Lifelines-Exploring Life Issues

On the Keeping of Promises
"I'm thinking about leaving my husband," she began crisply. And then she told me the story of her unraveling marriage and her contemplated divorce. She was articulate and thoughtful, in her mid-thirties I supposed, and clearly pained. I did not know her. I was a young pastor just out of seminary, serving my first church, hardly wise in the ways of the marital world. Her ill fortune was both unfamiliar and captivating to me, and I knew just enough to keep my mouth shut and listen.

She felt herself growing more unhappy, she said, even depressed. It seemed her husband of many years, while not abusive or addicted, was increasingly inattentive and unavailable. The distance between them came slowly but surely, over the years, until now their relationship was more practical than emotional. She believed she had tried many possible solutions along the way, to little avail. He felt, according to her, that there were no real problems an antidepressant couldn't cure, and scoffed at the idea of marriage counseling. She reflected, "My mother stayed with dad, but I think she felt much like I do. I do not think I want to stay, but I feel guilty when I think about leaving."

As her story continued, she revealed she had recently returned to work, as the last of her children entered school. Economically, she could take care of herself. A male co-worker became clearly interested in her--a situation that both distressed and intrigued her. As we talked, she was concerned about her children, about right and wrong, about her life and her own happiness. "Is it wrong to want happiness and closeness in my own life?" she wondered, "but then I promised him I would marry for life."

My own pastoral responses to her that day were surely shallow. Having only been married a few years myself, and being a neophyte counselor, I had hardly plumbed the depths of relationships. I remember less what I said to her, and more of what she said to me. I felt she confronted me with an unnerving truth. As she was choosing to leave her marriage, or to stay, so could anyone else. My wife, myself, anyone was really in the position of constantly choosing for or against the marriage. I previously and naively expected my marriage was already done, that the promise was already made. Was it not quite that simple or automatic? Were the marital promises really so shifting and demanding? The thought that her choices and her responsibilities were not hers alone, but potentially anyone's, was unsettling.
Though that event was nearly twenty years ago, it essentially repeats daily in my counseling office. The themes replay and the variations are endless, but our lives are indeed composed of our intimate attachments. Eventually, we too face the reality that our marriage is not "done" but becoming, and, sadly, that it can come undone.

We are choosing to undo. Daniel Goldman in his book Emotional Intelligence notes that though the divorce rate has leveled off, the odds that any particular married couple will eventually divorce has continued to increase. For American couples wed in 1950, about 30% end in divorce; for those wed in 1970, 50% end in divorce; and for couples starting out in 1990, the odds are that nearly 70% will end in divorce. The social pressures and stigma have waned; the economic dependencies have lessened; the religious commitments have blurred. Sometimes we must wonder if we have the choice to stay married!

Often in my work with couples, I ask them to remember the original promise. What was the love and the hope they felt when they decided to marry? Why did they, of all the people in the world, decide to marry? What were they looking for? Romance? Wholeness? Fulfillment? I encourage them to remember the deep motivations that moved them then to each other. Could they rework that promise in the now? Often leaving is seen as a solution, but will leaving solve the deeper questions that moved and move us all? Herbert Anderson has authored a very helpful book called Promising Again. In that work, he suggests that the continual changes of marriages, and the changes of persons, create an ongoing need to "promise again," to renew and rework our commitments, often in truly creative ways. Both partners must covenant not so much to "keep a promise" as to mutually keep "promising again" as the inevitable difficulties and changes of life occur in their relationship. That process creates the covenant of fidelity we all long for; that answers some of our deepest needs and questions.

For Christians, of course, marriage represents not only their own creative activity but God's; not only their promises to each other but God's promises to them. The ritual of marriage in the Book of Common Prayer includes this prayer for a marriage that speaks of God's promise: "Make their life together a sign of Christ's love, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair." I wonder what would happen if we nurtured, and were nurtured by, our deep promises to each other.
--Ron Johnson, Ph.D.

Ron Johnson, Ph.D.
Managing Director

Samaritan Counseling Center

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