I don’t know if I really loved my husband when we got married or if I even knew what love was. But I know that every day we learn to love each other and there is deep joy in that messy process. There are nights when he sits quietly reading, and I look at his face and remember what a steep hill we have climbed and will continue to climb, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude that he has stayed with me, that we may live this life together, with all the sorrow, betrayal, glory, sweetness, surprise and mystery that entails. So much beauty has grown from what at times seemed like an impossible stony ground.
Of course, we all want relationships that are meaningful and fulfilling. I don’t want to return to the days when we expect marriage to be nothing but a slog—the days when the famous 18th-century clergyman John Wesley said (somewhat hilariously) of his marriage, “I didn’t seek happiness with it, and I not found it.” But perhaps part of forming the meaningful relationships we long for is enduring prolonged periods of dissatisfaction and disappointment.
The last thing I am is some kind of relationship guru. And I know that my husband’s and my situation cannot be translated to other marriages. I know we’re lucky. We have two people in a relationship who want to work on it, which isn’t the case for everyone, and we’ve been spared substance abuse or serious untreated mental illness, things that often destroy relationships. I don’t give much marriage advice. But I just want to offer that choosing to stay in a marriage for all sorts of unromantic reasons is a good and even courageous choice. And even if it never ends up being a great book or movie, that choice offers its own kind of silent path of discovery, growth, love, and bloom.
Statistics confirm this. A 2002 longitudinal study by University of Chicago sociologist Linda J. Waite found that “two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation were happily married five years later.” It also showed that for those who were unhappy, divorce did not increase happiness over time: “Unhappy married adults who were divorced or divorced were, on average, no happier than unhappily married adults who remained married.” Nor did divorce reduce the rate of depression or improve self-esteem.
I fully understand that sometimes divorce is unavoidable, and I certainly don’t want anyone to be stuck in an abusive relationship for even one minute. But for those in nonviolent but difficult marriages, Waite concludes that divorce often does not deliver the promised benefits, and that “both people and marriages are likely to be happier in communities with a strong commitment to marital sustainability.”
In an essay for The Times, Alain De Botton wrote, “Choosing who we want to commit to is just a matter of identifying what particular kind of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”
I want to normalize significant periods of confusion, exhaustion, sadness and unfulfillment in the marriage. I know an elderly couple who are in their fifth decade of marriage. They are funny and kind and, by almost any standard, the image of #relationshipgoals. Early on in our marriage, they told us, “There are times in marriage when the Bible’s call to love your enemies and the call to love your mate is the same call.”