Several years ago, in his unique staccato style, Paul Harvey told this story on one of his radio news reports. A man named Carl Coleman was driving to work one morning when he and another motorist had a minor accident. Both cars stopped, and the woman driving the other car got out to survey the damage. She was distraught when she saw what had happened to a brand new car only two days out of the showroom. She freely admitted that the accident was her fault; what she dreaded, she said, was having to face her husband. Mr. Coleman felt sorry for her, but he had to pursue the business of exchanging license numbers and registration data. The woman said, “I’m sure my husband would have it in the glove compartment,” and he watched as she reached in to get the documents, her hands shaking as she opened the packet. On the first piece of paper to tumble out, written in her husband’s distinctive hand, were the following words: In case of accident, remember, Honey, it’s you I love, not the car.
It’s hard to imagine that marriage not being a happy one. A man with the imagination to have that kind of comfort ready at the very moment it would be needed most would surely show it in all sorts of other ways as well. I begin like this because for the second Sunday we are considering marriages, which under the pressures of a dizzying change in American culture have come to have a shelf life about as perishable as a fresh gallon of milk. You know the statistics as well as I: the divorce rate doubling between the ‘60’s and the ‘90’s, 40% of all American kids having to deal with the breakup of their families. Social scientists often focus on why marriages fail; I like the idea of focusing on why others don’t — on how it is that certain couples manage to “make it last.”
I have lived close to several car buffs who spend endless hours on what they call “detailing” — endlessly polishing chrome and paint, and adding all those fastidious little touches to their ‘55 Chevvy or ‘65 Mustang. Marriages need that kind of attention; couples who are happily married “detail” their marriages. They keep finding new ways to spruce up the arrangement. They invent fresh ways of letting one another know how good it is to be together. I had never thought a great deal about it until recently, but as a lifelong minister I have sat at more tables in more different homes than people in most other occupations, and it has amazed me how often people stop saying simple things like “The meal was really good. Thank you!” I do remember asking my Dad once why he didn’t tell Mom more often how much he liked the good meals she put on the table. His answer was, “If I don’t say anything, she knows I like it. If I didn’t like it, I would let her know.” I was old enough by then to get away with suggesting that everybody likes a positive word of thanks now and then.
Partners adjust to all sorts of habits, and Mom seemed to feel appreciated, but I still think she would have enjoyed a few more spoken words of praise. The good things in marriage get to be so familiar that we forget to say how glad we are for them. Too many of us are like the old Scottish gentleman who spoke warmly of his marriage to a friend at the village pub: “Why,” he said, “when I think how much my wife means to me, I can hardly keep from telling her.” I know it’s difficult for some to express themselves in words, but there are other ways to say “I love you” and perhaps the old Scot used some of them. In one of John Patrick’s comedies, an unhappy woman is asked by another woman what is wrong, and she answers: “Nothing. It’s just that no one has said they loved me this livelong day.”
“Oh, yes they have,” her friend tells her. “I heard Florence say it at the dinner table when she said, ‘Don’t eat too fast.’” “Was that saying she loved me?” “Of course,” the friend answered. “People do it when they say, ‘Take an umbrella, it’s raining’ — or ‘Hurry back’ — or even ‘Watch out, you’ll break your neck.’ There are hundreds of ways of wording it — you just have to listen for it….,” she said. Most of us catch on to that if we stay together long enough to decode domestic language, but I would like to tell every pair of youngsters who get married in this church that before they catch on to the coded ways of saying “I really do love you” they had better learn to say it in the conventional way, and say it often while they are getting used to one another.
They are so drunk on romance and roses at the moment, of course, that they would object to a phrase like “getting used to one another.” They can’t imagine having to “get used to one another” because in the sweet fog of courtship each one is sure the other is going to bring such perfection to the marriage that no adjustments will be necessary. They are not in the mood to consider that neither will get everything he or she would like in a marriage. I could send them to the wedding consultant at the back of the sanctuary, a woman who like so many other women I know, would like having a husband who really enjoys shopping — who wakes up at least occasionally and says, “Let’s go shopping today.”: Unfortunately, for this happy energetic wife, I feel about shopping much the same way I feel about getting a checkup at the clinic: I go when it’s absolutely necessary and leave as soon as possible. I have tried, of course, to do better, especially after some other woman has just talked about how wonderful her husband is to shop with her for hours at a time, but I have trouble sustaining the fiction of great enjoyment.
Strange things happen to my body inside a department store. I can work all day long painting a house or building a deck, and then for dessert that evening mow the lawn and saw some logs for the fireplace, but 30 minutes at Dillards and my legs get heavy, my back gives out, and I’m exhausted. All of us go into marriage with habits that are hard to break and our mates need a deep reservoir of devotion in overlooking some of them. I have sometimes suggested pleasantly that light switches turn off as easily as they turn on, or that a Third World family could bathe in the water wasted when one keeps the faucet running wide open during a leisurely five minutes of brushing teeth, but these hopes for minor reformations are about as futile as the hope that I may turn into a shopper, so relegate them to the trivia trash bin and go on being happy. According to a fine new book we will have in our church library soon, “Happily married people develop a double vision: they see each other realistically, as flawed and aging people, but also idealistically, as the wonderful beings with whom they first fell in love.” (The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, by Judith Wallerstein).
