Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage: 7-year cycles

Continuing down the list of suggested blog topics, marriage was a recurring suggestion in different forms:

– Maintaining a healthy marriage despite the chaos

– Grey divorces

– That time you were thisclose to divorcing your spouse

– Sex after marriage (as in sex in a long term committed relationship with children, not as in abstinence until marriage)

Writing about marriage is a tall order, especially when it involves sex, because, well, I have other people’s feelings, perspectives and boundaries to respect. Anyone who has ever bought me coffee — and even some I bought coffee to — knows that I hold nothing back in private conversations. Blogging is a different kettle of fish but I’m ready to tackle it (tackle, fish, geddit?)

I learned a lot about marriage through my own experience and through watching other people do it. Some are inspirations, some are cautionary tales, everyone has something to teach everyone else. In my writing about parenting and family life, I strive to avoid the word “should.” If I learned anything in my 22 years of parenting — and as many of married life — it’s that there is no recipe for a happy and well-adjusted family life. There are broad lines — don’t hit or shame people, give plenty of physical affection and healthy foods — with room to adapt our own circumstances. Families are made of a mish-mash of different personalities, temperaments and life experiences. Some apples don’t fall far from the tree, some apples are adopted into foreign orchards, and some apples pull DNA three generations removed. And of course, as my children noted with horror, you marry someone you’re not related to. (Lucas, when told he could not marry his twin sister: “I’m not marrying someone I don’t know!!!”)

The truth is, there is more I don’t know about what makes a happy marriage than what I know. One thing I noticed is that when couples find an easy magic solution to marital bliss in a book or at a conference, it’s almost always the calm before the final storm. Because there is no easy path to long-term marital happiness. It’s a work of constant reinvention and acceptance

One of the keys to maintaining a healthy relationship through the ups and downs of a long-term commitment is to accept this constant reinvention, of ourselves and of the other. It takes resilience and flexibility to accept that the person we married will not always be the same, and to make the decision to love whoever this person becomes. In one of the better-known scenes from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Rochester tells Jane:

“I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communion would snap. And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly.”

I love this image of commitment as attaching to something deep within the other person, something essential that exists independently of appearances, goals, and ambitions. As the years pass and life acts on us like a river molds its banks, what matters to us may change. The ability of a marriage to withstand this constant reinvention is to connect somewhere under the left ribs, to the heart of the other. It’s to accept the other for the other’s sake rather than for what the other brings us.

When we fall in love, the dance of hormones and emotions makes connecting easy. It makes connecting necessary. We love, we thirst, we need the other to feel complete. As we age and family obligations take their toll, we look back on the ease of the early days and wonder “If he/she hadn’t changed, would things still be easy?” and we answer in the affirmative because our minds are like water, always rushing through the path of least resistance. But the dance of hormones and emotions was never supposed to last. Its purpose was to get us naked and reproducing. Now that the deed is done, the rest is up to us, and it’s hard work.

Marriages turn on a 7-year cycle. Breakdowns — whether they are permanent or not — happen at the 7-year mark, the 14-year mark and the 21-year mark. These cycles are not written in the stars, they correspond to inflection points in our personal growth. The first 7 years are a blur of babies, chaos, and sleep deprivation so deep we’re not even allowed to impose it on hardened criminals. The next 7 years are spent getting to know the new adult version of ourself and our spouse. At the 14-year mark, our children are now teenagers. After 21 years, the children are leaving and we take stock of where we are, sometimes wondering if this is really where we were meant to be, with a crushing sense of the merciless march of time.

Paul and I often joke that we front-loaded all the marriage trouble at the 7-year mark, so we didn’t really feel 14 and 21 pass us by. But what I think really happened is that having failed to love the other for the other’s sake through the first 7 years, having relied too much on the forces of attraction and too little on hard work and understanding; having made a decision to stay together and do it better for the next 7, we gave each other permission to change. We supported each other through questionable choices, new ambitions and sharp turns. We gave each other permission to stumble and a hand to grab on the way down.

Falling and flying are almost the same until you hit the ground. The difference between a thud! and a smooth landing is a bit of air, moving at the right speed, in the right direction.