Many years ago I had a temporary office job with a cubicle from which I could overhear all the office gossip. One woman’s voice stood out because its grating, whiny tone constantly set my teeth on edge.
This woman (I’ll call her Jane) was getting married for the second time at the end of the month. Her kids (we were loudly informed) weren’t thrilled with her choice of a new husband. While that was bad enough, it seemed Jane wasn’t thrilled with her choice, either. Clearly she was of the school of thought that all men were idiots. Even as she planned her wedding, Jane lost no opportunity to badmouth her fiancé and to tell all her coworkers what dumb things he had done lately.
At this time, my husband and I had been married 18 months and were still in the starry-eyed love-struck stage. But despite my youth and inexperience, even I could see Jane was on the wrong course. “Does she think this is the man whose face she’ll see across the breakfast table when she’s 80?” I wondered to my husband.
I left the job before Jane’s nuptials, but that experience stayed with me all these years because I couldn’t get over the idea of someone voluntarily entering into marital vows with a person she apparently loathed.
The reason this incident was on my mind is because my husband had occasion to test our marital vows in the past two weeks, and he passed with flying colors.
You see, two weeks ago I got the flu. I, who am seldom sick, was so ill that I could barely move for four solid days, and for another 10 days my energy was so drained that I wasn’t good for much more than weakly watching a movie while propped on the couch. I’m still recovering.
During this time, my husband rose to the occasion. A nasty spate of bad weather covered our farm (two feet of snow, howling winds, sub-zero temperatures), but he gamely rose before dawn, swallowed some coffee and hit the barn to do all the morning chores I normally do. (He usually does the afternoon barn chores.) He fed cattle and mucked out stalls. He marshaled our girls into additional household tasks that normally fall on me. Then he came upstairs and helped me to the bathroom, tucked me back in bed and made sure I had enough water, yogurt (the only food I could keep down), and medication.
In short, he was not only being a Real Man, he was being a Real Husband and rising to the “sickness or in health” part.
Now goodness knows there are endless beautiful stories of husbands or wives spending years tenderly caring for their spouse during illness or disability. My aunt cared for my uncle for 12 years following a severe stroke while raising four young children, all of whom suffered from a congenital disease called Osteogenesis imperfecta. (It doesn’t get much worse than that.) “I’m so glad I buried my husband,” my aunt told me after the funeral, “rather than putting him in a nursing home.”
But the reason I’m not addressing such extreme cases is because these cases are just that – extreme. Thankfully many of us will never have to experience such challenges. Rather, it’s the everyday fidelity under more trivial conditions – a bad case of the flu – that most couples face.
I don’t want anyone to think Don and I have a flawless marriage. Of course not. In the past 20 years, each of us has done stupid things requiring the forgiveness of the other (though nothing that violated our marital vows, I’ll quickly add). But that’s the point – we’ve forgiven and kept on loving.
But that ability to stay stable in a marriage is apparently a dying art in our society. People no longer know what it’s like to go for the long haul. There are too few left to demonstrate this skill.
I recently read a fascinating interview in the Huffington Post with Suzanne Venker and Phyllis Schlafly – authors of WND Books’ “The Flipside of Feminism” – on the subject of divorce. When asked what she thought was the single biggest obstacle to lasting marriage, Venker replied, “Americans’ attitude. We have this notion that ‘Hey, we can always get divorced if it doesn’t work out.’ This is in stark contrast to the attitude in previous generations, where marriage was assumed to be a lifelong, irrevocable commitment.”
Schlafly added, “When a man and woman stand up before witnesses and solemnly swear to love and cherish, forsaking all others, till death do us part, do they mean it, or are they lying?”
I prefer to think they’re not lying exactly (at least, I hope not). Rather, I think couples are ignorant and inexperienced regarding the true meaning of marital vows, especially when push comes to shove.
Whenever I’ve addressed this issue in a column, I receive heartbreaking e-mails from people whose spouses simply got tired and quit in order to “find” him or herself. It’s happened to several friends of mine, leaving their dreams of a stable family shattered forever. The cruelty of the departing spouse is almost impossible to fathom.
Much of the reason behind this trend to abandon a marriage at the first sign of a metaphorical flu is because most young people do not know HOW to be married. They never grew up with intact, stable parents who modeled proper spousal behavior. They never watched their father tenderly care for their sick mother and uncomplainingly take over jobs and chores and duties. They never heard their mother praise her husband for his manliness, his hard work, his dedication to providing for his family. These young people have nothing: nothing but a dry, dusty, harsh legacy of parental abandonment and selfish ambitions. For many children, the culture of divorce we’ve had for the last two generations means a stable, solid marriage could be as far past as one’s great-grandparents.
We are approaching some very hard times. Just when we will be most in need of the rock-hard core of societal survival, we find that core – the family – to be founded on shifting sand. Sadly, very few know how to strengthen that foundation any longer.