Can anyone today really be happily married for more than 50 years?
I don't mean the way a Hollywood producer bragged about how easily he had done it – he needed six different wives to reach that total.
Nor do I mean the way George Burns qualified it by claiming that the only people who could possibly enjoy 50 years of wedded bliss are those who are married for at least 100.
I mean is it really possible in today's world that needs a different and better model every year for cars, iPads, and smart phones, that has brainwashed us to accept the concept of discarding what we no longer like and constantly replacing it with a more desirable substitute – is there the possibility of a long-lasting and happy commitment to just one other person?
The question becomes all the more relevant as we live longer lives and death doesn't impose an early ending to the bond that we entered during our youth. After decades together, husbands and wives have a choice: they can try to keep the romance, passion and friendship that first brought them together alive or they can give up on the hope of finding fulfillment with their first love and get on the “marry-go-round” until they find the elusive golden ring of contentment.
Marriage is a challenge. We can't just take for granted that we will somehow intuitively figure out how to make a relationship between two different people survive in perfect harmony. After 54 years of marriage (and counting!) I want to share with you three major insights I've gleaned from Jewish wisdom and tradition.
1. Happiness & Hardship
The first I heard from the lips of my mother, of blessed memory. She was 95 years old at the time. Having witnessed many other marriages flounder and seen how strong her relationship was with my father, I wondered about her "secret." My parents’ lives were filled with many difficult times. On several occasions, they had to flee their residences for fear of their lives – Poland to Germany to Hungary to Switzerland. Ultimately, they came to the United States where for many years they faced difficult financial struggles. "How is it," I asked my mother, "that in spite of everything you faced, you never gave in to despair and there was clearly great love between you and Dad?"
My mother reflected for a few moments. Then she said quite simply, "To tell you the truth, I never knew that we were supposed to be so happy."
What she intuitively realized was that marriage represented far more than a mandate to have a good time and be merry. The Hollywood version advertises happiness as the goal; the Jewish view sees happiness as the added dividend of a good life with a chosen partner, a life that includes the hardships of commitment, duty and responsibility.
Happiness is the added dividend of a good life with a chosen partner that includes the hardships of commitment, duty and responsibility.
Helen Keller expressed a profound truth when she wrote, “Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves.”
The root of the Hebrew word for love, ohav, also means "I will give." To truly love means to be concerned even more with the needs of the other than one's self. "I love you" is to put emphasis not on what you must do to make me happy, but what I can have the opportunity to do for you – which then will make me rejoice.
Compare that to the kinds of contracts we are seeing people preparing today as they contemplate marriage. He'll take out the garbage provided she'll do the dishes. They'll take turns making dinner. God forbid one person should do more than the other. That wouldn't be fair. And then of course neither of them will ever be happy because they will always feel they're not getting the best of the bargain.
Enter marriage with the idea that it will guarantee a perpetual smile on your face and you're doomed to failure. Begin it with the knowledge that what marriage offers is to allow you the opportunity to share life's challenges with the one you love, no matter how difficult and how much it will ask of you, and you will gain the gift of greatest happiness that comes from the act of giving.
So the first step to ensuring that you have a happy marriage is to remind yourself that you're not meant to always be happy. The initial message given to a Jewish bride and groom at the completion of the ceremony is the breaking of a glass. Life must have its shattering moments. It cannot be filled with perpetual laughter. But selfless love enables us to overcome hardships together – and find the kind of joy we could never have experienced alone in a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure.
2. The Blessing of Forgetfulness
The second secret, surprisingly enough, is to discover the blessing of forgetfulness.
"Every time we have a fight," a man confided to his friend, "my wife becomes historical."
"Don't you mean hysterical?" the friend questioned.
"No, I mean historical – she remembers everything I ever did wrong in the past 20 years since we're married."
The rabbis of the Midrash asked why God created us with the seeming flaw of forgetfulness. Couldn't He just as well have made our minds competent enough to recall the events of our lives? No, they respond, it was not a celestial error but rather the fulfillment of a divine purpose. People aren't perfect. We all make mistakes; that is the price we pay for our humanity. And if we blow it, we have the opportunity to repent; if we hurt another person, we can apologize and then move forward.
“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory."
Forgetting is the gift from God that allows us to move on from the mistakes of the past. "I'll never forget" is the proper response only to an act of kindness from another. "I choose not to remember" is the wise reaction to a wrong committed by someone we love in a momentary lapse of good judgment or temporary anger.
“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory," wrote Albert Schweitzer – and he might just as well have said it as recipe for a successful marriage. Unfortunately we’re limited in how much we can do to ensure our good health. But it surely can't be that hard to remember to forget.
Concentrate on your partner's failings and the list will keep getting longer and longer. Learn to use the eraser on top of the pencil for your mate’s mistakes and the lead on the bottom to keep track of his or her virtues and you will always recall why you married them in the first place.
And one last piece of advice to complete my suggestions.
I'll never forget the way one woman put it when she shared with me the greatest problem she had in her marriage. "I always wanted to marry Mr. Right. I thought I found him until I realized that my husband thinks his first name is Always."
You know what you call someone who believes they're always right? Divorced is the most appropriate answer. Nobody is always right. And nobody is always wrong. And if you think you're always right – you're wrong.
Right or wrong, a married couple has to learn how to compromise.
Two people living together are bound to have disagreements. If they take their argument to a vote between themselves, it will always end in a tie. The solution is obvious. Right or wrong, a married couple has to learn how to compromise.
There is an amazing law about the religious symbol at the door every Jewish home. At the entrance way, we place a mezuzah to affirm the presence of God. The legal commentators have a famous dispute about the way this mezuzah should be positioned. Some say it should be vertical, others claim it needs to be horizontal.
What do we do? This is the only case in all of Jewish law in which we don't come to a decision favoring one over the other. Instead, the final law is to place the mezuzah on a slant – neither like one opinion or the other, but rather a compromise. There's no source for the view of a mezuzah on a slant. But it fulfills a higher truth. The truth on which a Jewish home must be built if marriages are to survive and prosper. Compromise is the key. When husband and wife can learn, even when each one of them is sure they are right, to bend a little bit and choose concession over unconditional victory, they'll be rewarded with a prize even more valuable – a home graced with shalom, the greatest blessing of all.
It's not easy to follow these three suggestions. Happy marriages don't just happen. I agree with Mae West that "The most difficult years of marriage are those following the wedding." But having celebrated our golden wedding anniversary, I think I've earned the right to recommend the three truths that helped get me to this point – and to reassure you that they can help you reach that milestone as well.