Tuesday, September 7, 2010


It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love. ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a wedding sermon written from prison for his niece.
Caryl and I didn't get any pre-marital counseling. I recall a twenty-minute session in the pastor's office. Then he ran off with his secretary six weeks after our wedding. So he probably wasn't in the mood for counseling. We survived that (and an ill-starred honeymoon -- another essay for another time) and have been married for forty years. I’ve been a pastor for almost that long. In that time, I’ve officiated at over 300 weddings, each of which included some pre-marital counseling. I believe in marriage and I believe in pre-marital counseling, not because it will guarantee success, but because it’s a good time to talk about the realities of life and relationships, and just may trigger some ideas that can be put into practice with salutary results. (Real successful pre-marital counseling is that which prompts a dysfunctional couple to call off the wedding. ) I have many ideas -- even tested ones -- about healthy marriages (in fact, I'm going to blog about them in my next post), but, ironically, and upon reflection lately, I’m not sure how confident I am in answering the question, “What makes for  a successful marriage?”

I certainly think there are some markers of a good marriage, but I’m not sure to what degree those “markers” are a blending of what each member brings to the partnership because of who they are coming into the marriage, and to what degree they may result from effective counseling, learning, growth, …and time. Undoubtedly it is all of these. 

One of the things that gives me pause -- and hints (unsuccessfully) that I should stop right here -- is that there are, no doubt, as many exceptions to the description of marriage I will explore here as there are models that illustrate it. 

Sometimes I think all I can say about marriage is: Make sure you marry a beautiful young woman named Caryl Nasby, make sure that she is the daughter of feisty Olive and stolid Bob Nasby, and make sure she grows up with the farm in her soul and the city in her eyes. And make sure you grew up as the child of Violet and Leon – so doggedly devoted to each other that they helped to define for you what “for better or for worse” means.

And then make sure the two of you go to the same college.

I sometimes reflect on our marriage as being very close to an “arranged marriage.” And if not arranged, certainly fitting a formula: You go to college, you meet someone, you date for a few years while at that college, and then you get married almost immediately upon graduation. A marriage arranged, if not by the parents, then by good old Augustana College. The cold eye of analysis might certainly see a problem here. Two people committing themselves to each other for life just as they are being launched into the wide world to, well, meet other people.

But the same caution could be made about traditional arranged marriages, which survive to a much greater statistical rate than do western “romantic” marriages. (And it is not just that they last, but that husband and wife, often, actually fall in love with each other over the years.)

One of the reasons that arranged marriages work (when they do) -- whether arranged by mom and dad or by dear old alma mater -- is that they provide the couple with a foundational gift: shared history. In the traditional form, the families have known one another, perhaps for generations; in the less formal “arrangement” of college (or a similar intense community), you grow to know the same people, the same experiences, and one another, in the same setting for up to four years: History.

Attendance at a place like a regional college probably offers the potential of another contribution to that shared history: a common background. My parents were one generation off of a farm settled by their Scandinavian grandparents; Caryl grew up on the farm of her Scandinavian great-grandparents. They hadn’t known each other, but could have discussed crops and livestock at their first meeting – which they probably did.

One of the reasons that marriages which result from meeting an old classmate at a high school or college reunion work as they do is that the two people pick up where they left off, with shared history. (This is best, of course, if both are single. I once read an article about do’s and don’ts at a high school reunion. The author recommended strongly against rekindling the old flame if one is already married!)

Although I know even less about online dating than I do about the things I’ve been opining about heretofore, it seems that the good sites offer the promise – through the miracle of software – of assisting the coming together of two people with at least a virtual shared history and common background: the soil in which a relationship may grow.

Marriage is based not on loveableness, but on love. Loveableness comes and goes. Love accepts the beloved as much in spite of as because of; otherwise it sinks the first time the beloved does not look so beloveable.  Statistically, it takes seven years to learn the difference.

Caryl and I certainly entered into marriage for romantic reasons, but the point of my rambling here is that our marriage has as many attributes of an arranged marriage as it does of a storybook romance. We were in love when we got married. We’ve grown to love each other through the years.

Richard Jorgensen

Footnote: I am only too ready to acknowledge that marriages of the kind I describe here may fail at the exact same rate as those of the general population. (I’m not sure.) So I refer the reader to the line at the end of my first paragraph: (…Upon reflection, I’m not sure how confident I am in answering the question, “What makes for a successful marriage?”) I am liable to the critique: "What you have said makes sense -- for you."


Beret said...

Well said. Having just gone through our first time car buying process together, I said to Joel last night that after 4 years of marriage I think we're starting to actually get how one another works. There were no buttons pushed, just listening and patience with one another and we came through it smiling at the end! (Probably would've gone a little differently 3 years ago.)But I agree about having a shared history. In our case it has worked.

Caryl said...

Your thoughts warm my heart now just as much, if not more, as they did 40 years ago.