The other night we were watching Togetherness. Do you watch it? It’s awkward and funny and will give you a sentimental lump in your throat when you least expect it. Which is a strangely realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be thirtysomething and trying to navigate the realms of marriage and friendship.
In one scene, the lead couple with the fractured marriage are muddling through a tough situation where their sex life just isn’t working. The husband harkens back to an interview with George Harrison’s wife he saw [in a Scorcese movie]: “When she’s asked to name the secret to a long marriage, she laughs and says, “You don’t get divorced.”
After 17 years together, and twelve of those spent married, one of our favorite ways to diffuse an argument is to recite Molly Ringwald’s line about her [Claire’s] parents’ marriage in The Breakfast Club: “It’s like any minute…divorce.”
We crack up at the sheer eighties petulance of it all. The line, the way she delivers it, the way it makes her parents’ conflict seem so sad yet so meaningless. It connotes total distance and codependency, at once. A state of being stuck. Or, maybe it pays homage to the kind of comfortable love that is willing to have the same fight for twenty years.
That’s how we choose to see it, anyway. We use it as a reminder that most of our “fights” are just superficial agitation rearing its head. Fights for sport.
But not all of them. Sometimes the words cut deep, wring out your soul and still come back for more. Sometimes the conflicts seem insurmountable, the impasse too great, the shore nowhere in sight. It’s hard to spend almost two decades with someone and grow up with him (and have to learn to face reality with him) without panicking sometimes. And that uncertainty will make you claw at your surroundings. And, if there is no sign of resolution, you start to drown in the middle of your own marriage, your own life.
Ironically, or maybe not so much, the other morning I had the Today Show on in the other room and I heard a snippet of an interstitial with Jamie Lee Curtis in which the hosts congratulated her on being married to Christopher Guest for 31 years.
When asked, “What’s your secret?”
She had this to say, plain and simple: “Don’t get divorced.”
“Don’t leave,” she said. “Hold on.”
Let me be clear, I’m not writing this from a place where divorce is currently up for consideration. At all. I’m still totally into being married. I’m proud of what we’ve built. I like our little life together. It’s not always easy but I’m not interested in walking away. Yet, when times are super challenging, when the yelling outweighs the laughter and the bank account is wilting, when we don’t have a goddamn clue what tomorrow will bring, I would be lying if I said the thought didn’t rear its head.
But, what struck me was this concept of not allowing yourself to conceive of walking away. Instead, you stand up straight, you hold on, you stay all in. You show up.
You assume responsibility for staying married. You forgo the myth that you can just dispose of this marriage and find another. Just as we can get too comfortable in a marriage, we can get too comfortable with the idea of ducking out the back.
Because I’ll be honest…in the middle of a fight, it’s the inevitable trump card we can all throw: “Why are you here? You don’t have to be here. I don’t have to be here. Either one of us could leave.”
Ouch. Why tempt fate? Why talk about it like the out is always there? Why seed the idea in the first place? Why are we so goddamn stubborn?
Why not say “We’re really struggling here, I’m hurting but I’m not going anywhere.” Why not assume that when you are out there treading water in the middle of dark, cold, choppy waters next to your tiny capsized vessel that the two of you can, and will, make it. Just don’t let go. Hold on. Swim like hell.
Once leaving is out of the question you are forced to focus on resolution and resolution is at least actionable. You aren’t lost and aimless in a sea of blame.
I’m not saying that there aren’t circumstances that warrant contemplation of and action on divorce. There are. But what I can’t stop thinking about is that some of the strongest marriages I know have endured unbearable problems that would seemingly annihilate the rest of us. The loss of a child, infidelity, mental illness, addiction, pennilessness. The type of stuff that brings you to your knees…. causes hysterical blindness…leaves you for dead.
So, what if? What if you could call upon yourself to always find a way to see the other person as the one true thing? The thing worth staying for. The love worth fighting for. The shore worth swimming for. The thing that keeps you standing and whole when you are brought to your knees (and you will be.) Couldn’t that help you to choose love and the words that go with it? And the inherent trust you have in yourself could be reflected outward into your relationship.
Trust. Love. Solidarity. Now we’re getting somewhere. Because blaming the other person for all of your emptiness is the opposite of showing up. You are responsible for your own happiness. Only you. (Not my strong suit, but I’m working on it.)
Of course, you can fall out of love, you can one day wake up next to a seemingly total stranger, and your heart can move on. Sometimes your only chance at happiness is to get out. I get that. But, what if we try to summon the strength and courage to stay the course? To keep swimming fearlessly even though we don’t know where we are going?
Maybe I’m late to this whole concept that marriage is a big fucking deal. Which is weird because my own parents have been married for 45 years. Not to mention, I was raised Catholic and I’d be lying if I said the sanctity of marriage wasn’t sufficiently jammed down my throat.
Maybe I was just ripe for a reminder.