Our 25th Wedding Anniversary
I am thinking about this more and more as Michelle and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. Sitting in a fancy restaurant, we toasted with a deliciously dry Viognier. Surrounded by fragrant flowers, watching a beautiful sunset, my bride melted into tears and my heart soared.
I have accomplished a lot in 51 years of life, but “being married and staying married” is at the top of the kvelling list. We loved, love and are committed to each other and to our marriage. Like other married couples, we must invest time, patience and understanding into our relationship. Long marriages are effortful.
Because being married and staying married is hard work. And remaining married is a major achievement. Not to be taken lightly.
There are times – many times – in every marriage when one spouse or another worries whether they will make it. Kids are exhausting. Work is overwhelming. The pressures, temptations, and frustrations in our lives can be intense. While U.S. divorce rates are dropping (such that recent statistics suggest that almost 2/3 of marriages will remain “ever after”), divorce still seems so pervasive. So for many, the expectation of being together “until death do us part” still feels unattainable.
What’s the Secret to a Long Marriage?
As I sit with doe-eyed engaged couples, so much in love, so sure of their future, I wonder: What insights can I provide to increase the odds that their marriage will make it?
Twenty-five years myself into the wonderful journey of marriage and planning to be married to this woman for the rest of my life, I find myself as a rabbi needing to push wedding couples beyond their intense feelings of love in the moment to recognize and embrace the intense work they will need to do in the future to keep their marriage together. How can I get them to understand that they work hard not just to create a “once in a lifetime” amazing wedding but also to never-endingly nurture their partnership so it last a lifetime?
Focus on Your 50th Wedding Anniversary
These days, I tell couples to stay focused on the goal, which is not about having a fabulous wedding. The goal is this: to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together. The wedding day adornments – the chuppah, the cake, the flowers, the dress – are excited to select. Don’t forget though, I remind them, that their guests are there both to wish them well on the arrival of this special moment, but more significantly, they are sending them off joyously to begin the exciting, adventurous, challenging journey toward their 50th anniversary.
A Cryptic Message about Marriage
Perhaps that explains why the ancient Rabbis embedded the dark vision of the prophet Jeremiah into the Sheva Brachot, those seven blessings with which we bless the wedding couple. They chose words from Jeremiah spoken as he sat crying, watching his people be sent into exile and his holy city of Jerusalem lying in ruins. The prophet lamented, Lo yishama b’arei yehudah uvechutzot yerushalayim… Never again will there be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bride and the voice of the groom, the jubilant voices of those joined in marriage under the bridal canopy, the voices of young people feasting and singing.
Jeremiah recalls the worst episode in all of Jewish existence at that time. Why insert his dark words into the bright hopefulness of the marriage ceremony?
Read closely. Where Jeremiah said Lo yishama (never again), the Rabbis preserve Od yishama (once again). By switching out just two letters from Jeremiah’s lament, we can discern three important lessons for a lasting marriage.
Three Lessons for a Long Marriage
One. Every marriage faces dark times. By including these words in the wedding blessings, we tell the couple: just like Jeremiah witnessed the darkest hour in our people’s history – the destruction of all that was meaningful to us – you too will face moments so dark that they will cause you to worry that your world – your marriage – too will fall apart.
I know of no marriage so perfect that it has not faced such dark times. Since couples generally don’t talk about these challenges with others, so neither this reality or the wisdom of how to overcome it are shared with engaged couples. Without that knowledge, they cannot prepare to face the difficulties. Perhaps we all might speak more about these uncomfortable truths with others – about the challenges, the disappointments, and our successful responses – so everyone can begin to strategize as about how to address them.
Two. You can make it through the dark times. Our people, in Jeremiah’s time, thought their world had ended, yet here we are, a Jewish people that survived that the darkness that would have consumed us. Where Jeremiah cried out lo yishama (never again will joy be heard), the rabbis blessed od yishama (once again it shall be heard). Similarly, we should tell our wedding couples: You can, with intention and hard work, continually refine and redefine your lives together so that your marriage too will again find joy, gladness and celebration.
“It is not easy. It takes hard work,” we should warn them. Marriage is a marathon. Our ancient rabbis toiled ceaselessly, tirelessly, to reformulate Judaism to respond to its contemporary challenges. You married couples similarly need to expend boundless energy and unending creativity to keep vitality and vigor in your marriages.
Three. Sometimes seemingly small changes – replacing two letters with two other letters – can transform hopelessness into hopefulness. For married couples, it can take just two elements – the two partners – to change the dynamics. Two partners, who place being married above everything else, who strive to control their external passions, and who keep focused on the mantra “we can stay married, we can stay married.” That, honesty, trust and sometimes, couples counseling, are helpful too.
Caveat: Not all Marriages are Meant to Be
Now some marriages should not continue. Abusive partners forfeit the right to marriage. Sadly it often takes so long for the abused partner to leave his or her abuser; our communities need to double our efforts to help abused people find freedom. Similarly, certain actions, including infidelity, make it more difficult to remain married because they break the trust upon which most successful marriages are built.
