What Keeps A Marriage Together?

Originally posted July 24, 2011

I’ve never written a blog before. I’ve wanted to for the last couple of years since I started reading the blogs of others. I found myself thinking that I might actually have something to contribute to the game, something to put out there to the universe. After all, I sit with clients for over thirty hours each week and hear both wonderful and tragic stories. As a result, I do a great deal of reflecting about life. But, because these moments are confidential and I am primarily the “listener,” these reflections stay with me for the most part. Really the only exception to this rule would be my dear wife. She is the lucky recipient of my many musings. As a result she has been known to say, “John- remember the OVER examined life is not worth living!” I don’t think she and Socrates would have gotten along very well. She’s more of a St. Francis kind of girl. Lucky for me, she lives life more through her heart than her head. Consequently, I’m the one sitting here wanting to write my first blog entry.

Here we go. For the last eight months I’ve been seeing a thirtysomething male client who is a month away from his divorce being final. He is relieved that this painful experience is almost over, but he is also very sad. He’s grieving the marriage that he wanted to have, the one that he wishes they would have had together. By the way, this tells me he is dealing with his divorce in a healthy manner. I never trust anyone if they tell me they have no sadness about their marriage ending and that they are simply glad that it is over. Marriages are investments and we are always sad when an investment goes belly up.

So he sits down a couple of weeks ago and right off the bat tells me that he has a question that he desperately needs answered. He tells me that his future depends on it and that he is afraid because he isn’t able to answer this question. He asks me what “type” of love keeps a marriage together since their kind obviously didn’t do the trick. I remember sitting for a couple of minutes before answering. In that time I considered my own marriage of almost 33 years, the countless couples I have seen as a therapist, what messages the Church and my upbringing taught and the dozens of books I’ve read on the subject over the years. I surprised myself by sharing with him the following ideas.

First, I told him that I used to think that agape was the most important kind of love for a marriage, but no longer. This Greek word suggests that a spiritual love is the number one priority. A love that is sacrificial and focused on commitment more than feelings or your own needs. After all, haven’t we all heard more sermons than we could count where this was the bottom line? Don’t get me wrong, I told him, agape is very important in keeping a marriage together. But not the “most” important kind of love. Many couples have intact marriages but no relationship at all and are living under the stoic belief that happiness isn’t even a possibility.

Secondly, I said that eros is really wonderful but that it doesn’t “keep” a marriage together either. We all love passion. We all want there to be chemistry. We all dream about great sex that will keep us interested over the years. Our culture is so sex obsessed that we are easily convinced, especially early in a marriage, that the lucky ones can’t stay out of the bedroom and this is the secret to a long relationship. Don’t get me wrong, “feeling” in love with your partner is very critical. Too many accept a relationship that is boring and no longer has any passion. Eros can be restored and must be worked at over the life of a marriage.

By this time he knew where I was going. I found myself telling him that based on my marriage and the successful ones I’ve seen over the years that “philia” was most important. Committment and chemistry are ingredients you don’t want to leave out of the recipe but without friendship you can’t bake the cake. To be friends with your mate means you respect her. You treat her like your equal when your upbringing and your own selfish ways try to convince you otherwise. You talk about how you feel and think about the good and bad of your life together. You even risk conflict by being more honest than you are comfortable with because it builds intimacy into your marriage. You plan and dream together because life is too complicated to just wing it. In other words, you treat your partner like your best friend.

Sadly, like so many people, what my client never had with his former wife was friendship. He said nobody ever told him it was the most important thing. In fact they even had the other two ingredients the majority of the time. As our session continued a big smile came over his face as we continued to talk about how exciting it could be to have a best friend in your wife. He said he was growing hopeful as he sat there thinking about this new possibility for the future. I hope what I told him is realistic and not too pie in the sky. All I know is that next month I will have been married 33 years to my best friend. Thank God for friendship! Socrates and St. Francis wouldn’t have a chance without it.