When I interview wedding couples in order to draft a customized ceremony, we discuss who will be there, the steps in the ceremony, and so on. Toward the end I ask each one of them, “What does [he/she] bring to the table that will contribute to the success of this marriage?”
I ask for two reasons. On a practical level, if they want to write their own vows or read a few personal thoughts, I will have this information ready and written down in case they call me the night before and say, “I have no idea what to say, help!”
But also I ask this to get them thinking. It's generally something the couple have not articulated to one another before, and may have not even considered. It’s one thing to love a person, the way her hair falls, the way he is with your nieces and nephews. But now the couple is embarking on a huge venture: to create a successful and long-lived marriage. This is a contract, a civil commitment with witnesses and property and families, and it’s worth considering how your partner can support the business of marriage.
I’m happy to report that, after their first surprise, couples hardly ever have trouble identifying each other’s qualities that support marriage. “His practicality supports my huge visions and hazy details,” “He is energetic and full of ideas and solutions,” “She’s so organized, and I love her sense of humor. We’re going to need that as we travel the world together.” And when one talks, the other very often has tears in their eyes, because it is something very precious to hear that your sweetheart cherishes your qualities.
It opens their hearts to each other even more.
It can also reveal any red flags as to why this couple may not be quite ready to marry. “She’s going to sober me up” is a red flag. It means that, for now, equality and independence are lacking.
Long ago I interviewed a very wealthy couple. She was the CEO of a well-known company, and he was a consultant. They shared a commitment to fitness, which they discussed a lot. The interview was nearly over when I asked them this question. She answered something about his very healthy lifestyle, and then I asked him, “What does she bring to the table?” His answer stopped me in my tracks.
“Well, in the end it’s all about me, right? I need things around me to be perfectly in tune with me so I can get into my flow. And she is never any trouble. She likes to do what I like to do. She fits around me like an old slipper.” I waited to see if this was a joke, but apparently it was not. An old slipper! Woe to this CEO when she suddenly has to work late, or travel abroad, or decides to take up a non-fitness hobby. Or gets sick!
I was young, and not bold enough to tell them my thoughts right in the room. I politely concluded the interview, and a few days later, begged off the wedding. I knew that they would marry anyway, and learn whatever lessons they had to learn. But my conscience wouldn’t let me marry them.
At the wedding supper or the rehearsal dinner, older married guests are sometimes asked to tell the couple their secret to a long and happy marriage. I have heard many answers, and here are my two favorites.
The secret to a happy marriage is. . . always wear comfortable shoes!
The secret is, go into it with both eyes open. And for the rest of your life, keep one eye shut.
I like the first for its immediate practicality, and the second because it’s a way of saying, “always give your beloved the benefit of the doubt.”
But another practical secret is, learn how to fight. The last thing any engaged couple wants to think about is fighting. But what if you were given the tools to fight fairly, to argue things out in an agreeable fashion so that both of you grew closer together as a team? Wouldn't you want to spend some time thinking about it?
My first husband and I never disagreed. We never fought. At the time I thought it was because we were perfectly aligned, but in retrospect, I stuffed parts of myself away so they wouldn’t upset him, or upset the delicate balance we had attained. When these hidden parts naturally began to assert themselves, the balance between us was severely upset, and he was (rightly) kind of shocked at what was happening. By the time we had our first real disagreement, the marriage had already been burdened with too much assumption, and too much resentment. I didn’t have tools to fight fairly, and neither did he. Everything fell apart and couldn’t be repaired.
While dating my current husband, we chanced on a free workshop in communication as a married couple, and went to it. Boy, am I glad we did.
The workshop presenters worked from this excellent book, Fighting for Your Marriage. This book is easy to read and covers not only conflict but also spirituality, sensuality, and forgiveness. Any couple can make good use of the wisdom of its authors.
My favorite technique from this book is how to give each other time to fully talk without interrupting to blame or problem-solve. The authors actually hand out a piece of linoleum in their workshops so that the Speaker literally “holds the floor,” but we can use anything, such as a pen or a book. After the Speaker is through, s/he hands the floor to the Listener, who then gets a chance to speak. In this kind of discussion, no-one rushes to find a solution until each person has said everything burdening their mind and heart. It is remarkable how much helpful information reveals itself when two people fully articulate a challenging issue.