Top Tips for a Long Lasting Marriage
With eyes wide open, patience, love and a willingness to face the good and the bad, we too can make it to the goal: 50 years of matrimony. What else might we do?
Long married friends offered their secrets to a lasting marriage. In addition to two insightful articles (The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give and Canadian scholar Mira Sucharov’s What are the Ingredients of a Successful Marriage), their top tips include:
Ride it out. The good, the bad, the boring… It all comes together to make a life. Just add humor! Laugh at yourself and each other.
You can be right, or you can be married.
Get to know the person sleeping next to you. Set up play dates (or date nights) with your spouse time to be alone, have fun, and reconnect. Work and kids will have to understand, because when your kids grow up and leave home, it will be just the two of you
Say “please” and “thank you.” Just because your married doesn’t mean you don’t have to be polite.
Focus on the positive virtues of one another!
Start and end each day with a HUG and say, “I love you.” Kiss goodbye and hello everyday!
Slow down especially in responding (or reacting) to one another. Everything in the world moves so fast. Work diligently so your marriage slows and centers you.
Set as your intention: What’s important to you is important to me!
Appreciate your partner, remembering “It’s you AND him/her vs. whatever problem,” not “You vs. him/her vs. the problem.”
Sometimes you don’t always have to “talk it out, discuss every detail, or understand his/her feelings.” Sometimes “It just is!” Holding hands to get through that moment in silence is truly wonderful and really okay.
Communicate, even when you want to kill each other. If you are beyond all rational thinking, go for a walk (alone).
Get past the ego and compromise.
Work out together as often possible. Physical exercise opens us up.
Never give up on one another. EVER!
Hold yourself responsible for your own happiness and your partner becomes the witness, love and support for your journey. And vice versa.
Allow and encourage each other to have a little fun with friends.
Remember, you can’t change anyone but yourself!
Be willing to admit you are wrong or that you messed up. Be truly proud of your partner’s accomplishments, whatever they may be.
Respect each other, never use profanity toward each other, and walk the dog/kids or just with the two of you every day. It is amazing the conversation you will have when you are not distracted.
Be friends first, partners next, and the love will follow. With you on his/her side, he/she can get through what life throws at us.
Make up from any disagreement before going to bed each night. Never go to bed mad about the same thing two nights in a row.
Here’s the code: (1) Be each others best friend. (2) Laugh every day. (3) Dance the mambo. This means: (1) If you treat each other as best friends, you will never do anything that would cause you to lose your best friend. (2) If you find things to laugh at together, you can’t be cranky over stuff that doesn’t count. (3) Dancing the mambo means find something that you both like to do together.
Keep laughing! Don’t sweat the small stuff. Thank each other regularly, show an interest in what your spouse is interested in, give each other room to do things separately but be sure to make memories together, and overlook things that are not such a big deal.
Let each spouse deal with his/her own family. Don’t argue with your mother/father in law; let your spouse do it. Be a team with families.
Always keep up the physical contact you share: hold hands, hug and kiss. These acts keep up the connection from one love-making experience to the next.
Don’t think you have done enough by treating your spouse “as well as she/he deserves.” There is no excuse for not treating each other better than you both deserve.
Remember that you are not in the other person’s head and likewise he/she is not a mind reader. Ask for clarification and likewise try to explain how you feel. When you misunderstand, go back and communicate again with love and respect.
Take time to be grateful and share that with your spouse.
Remember: the totality of both a Jewish life and a marriage are made up of small acts. It’s not about swinging for the bleachers. It’s about getting on base again and again.
The Shehecheyanu Moment
In our book Jewish Spiritual Parenting (Jewish Lights Publishing), we write, “There are once-in-a-lifetime experiences that mark momentous transitions. Indelibly etched in our hearts, they capture the blessedness of [life]. They are Shehecheyanu moments—moments of holiness and gratitude—that we cherish forever.”
Well, Michelle and I are halfway to the goal. With eyes wide open, we are working hard to finish the journey, together.
We thank the Holy One for giving us life, keeping us in life, and bringing us to this special moment. Amen.
And we thank these insightful Facebook friends for their wisdom on marriage: Sharon Adato, Subie Banaszynski, Steve Bercovitz, Rick Block, Alison Blue, Adam Chambers, Robin Lifton Cheris, Judi Cogen, Olivia Cohen-Cutler, Lisa Cronig, Alli Debrow, Shari Dworkin-Smith, Marina Edelman, Jordanna Flores, Joshua Goldman-Brown, Jeff Goldwasser, Karen Green, Dale Gross, David Itkin, Abi Karlin-Resnick, Lisa Kodimer, Lesli Kraut, Amy Weiss Land, Jody Levin, Carol Lieberstein, Heather Miller, Debbie Rivera, Alissa Robinow, Rebecca Robins, Susan Sassoon, Janice Simen, Stacy Tilliss, Caryn Yarnell, and Sally Weber.