One Saturday in 1964, in a Brooklyn, New York church, Wilbert Clarke and Annie Pearl Jones joined hands and promised to spend the remainder of their lives together. As of today, my father and mother have kept that promise 18,262 days.
That’s 2,608 weeks plus six days of getting to know each other like their very own skin. That’s 50 years in tandem tackling life’s demands, disputes and doubts. Five decades in an uninterrupted space when an interruption may at times have seemed like a logical choice.
People don’t get married as much today as they once did. And when they do, there’s a nearly 50/50 chance the marriage will last.
A 2011 Pew Research Center report found that 51 percent of Americans were married compared to 72 percent in the 1960s when my parents tied the knot. A study by the National Center for Marriage and Family Research at Bowling Green University last year showed the U.S. marriage rate is just about 31 marriages per 1,000 women. In 1920, the national rate was closer to 93.
When couples do get married, the CDC reports that the divorce rate is slightly less than half that of the marriage rate. I wonder why?
In a recent Facebook conversation, one of my online friends offered an explanation of why marriages don’t seem to last as long as they once did. She speculates: “Back in the day, marriages lasted 20, 30, 40 years because women were willing to forgive or even worse live with two things: cheating and beating. The women of that generation were willing to forgive and put up with two things the women of today won’t tolerate.
“For the most part,” she goes on to say, “women of our parents’ generation were dependent on their husbands, trapped and scared. Trapped by society’s norms and pressures, single motherhood was looked down on, economic stability was a factor, and there was no infrastructure of help for the single mom.”
Lastly, she suggests social media also play a role in rupturing many of today’s marriages.
Perhaps there’s something to all that. But, that alone isn’t explanation enough for my satisfaction.
In my view, marriages don’t last as long as once before simply because we’ve divorced ourselves from the concepts of commitment and permanence. Or, we’ve too generously redefined their meaning.
Are marriages drowning in a sea of infidelity? There are signs of that. Are women socially and financially better poised to abandon failing, harmful unions and set out on their own? Certainly, they don’t have to stand for the crap anymore. Do social media facilitate wide-scale relational destruction? Absolutely, they can present a new challenge that didn’t exist even 15 years ago.
All of that’s true. Still, those are mere symptoms of THIS illness: Collectively, we’ve lost sight of what it means to truly commit our lives to someone, and we live in an age that tolerates and perhaps even encourages the expendable.
It’s not that men are any less faithful than ever before or that women increasingly are joining their ranks. It’s not only that women can just pick up and go because there’s less social stigma attached to being a single mom and they have the financial independence to do that. And, it’s not just that Facebook makes it easier to hunt for some side action and/or track whether your mate has discovered a new preoccupation.
Those all are new wrinkles in the same old face.
The game changers are: 1. that we value less the sanctity of our vows, including the vow to never part. 2. Greater access to new things – what some might call options – makes us more willing to throw away the old.
Perhaps that’s because our society more broadly diminishes sanctity’s place and the concept of sacred anything has less value today than yesterday. Meanwhile, just about everything around us becomes more disposable; our understanding of permanence isn’t what it once was.
In both instances, rather than shout “that’s not acceptable,” we instead look for reasons to rationalize why those things occur. We talk about monogamy being unrealistic or a fallacy. We pull out the religion bashing stick and say somehow it’s to blame. Effectively, we move the bar, then bemoan that the bar has moved.
We minimize that marriage takes work; it takes hard work.
Within a marriage’s lifespan, things go wrong: people get sick, finances crumble, some are tempted and some yield to temptation. In lesser institutions, those are reasons to man the lifeboats and abandon ship. But, a marriage is a far greater institution that demands more.
It could well be that many marriages of old lasted because women felt forced to stay or couldn’t find a way out. Trapped in the prison of a loveless or abusive relationship is no way to live. And today’s freedoms are a welcome change.
However, today, too many of us reach for the door handle before we search for that wedding video where we promised death was our only out clause. That’s unfortunate.
Watching my parents over the decades, I’ve seen how marriage is not the stuff of fairy tales.
Growing up in our home, there were no white horses and glass slippers. The horse-drawn carriage broke down enough times when there barely was money to fix it. Dad and mom worked to keep the best roof over our heads and the fridge stocked.
Together, they raised, fed and educated two kids. They taught respect, fairness, unity and hard work. They filled the house with laughter, love and a healthy dose of fussing when the need arose, as it often enough did.
Now, in their twilight, they accompany one another to the senior center and doctor’s office between bouts of the occasional bickering that becomes sort of perfunctory after 50 years. And, as the setting sun looms large on the horizon before them, they graciously will ride off together.
I’d like to think endurance has its reward.
Happy golden wedding anniversary, Mom and Dad!
© Copyright 2014, Jonathan Clarke, All rights reserved