th marriage.
To be a little more precise, we can demarcate 12 different movements to our 50-year marital dance. Each dance has been different with some, like the tango, filled with passion, and others gentle and orderly like the waltz. Oh yes, we’ve had turns of rock and roll, herky-jerky and the energetic swing—and even the crawl as our world slowed down.
Each marriage corresponds to major life transitions: being newlyweds, the birth of children, personal times of growth and struggle, new professions, deaths of parents, children moving away from the nest, aging, and, of course, illness and the tasks of caregiving. Each transition involved the basic marital functions of love, sex, children, careers, families, companionship and house-holding. And, each turn in the dance was dynamic, daunting and demanding.
We never claimed to be masters of the dance. We are always learning.
THE SHY MEETING
Fifty-four years ago, I met Judith.
As a very shy teenager who had dated very little, I remember our first encounter. An electric jolt went through my body and stunned me to silence. I translated the jolt as a confirmation that I had met the girl of my dreams.
It was nearly four months until we had our first date. I told you I was shy! Our first date was a part of my fraternity initiation process: I had to ask someone I had never dated to a dance. The horror of the evening was that I had not slept for 36 hours, was wearing a scratchy burlap bag under my shirt and tie, had just eaten 4 cloves of garlic and had a heavy dose of lilac tonic rubbed into my hair. Wasn’t I appealing?
My assignment that night: I was to return to the dorm with lipstick on my lips. On the way home, I asked her to paint my lips. She later confessed that she really wanted to kiss me. My interpretation of the jolt was confirmed.
PRIDE COMES BEFORE A FALL
Electricity has flowed in our relationship. Most often it has been positive but sometimes quite negative. The closest our marriage came to failing was during the tenth year. I was the founding pastor of the fastest growing church in Northern Virginia. Folks were fueling my foolish pride by predicting I would become a bishop. I averaged working 70-80 hours a week. I was so absorbed in my work that I was absent to my wife even when I was at home.
I had become full of myself!
Without rain, Virginia red clay becomes like concrete. There had been a six-week drought that summer. In September, our church gathered at a sun-baked park for fun, games and a picnic. I joined in a touch football game. I was running full speed to catch a pass when I tripped over a young boy’s foot.
I plunged toward the clay concrete, reaching out both arms to break the fall. The fall broke the radial heads in both of my elbows. For six weeks I was in two casts.
I instantly became like a dependent infant, except for being able to thrill my daughters by mimicking the Cookie Monster. I could lift the lid off the cookie jar on top of the refrigerator and extract a cookie, placing it on the edge. “Gulp! Coooookie Monster!” Fun. But, not a basic survival skill.
Truth be told, I could do nothing to care for myself. I could not dress, feed, or clean myself in any way. One parishioner drew a cartoon of me exiting a Men’s Room with my head turned back to say, “Thanks.” So, I turned to Judith for care. Considering the emotional-and-relational canyon between us at that point, it was not easy to close our intimacy gap. I had ignored her, so it made sense that she was not eager to care for me in my dependency. On more than one occasion she has confessed that she was tempted to cut more deeply while shaving my neck.
Slowly, but surely, the painful, humbling fall led us to tears, confessions, forgiveness and a new, much deeper love and commitment. I came to believe that it was God’s foot that tripped me and brought me down.
It was God who affirmed that love is what you go through with someone.
50 YEARS OF ATTEMPTED HUMOR
—AND REAL COMPASSION
Occasionally, someone asks, “What is the key to making a marriage last for 50 years?”
I usually test their sincerity with a few dark quips: “Good Scotch;” “I always surrender;” “Long walks, very long walks;” or “Marriage is the commitment to share the same bedroom in which the temperature is never right.”
But, if I sense that the question is a serious inquiry, I will speak more openly and thoughtfully. I might open by saying that humor, which I just attempted, is basic to success. Not only humor that makes us laugh together, but the deeper understanding of humor helping us prevail against our fears and not letting us take ourselves too seriously.
Love is what you live through with someone. Marriage holds us together during our intimacy gaps. Marriage is the best alternative to aloneness and loneliness. Sustaining a good relationship means really being there for the other, being alert and hospitably present. It means listening to the other, not just with our ears but with our heart. It means responding to what we hear with compassionate action. It is soul engaging, emotionally and mentally energizing. It is the stuff of committed friendship. It is the dance of love, the stuff of life in communion and community. It’s common sense—and especially common decency.
We trust the old adage that marital partners are adversaries. There are some fundamental differences in each of us that will always impact our relationship. They are basic to who we are, why we risked marriage—and how we bless and irritate each other. These differences could have been the source of perennial warfare. But we chose to make them the creative irritants that spur on-going growth in each of us. Judith and I have chosen to understand that our differences are the grains of sand that irritate our oyster to develop and create a more beautiful pearl in the heart of each of us. We are not the same persons we were 50 years ago. We are better, wiser, more caring and creative persons because of each other.
We are in the 50th year of our marital dance because we are deeply respectful, grateful and tender toward each other. We believe in and trust each other. We, like all couples, have been critical, even contemptuous, of the other. But those times were short-lived and minor compared to the warm, affectionate, openness that has prevailed in our mutual dance.
Without hesitation, I can say that I have been a better marital partner because I daily pray the Discipleship Prayer, attributed to St. Francis. In it is the admonition to “seek not so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” This act alone orients any relationship in a positive direction.
SHARING ‘A BLESSING OF THE SENSES’
When I conduct weddings, these days, I no longer deliver a homily. Instead, I share a Blessing of the Senses. Each time I speak the blessing it is personally crafted to include feigned touching of the couple’s eyes, ears, lips, hands and heart. I think it summarizes the ingredients necessary for a sustained, thriving marriage.
Here is one version of that blessing:
May God so bless your Eyes that you will see, not who you want to see, but truly see your partner for his/her gifts and graces, warts and wounds. May you celebrate with gratitude the gifts and joys, and understand and console the wounds and warts.
May God bless your Ears that you may not only listen but truly hear the voice, words, yearnings, needs and hopes of your partner.
May God so bless your Lips that your kisses shall be sweet and tender. And may the words crossing your lips be ones of honesty, hope, forgiveness—along with laughter. May your lips be guardians that halt words of hatred, vicious criticism and contempt.
May God bless your Hands to be instruments of comfort, strength and tenderness for the other.
May God bless your Heart that you may be a presence of comfort, joy, hope, forgiveness and vitality to your partner as well as others. May your Hearts be so filled with love that you will be instruments of peace to all.
Love each other as you have been loved.
Care for each other.
Bear one another’s burdens; share each other’s joys.
And, bring each other home.
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