I don’t regret a single moment from my first marriage, which lasted nearly thirteen years. I'm especially grateful for the gift of my daughter from that union. But the marriage we built was riddled with assumptions and problems, and when it was tested, it collapsed in a terribly painful way.
I never expected to fall in love again, but I did. This time, I resolved to do my part differently from the start.
The first marriage’s courtship and engagement period: six weeks. Lots of great conversations in bars, large parties with friends, and many joints shared on the benches in North Beach’s Washington Square.
The second courtship took two years, then an engagement of six months. I was sober. We, too, had great conversations together while walking, in cafes, going on adventures, doing stuff around the house. A friend mentioned a book that turned out to be a pre-wedding gem, because it got us actually talking about us, about stuff that would naturally come up the longer we lived together.
That book is Ten Great Dates Before You Say I Do (Zondervan, 2003). While the authors approached it with a distinctly Christian perspective, the information and process can be valuable to everyone. I’m recommending this book to you.
Many couples do premarital counseling. These talking dates are a way to dive into the same kinds of issues. My betrothed and I went out on ten Thursday night dates after separately doing a page or two of homework.
The homework helped us to sort out our expectations and differences. We talked about where we each came from, our talking style, the ways in which we showed love. (I’m really glad about that last one, because I know that his changing the oil in my car is pretty darned romantic, as is my folding his laundry.)
We talked about really awkward, difficult things like money issues and debts, and sex. We talked about how we’d try to solve problems together, and endure crises and old age together. How we’d handle the housework, our nearly grown children, and our different faiths. Our similar and sometimes very different ideas of fun vacations.
The ten years we’ve been married have slipped by so fast in an atmosphere of trust and enjoyment. Those Thursday dates had a lot to do with it.
There are certain mistakes that even smart couples might make while planning their wedding. Inadvertently making them can cause no end of anxiety and distress before the wedding and even during it.
For example, if you are planning your wedding, are you absolutely clear as to who financially owns the event? If you and your betrothed are covering the cost completely, you can call all the shots. If someone else, usually one or more set of parents, is footing the bill, you will need to gather all your diplomatic skills and negotiate so that both you and the "event owner" are satisfied with the wedding. This may mean saying, "Aunt Jane, as long as everything is buttercream yellow and I carry roses, I don't care who you invite or what we eat."
Or, "Dad, we are paying for this and it will remain a vegan, gluten-free, and alcohol-free wedding, so just deal with it." Just make sure you get this kind of clarity early in the process. There's no worse wedding guest than a festering family resentment!
In some ways, the wedding ceremony is the smallest physical part of the wedding day. It usually doesn’t go on past 40 minutes (unless a church service is involved), a far smaller allotment of time than the reception, the preparations, or even the picture taking with family. And in terms of financial cost, the ceremony itself is usually tiny compared to such things as feeding all your guests, hiring the band or the florist, or wearing that ultimate dress.
Despite its smallness in proportion, people agree that the wedding ceremony itself is the most magical and sacred few moments of your wedding day. Consider that you arrive at your wedding ceremony as two distinct individuals. The ceremony itself is a crucible for transformation, and after certain words and rituals you will emerge from the other side as two (still distinct) individuals who are joined in the eyes of their community, beginning to walk on the path of one life together.
Somehow, planning the wedding ceremony often gets lost among the shuffle of searching for your venue, tasting cakes, and calling up transportation companies. And that’s why even smart and conscious brides and grooms can easily overlook some important action items. Like setting aside time to think about writing your vows, or whether you even want to. And don't wait until the last minute to choose or book your officiant. Many couples have been unpleasantly shocked to find that officiants are already booked, and have been so for months.
When you don’t clearly think through these issues, a general miasma of anxiety begins to rise up around the wedding which makes planning not so much fun for anyone. Fortunately, you can settle these issues fairly quickly and release a great deal of tension from the planning process.
Here are some thoughts about weddings, writing, and the world. Enjoy.