Even trivial lifelong habits can be disruptive in a marriage unless partners care about each other enough to overlook them. One sleeps with a pillow, the other does not. One leaves the toothpaste cap off, the other drops his socks on the floor. One is a bundle of nervous energy, the other is laid back. As the book I mentioned says, “People in good marriages have the ability, out of love, of empathy….to create what I think of as the third person in a marriage — the marriage itself, as a separate entity worth considering and fighting for. When facing problems or decisions, the couple asks not just ‘Is this good for me, or for you,’ but ‘How will this affect the marriage.’ Many people have never created this sense of marriage as a ‘we-ness’ worth nurturing and protecting.” (Wallerstein, op.cit.)
This will not be a popular idea, but we need to be bad mathematicians to make good marriages. When a troubled husband said to his psychiatrist, “Marriage is a 50-50 proposition, isn’t it?” the psychiatrist said, “No, marriage is a 60-60 proposition. Each person has to do a little more than what he thinks his share is.” Lasting marriages are never 50-50, tit for tat, arrangements. In a survey of 350 couples married for over 15 years, the happiest ones agreed, “You have to be willing to put in more than you take out.”
About a year ago, not long after George Burns died, one of the most perceptive essayists in America wrote about how beautifully George played the straight man in his comedy routines with his beloved wife Gracie. Roger Rosenblatt said, “Marriages often endure simply because one or another spouse is willing, happy, to play the straight man. A wife lets her husband make the same crabby, uninteresting observations about politics or the state of the world that he has been making for the past 20 years, without stepping on his lines, without doing anything to indicate that she knows, word for word, what is coming. A husband makes encouraging noises to urge on his wife as she tells a family anecdote that has been repeated approximately a billion times over the long years. He sits back with the blankest expression and acts as if he has never heard anything so interesting his life. Their attitude is less an act of personal generosity than of showmanship. The enterprise of a lasting marriage requires certain production values. One person plays the straight man, one the star, and the roles are frequently exchanged.” We knew that, didn’t we? But the glory of having writers like Roger Rosenblatt is that they tell us so well what we already knew.
I have already mentioned another essential ingredient in a good marriage, but we need more reminders of it than of almost anything else. I mean the rituals of renewal, the daily little gestures of kindness and appreciation. Many years ago, at a young couple’s wedding, the father of the bride gave the groom as a wedding gift a pocket watch — the kind with a spring that pops the lid open when the stem is pressed. Engraved on the inside of the gold watch-lid were five words the father-in-law thought would help keep the couple happy: “Say something nice to Sarah.” Every time the young husband looked at the time of day he would see that reminder: “Say something nice to Sarah.”
If we are not careful, we forget. We settle into routines, we take our partnership for granted. Better we should be like a former U. S. Ambassador, Joseph Choate, who when asked by a friend, “If you were not yourself, who would you rather be?” said without a moment’s hesitation: “Mrs. Choate’s second husband.” I hope she heard the compliment. We want to avoid, if at all possible, the “If Only” sickness that comes when we find it is forever too late to say how good it was to be together, despite tough times. Not long after I was married, at a time when in addition to preaching I was editor of a daily newspaper, I interviewed a beloved old physician who was retiring after 50 years of service. He said he had spent his life trying to do things in such a way that when he finally quit his practice he would not have to say “If only” to himself about patients he had treated carelessly or impatiently.
Then he pulled out a journal which had been kept years before by a woman who had been a schoolteacher in his home town. Her husband was an amiable ne’er-do-well, a charming man but never quite adequate as a provider. She had to rear the children, pay the bills, keep the family together, and her diary was filled with angry references to Jonathan’s weaknesses. Then Jonathan died, and all the entries simply stopped in the diary except for one, which came many years later. The doctor read it to me:
Today I was made Superintendent of Schools, and I suppose I should be very proud. But if I knew that Jonathan was out there somewhere, and I knew how to manage it, I would go to him tonight. The old gentleman looked at me, less than half his age that day, and said: “You see,what she’s saying is, ‘IF ONLY.’ ‘If only I had accepted him….if only I had loved him while I could.’” He was quiet for so long I wasn’t sure whether he was still thinking about his medical practice or the wife he had lost a couple of years before. I had a deadline to meet, so I thanked him for his time and stood up to go. As we shook hands at the door he said, “Are you married?” When I told him I was, he said: “You should have a lot of years ahead of you; try not to build up a backlog of IF ONLY’s.” I recommend his advice.
May each one of us, Eternal God, have found a word of wisdom,
a moment of blessing, in this hour of meditation. Amen.