This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #215, on the subject of What Forty-One Years of Marriage Really Means.
About a week ago I posted on Facebook announcing our forty-first wedding anniversary. The post drew a reasonable amount of the Facebook equivalent of applause, some of it from people I did not realize would see it. So I wondered: what are they applauding? What do they think forty-one years of marriage means?
Well, I do not know what they think it means, but I have some idea of what it does mean. I wrote web log post #65: Being Married almost two years ago, and commented at the time that I was sure there were some things I was forgetting, so in a sense this is an addendum to that–but in a sense it is a separate observation.
I suppose it should be said first that forty-one years of marriage probably means a lot of occasional doubts and suspicions, but fundamentally means learning to trust and to forgive–and there is something below that which gets in the way, and something above that which helps enormously.
What most people do not understand is that marriage is a covenant, not a contract. People do not understand this, and they don’t generally know the difference, but it is important:
- A contract is an exchange of mutually contingent promises. That means I promise to do this, and you promise to do that, but if either of us fails to keep his “end of the bargain” the other is no longer obligated and does not have to fulfill his part. This is typical in commercial transactions: if I order something from you and you fail to deliver it, I am not obligated to pay for it even though I promised to do so.
- A covenant is an exchange of mutually independent promises. That means I make a promise to you, and you make a promise to me, and I am obligated to keep my promise because I made a promise, and you are obligated to keep your promise because you made a promise. The part that is missing, that distinguishes it from a contract, is that our obligations are based not on the exchange but on our own individual integrity. If you renege on your promise, I am still obligated to keep mine; if I fail, your obligation remains.
This is significant to the matter of trust and forgiveness. I promised to be faithful, to love and cherish, pretty much to the best of my ability. I did not promise to do so as long as she keeps her end of the bargain; I promised to do so as long as we were both alive. If she fails, that has no impact on my obligation. I still made that promise. If you recall your own wedding, or weddings you have attended, I doubt you have ever been to one in which the vows included the words “as long as you do the same”.
That means that I don’t have to worry about whether she is keeping her promise, only about whether I am keeping mine. I trust that she is, and were I to learn that she is not I forgive her, because it is irrelevant to my obligation to her. It is not a contract, in which the failure of one party negates the obligation of the other. Should either of us fail to keep our promise, even should we both fail, the promises still exist. We pick ourselves up, forgive, and move forward trying to be and do what we promised.
Forty-one years of marriage is thus a long string of trust and forgiveness, of learning what it means to love someone and to keep a promise to do so even when it is not easy to keep it.
That’s what a forty-first wedding anniversary means.