For the sake of this Valentine’s Day meditation, dispel the notion that longevity in a relationship equals happiness. I’ve met a lot of people in their 70s and 80s who would divorce if they could.
Also dispel the idea of the “great” marriage. Perfect couples turn out to be the ones with the most to hide. A good marriage is good enough. I would rank mine — ours — as pretty good.
When Karen and I tell young people that we have been married for almost 50 years, they show surprise. That number seems hard to imagine in a culture where every married couple has a coin flip’s chance of Splitsville.
Divorce — especially in cases of abuse, addiction and infidelity — can be the best option, one most often initiated by women. In my Catholic parish in the 1950s and ’60s, we knew only one child whose parents were divorced. I now wonder how many women felt trapped in their marriages, by fear, by potential stigma, but also by the religious imperative that what God has joined together let no man put asunder.
But now many marriages end after just a few years. What are the chances, then, that one will last a half-century?
All this is prologue to a photo I just found. It was taken in 1969, at the Providence College Ring Dance in Rhode Island, an event that celebrated the Class of 1970 receiving our class rings. Mine felt like it weighed 5 pounds, and I wore it maybe twice.
I went with a nice girl named Diane, our only date. In the photo, five of us — Gordon, Joe, Danny, Peter and me — are sitting in our monkey suits, glasses raised, toasting the photographer and the world to come. When that photo turned up, something struck me. All five of us have remained married to our original spouses.
When I added the five other classmates with whom I remain in close touch, it applies to them as well.
As of 2021, here are the number of years married for the 10 of us:
51, 51, 50, 50, 50, 48, 47, 47, 46, 45.
I was an English major, but can add the numbers. That’s 485 years of marriage, rounded off to a solid half-millennium.
I interviewed three of the guys in that photo in search of the “secret” ingredient. There was none. Each couple had to find their way in a different fashion. I knew enough about my friends to understand that the good lives they had built had come with obstacles along the way.
In the extended Clark family, raising three daughters, we have confronted, or at least bumped into, countless physical, emotional and social disorders. How about cancer, addiction, mental illness, intolerance, hurricanes, the deaths of many loved ones? How about being robbed at gunpoint in a motel room? How about trying to survive a pandemic?
Experiences like these destroy many marriages. We wish them on no one. But I believe in my heart that they have made our marriage stronger.
When I asked Karen if there was a virtue or behavior that helped sustain us, she thought about it for a while. It wasn’t something easy and automatic, like “a good sense of humor” or “a willingness to compromise.” Those help, for sure. Her choice was “freedom.”
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In other words, neither of us had imposed our will upon the other, but rather had supported the other in our individual hopes and aspirations. I thought of at least one counter-example, where I kind of insisted, “Please do NOT write anything political on Facebook.” But that stands out as the exception.
I read an essay in a Catholic magazine years ago — I wish I could find it — arguing for the three necessary elements of an enduring love. I’ve memorized them and believe they apply to all kinds of marriages across cultures and generations, from the straightest to the gayest.
1. Commitment: You promise in public that you are in this for the long haul, not just trying it out to see how it goes. (I can’t help but remember an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry David and his wife renew their vows after 10 years. She writes new vows in which they promise to be faithful for “all eternity.” Larry argues that “till death” was quite long enough, that he might want to pursue other options in the afterlife.)
2. Intimacy: This has nothing to do with sex. It involves a level of trust in which you can share with your partner your innermost hopes, dreams and fears without dreading the consequences. Each partner needs private spaces and secrets, to be sure. But the big concerns are best shared.
3. Sex: High on my list of reasons for wanting to marry Karen in 1971 was that I wanted to be with her — to touch her — every day. I wanted our intimacy to be expressed in romance and passion. I never imagined that over five decades, we would discover new expressions of fun, pleasure and togetherness.
In spite of what popular culture might suggest, I believe the theory that well-married couples have more sex in a lifetime than the so-called “players.” What has surprised me is that while frequency might decrease, if you are healthy enough the quality can improve. This is a function of experience, leisure and escape from raising children.
Lots of things improve a marriage, including dogs and cats. I’ve said before that if you ask Karen who she loved more — me or Rex the dog — on certain days she would point to the pooch. Me too.
I’m writing this during a pandemic. Karen and I have spent more time together under “house arrest” than in any year in our marriage. We both look forward to vaccinations and separate vacations. We have no idea whether we can have an anniversary party on Aug. 7, 2021.
Every anniversary brings me back to that day at Providence College that Karen and I met. It was in August of 1969 — my personal Summer of Love! — and the last academic year before co-education. Before that, there were some women on campus, including young women working as bookkeepers, secretaries and clerks.
Karen Major was one of them. She got a job in the Alumni Office, where I had a student job my senior year. She was stunning. Blue eyes, long hair and, in the style of the day, skirts as short as a Hemingway sentence. She made them herself.
I had thick glasses and skinny legs and to this day I have no idea what she saw in me. We were married in a chapel on the campus. Twenty years later, we returned to the chapel to renew our vows. Our three daughters, Alison, Emily and Lauren, were there.
In October of 2015 Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer. What has followed has been grueling but successful treatments: surgeries, chemotherapies, radiation treatments — followed by tremendous anxiety that the cancer will show up again. Her prognosis is good.
Nothing in my education or experience prepared me to become her caregiver. Except, maybe, for one thing. “How do you do it?” a friend asked. “I took a vow,” I said.
The more I think about it, the traditional vows get it mostly right: in good times and bad, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health….
To the young lovers of Valentine’s Day, I leave you with this thought. Karen and I were married when she was 21 and I was 23. One year later, we were parents. You will probably wait a lot longer than we did before you marry, if you do decide to take that step. The norms that governed our marriage have shifted in so many ways, some good, some bad. But the path to enduring love and respect remains: commitment, intimacy, passion — and maybe a dog named Rex.
What are your secrets to an enduring love?