Emily and I celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary ten days ago. We were together for three years before we were married and we have been happy and fortunate all fifteen years. However, if we could go back to our wedding day, there is one essential part we would change: our vows. Like countless other couples, we were only too eager to promise each other that we would remain married and madly in love until one of us buried the other. We now see this as an unrealistic expectation for a number of reasons, the simplest of which is the undeniable fact that people change and nothing is forever. Over the years we have seen marriages end and we have observed that, in many cases, it has been a matter of two perfectly good people who changed in drastically incompatible ways or perhaps came to discover they were never compatible to begin with.
The Emily and Sergio that became girlfriend and boyfriend on August 14, 1999 were not the same Emily and Sergio that were married on January 1, 2003. And they sure as hell are not the same Emily and Sergio that are sitting side by side at this very table, in this very moment, typing away on their computers. Without a doubt we have changed, but we have changed in compatible ways. Happenstance and good fortune are in great part responsible for this; we can’t take all the credit.
I could have never known, for instance, that Emily and I would agree so much on our parenting philosophies back then. I didn’t have a parenting philosophy because I didn’t want to be a parent to begin with. Five years into our marriage, when Emily said, “We should probably start talking about having children,” I thought she was kidding. I never imagined myself as a father. That Sergio would’ve scoffed at the thought of this Sergio filling up everybody’s news feeds with pictures of his daughters. All that change and I happened to end up with a partner whose parenting skills and philosophy I deeply admire, respect and almost entirely share. I had no way of knowing that would be the case.
But it’s not all good luck and happy accidents. There is also work involved; there just has to be when two people decide to enter into a committed, long-term relationship. This work takes the shape of the usual clichés: compromise, patience, consideration, respect. But above all, the work of marriage for me is that of a pairing of equals. This is why I prefer the term “partner” because implicit in it is a sense of equality. Only I get to be a husband and only she gets to be a wife, but we both get to be partners. It may seem like we’re getting caught up in semantics, but these are the kinds of conversations that move mountains when you share a love of words. When we frame our conversations within the context of a partnership, the work of marriage becomes a bit more effortless.
So how does one know whether a marriage is successful? A common idea seems to be that longevity is a sign of a success. And when a marriage dissolves, it is commonly deemed a failed marriage. Never mind that they may have accomplished a great deal, like bringing wonderful children into the world or creating beautiful memories together. How about a long and miserable marriage? What kind of success is it to stay together for the sake of staying together?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. What if we set aside, even for a moment, this idea that the duration of a marriage has any bearing on its quality? What if marriages came with term limits that may or may not be renewed? How then would we gauge the level of success or failure of a marriage? I don’t know that I have the right answer to this, but here’s my work in progress… Our marriage is successful when, because of our partnership, we are able to be our best and happiest selves. This is the amendment I would make to our vows. Not, “till death do us part,” but, “for as long as we enable each other to be our best and happiest selves.” And this is how I feel about marriage, for the time being.