“Half the women I know are very unhappy in their marriages; the other half are having affairs.” A friend told me this the other day. A married friend. She was sincere. I heard distress in her voice.
She got me thinking. Of relationships. Of monogamy. Of marriage.
Being a single man who was married for years, I see marriages today in a different light. And I have a unique perspective these days because I was single, then I was married for 17 years and now I’m single again. I know what it’s like to be married.
And I believe in marriage. But, I confess, I’m skeptical.
Mostly, I’m struck by the drive in all of us. The drive to be known. The drive to find love. The drive to settle down. The drive for a lifelong partner.
Everybody wants a lifelong partner. Or, most people do.
But once that lifelong commitment is finally made—usually after years, of vetting, chaos, drama, uncertainty, fear, games (also known as dating)—most come to regret that commitment.
Ten years ago I was having a drink with my friend, Steve. He was married. He was happily married. Steve and his wife mentored married couples in their Roman Catholic church. They took personal vacation time to volunteer with a ministry called Marriage Encounter, a retreat to help strengthen marriages.
“Paul, you have no idea! Marriages are falling apart. About half of all marriages end in divorce. The other fifty percent? Most of those are struggling. I know. Those are the ones me and my wife try to help.” Steve went on. “Truth be told, Paul, we help very few. The institution of marriage is in big trouble.”
I’m not saying that happy marriages don’t exist. Mine was great for 13 years. I’ve seen many. You have, too. You know those marriages when you see them because couples who are happily married, both husband and wife, always talk about how in love they are.
But far more marriages are not happy ones.
Studies show that more and more are turning to the open relationship. These people know the facts on infidelity and divorce. They see the constraints associated with marriage. And they avoid it.
In her piece in The New York Times, When an Open Relationship Comes at a Price, Eliza Kennedy tells a sobering tale. She opted for an open relationship. But it didn’t work.
Eventually ditching her boyfriend, she fell in love, and got married. The ex-open relationship-partner-turned-monogamous-advocate writes, “…the wreckage of monogamous relationships lies all around us. The notion that they’re somehow more stable than open ones is an illusion. Not because monogamy is unsafe, but because all romantic love is. It’s powerful and thrilling. It’s also terrifying.”
As we all try to figure out love, romance, and commitment, I’m going to go with Kennedy’s words. Monogamy is powerful and thrilling. It’s what we all want.
But it’s unsafe; romantic love is unsafe.
There are risks.
You can be burned. Who wants to be burned?
A modern day sage. I met him. Years ago. He became my spiritual director.
Tony was in his mid 70’s. Roman Catholic, Egyptian (raised in parochial schools in Egypt), no formal education, but decades of volunteering in prisons and jails and half-way houses, helping teenagers recover from lives of violence and addiction.
I once asked him why he had given his life to helping addicts. He told me this story.
Decades earlier he had had a troubled marriage. His wife was about to leave him. They agreed to visit a Roman Catholic retreat center in the Arizona desert.
Most of the center was conducted in silence, except for the time for prayers, and 12 step meetings. After a few months, Tony says, he “found” himself; he came in direct contact with his narcissism.
He didn’t do drugs. He didn’t gamble. No alcohol.
He says his addiction was to himself.
Tony and his wife decided that keeping their marriage together was primary. But they knew they had to take some bold steps.
They returned to Southern California, in order to sell all their possessions. Their plan was to move back to the desert and work in the treatment center. Their friends and family raged, telling them that saving their marriage didn’t require such radical steps.
Tony says he understood the depth of his selfishness. His workaholism and cravings for success could only be broken with this kind of radical commitment.
His wife agreed 100%. They moved to the Arizona desert. And for years, together, they worked. Tony as janitor, his wife as cook and maid. Silent for most of the days, for three years, they would listen to the stories coming from the other addicts. As he said, “we would work, we would sleep, and we would pray and listen.”
Silent for most of the days, for three years, they would listen to the stories coming from the other addicts. As he said, “we would work, we would sleep, and we would pray and listen.”
He describes the experience as one that stripped him of his love and need of everything, except God, health, and his wife.
And they fell in love.
Eventually, they felt it was time to begin again. They rented a small apartment back home. People felt their transformation. Friends then started calling for advice. He’d meet them but would provide no counseling, just listening to broken people, and sharing small parts of his story.
His story was ultimately about love. What love is. What love requires. How love feels.
For decades, this humble Roman Catholic man, with no formal education, saw the lives of countless troubled youth changed with his message.
When I met with Tony, I would often ask him about love. Love was the topic he spoke about most. He was a man of love. In his French-Egyptian accent, with a kind of gently intense passion that I can’t describe, he would say, “Love…it’s the greatest mystery”
“Anyone who tells to tell you exactly what love is is crazy”
“How can you describe love?
Let me just say this one thing. “Love always brings passion, and passion is suffering”
“Where there is passion, there is always suffering. The greater the passion, the greater the suffering.”
Whether in a relationship, physical training, education, an art you are trying to master, if you have a passion for it, you will suffer.
If you are trying to advocate for an oppressed people group, you will suffer.
Passion is suffering. That proposition goes against almost everything we see and hear today in music and movies.
I don’t think love or passion is possible without suffering.