By Karl Pillemer
It’s the biggest leap of all – the decision to make a commitment to one single person for an entire lifetime. You might ask yourself: Is this idea old-fashioned? In fact, surveys show that not only do the vast majority of single people want to get married, but they hope that their union will last forever.
But for a long marriage, there’s an ingredient that no therapy, no treatment program, and even no religion can provide; the partners must do it themselves, day after day, and year after year. The experts tell us that you must enter into a marriage believing it will last forever. Treat marriage – at every stage – as a lifelong commitment.
And, why is that outcome worth striving for? Despite changes in societies throughout the centuries, the words of the marriage rite strike with a sense of awe…….to have and to hold…….for better or for worse………in sickness and in health……to love and to cherish……..as long as we both shall live. This publicly stated commitment applies to no other aspect of our lives. We don’t go into a new job vowing to keep it forever. We don’t buy a house and promise to live there for eternity.
In my efforts to understand the view of a committed marriage, I came to the revelation that you need to treat marriage as a “discipline”:
It is a developmental path where you get better at something by mindfully attending to it and by continual practice. Most important, it is a lifelong process – you don’t “arrive” at success, but rather you spend your life mastering the discipline. Short-term sacrifice is required to reap the long-term rewards from your efforts.
It’s continually committing, actively deciding to stay together. And especially during the rough times, you have to decide to recommit yourself to the relationship. When experts talk about commitment, they are talking about persevering, working out creative solutions for problems, and seeking help when necessary. Most people who make good on the “marriage is for life” assumption freely admit having considered splitting up at least once over the decades. They’ve lived through sloughs of unfulfillment, periods where passion waned and nothing appeared to replace it, and bouts of simmering resentment. But they hung in, they endured, they worked feverishly on the relationship – and they won out in the end. This takes ‘spirit’ – a spirit of initiative to overcome problems and an indomitable attitude to move on despite challenges. You need spirit to get better, to forgive, to innovate.
Sound idealistic? Unrealistic? Knowing that for many people, marriage can and did last a lifetime makes that goal an attainable one. For me, seeing is believing. Nothing convinces you of the value of making a lifelong commitment like being in the presence of couples who have done just that.
Taking the long view, when marriage is seen as a lifelong opportunity for growth, problems become vehicles for new insights and a deeper relationship. But there is joy and beauty in the security of a long and committed relationship, unfolding over time, with its triumphs and tragedies. What I learned from the experts (those who have lived lifelong committed relationships) can be summed up in this statement: Marriage for a lifetime is a unique blend of joys and challenges – and it’s worth it.
My hope is that this advice can help you enjoy the journey – as long as you both shall live.
Karl is the Director of the CompassCare Institute. He is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University and internationally renowned gerontologist and published author.