Surviving marriage

Any couple with a few decades or more of matrimonial road-time under their belts will know the journey isn’t always strewn with the petals of wedded bliss. And with the current divorce rate of one-in-two, it’s all too easy to succumb to the malaise of nineties realism — you get to thinking Valentine’s Day is either for hormone-crazed teenagers or unenlightened and naive newlyweds.

The idea generated by current popular culture is that marriages can survive. But survive what, exactly? Perhaps the social plague of rampant divorce which mushroomed in the 1970s, when your friends’ marriages began dropping like flies and the so-called binding contract of coupledom wasn’t worth the paper it was written on? If you were still married, you were probably too busy counting the casualties of divorce even to risk buying a box of chocolates or picking out a posy for your mate on February 14th.

Then there’s the marriage which persists in surviving despite the relationship between husband and wife. It’s the ‘better-the-devil -you-know’ syndrome, the ho-hum, bored acceptance that the first flames of passion almost certainly fade against the vagaries of familiarity inflicted by years ofxposure to each other’s nit-picking daily habits: You just shrug your shoulders and learn to live with it. After all, your marriage has survived and that places you firmly on homeplate with the other lucky winners. So, smile and be grateful.

While the entire concept of marriage is the subject of hot academic debate amongst sociologists the world over, the real question has to do with our individual needs and dreams apropos of relationships. Survival isn’t enough. It shouldn’t be enough.

In her book, Divorce Busting, marital therapist Michele Weiner-Davis writes: “If couples become passive about their marriage, allowing it to take a back seat in their lives, it becomes empty and boring. Excitement and fire are not qualities inherent to relationships, they are what happens when two people make marriage their number one priority.”

But it sounds like an awful lot of hard work. After decades of marriage, is it even tenable to entertain the thought we might still tap into that mother lode of old black magic? What makes a marriage not only last, but enhance the very qualities which inspired us to tie the knot in the first place? To come to grips with this, we need to return to first base — to appreciate what made us fall in love and commit to a life-long nest with our partner.

Let’s look at a few marriage-for-lifers. Rogers and Joan Tomenson of Toronto — aged 62 and 64 respectively — have been married for 40 years and remain very much in love. They met through Rogers’ cousin when Joan was 19 and in nursing training and he was 18 working as a milkman. “I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen,” says Rogers. “And she was probably one of the most honest people I have ever met. I had trust and respect for her.”

And Joan was far from immune to Rogers’ charm. Even today, when she talks about him, her voice is honey-warm. You find yourself drifting back through time with her to that sunny day where they met at a cottage picnic — suddenly, it’s yesterday once more. “Rogers was such a gentleman, diligent, honest and hard-working. Plain and ordinary wonderful. It may sound old-fashioned, but that’s what I appreciated.”

How can such simple warmth transcend the relentless pile-up of thousands of days spent together along with the raising of their four now-adult children? According to Toronto-based marital therapist Karen Solomon-Ament, how they felt about each other in the beginning is the key. Chemistry. Chemistry and the nature of it. “If you don’t have that,” says Solomon-Ament, “then I don’t think you’re going to go anywhere with a relationship.”

But we all know that chemistry can fizzle in the face of life’s inevitable disappointments. Chemistry may get the juices flowing, but is it possible to stare the same person in the face over a cup of coffee every morning — ad infinitum — and still feel the heat of passion?

The Tomensons feel it has a lot to do with expectations. Where modern marriage groans beneath the demands of home-making combined with dual careers, in 1957 things were different and life was simpler. And marriage was for life. “When we had problems, we solved them because there was nothing else to do,” says Joan.

Next page: That brings us to the last building block …

That brings us to the next building block and perhaps the most important one: commitment. These days, some marriage ceremonies substitute the phrase: “for as long as love shall last” instead of “until death do you part.”

It’s a sad reflection of the times. Solomon-Ament argues that divorce has been made too easy; when faced with a relationship-threatening situation, such as a financial crisis, even infidelity, couples are more likely to select one of the “50 ways to leave your lover” rather than negotiate their way over the emotional speed-bumps of matrimony.

“They’re less likely to try to work it out because divorce is so accessible,” she points out. “Couples don’t go to marital therapists, talk to their doctor or their friends. It’s much easier to just call it quits, often believing the grass is greener on the other side.”

Unfortunately, emotional famine in a marriage has everything to do with slipping into the relative ease of taking each other for granted. Then we feel unloved. All too often we stop doing the simple things, such as kissing each other goodnight, or calling from work just to say “I miss you.” To this, Weiner-Davis states: “The very same people who bemoan the loss of romance or intensity in their marriages do little to rekindle the spark.”

Ruth and Danton Claramunt, residents of Ajax, Ont., could write a self-help manual on rekindling sparks in a long-standing marriage. Now in their early fifties, they met when Ruth was only 12 and Danton 15 and married four years later. “We were just always together,” reminisces Danton. “We started dating and the next thing you knew, we were married.”

But the Claramunts felt they might have married too young. Three children and about 15 years after tying the knot, they split up. The separation was to last six long years until — finally — they made the mutual decision to get back together.

According to Ruth — who, ironically enough, is now a successful match-maker — “We are best friends and simply don’t like being apart. When he came back home, he told me he really missed me. Now we certainly don’t take each other for granted.”

“Appreciate” is a euphemism for the modus operandi of this relationship. While they’ve been together again for over 10 years, Danton croons with the charm of a hero in a romantic novel in which love is total and everlasting: “We sit on the sofa and finish our wine after dinner and just talk mushy stuff. And the tears come when we think just how lucky we are. We have the whole world.”

Karen Solomon-Ament believes this is a realistic scenario — that we don’t just survive our marriages, we invent them. We create them. “Making love in the bedroom is just the vanilla ice-cream on the apple pie. It’s making love with your clothes on, outside the bedroom that matters,” she says. “It’s about appreciation through small gestures. It’s about honesty and building mutual trust, respect and accountability.”

In fact, accountability is a key feature in both of the Tomenson and Claramunt marriages. Rogers and Danton have always made it a habit to come home from work to spend quality time with their wives instead of staying out to party with the boys. And both couples have strong and consistent family ties with their children and grandchildren. It’s this togetherness, this synchronicity, that seasons the relationship with the precious ingredients of trust and intimacy. As Joan Tomenson points out, “Intimacy happens all day long. Just a brief phone call can be enough.”

What could be more simple? Michele Weiner-Davis tells a story about a couple in therapy who had been fighting constantly for two years. One morning, the husband surprised his wife with a kiss which inspired her to make a pot of coffee over which they enjoyed a refreshing conversation. They both went off to work more relaxed and positive than they had felt in years. Interestingly, Weiner-Davis compares this chain of events to meteorologist Edward Lorenz’s “Butterfly Effect”: that minute changes — the flutter of a butterfly’s wing — can ultimately affect global weather patterns.

If this theory works, then it’s high time we dispensed with the old adage that happy marriages are made in heaven and opted for a little “applied science” in our love-lives. It means believing that a lifetime of Valentine’s Day romance is made from the simplest, old fashioned gestures. And it can all begin with a kiss.

Christina Basciano is a writer and broadcaster. Her new book Relationship Breakdown — A Survival Guide was recently launched in Canada.