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What is a happy marriage?

Recently I was chatting with my friend, Rosemerry who is my Truth Detector.

I told her I was writing a piece about “What is a happy marriage.”

“I know the exact moment I decided to create my podcast,” I told her “It was the moment I heard an interview on the radio as I drove. I was just merging onto I-70 after buying groceries for the week. With five sacks of groceries in the car and 4 hungry mouths to feed when I got home, I heard the journalist on the radio say, “No one is going to write about a happy marriage. It’s boring.”

“What a travesty!” I thought, “How are we going to hear about what it takes to make a happy marriage if only the ugly moments are discussed? We need someone who will talk about the habits that create a happily ever after.”

I vowed to be that person.

So I told Rosemerry what was inspiring THIS episode of the podcast.


A story about marriage

I just finished reading Ann Patchett’s new book, Tom Lake. It’s a gorgeous story about marriage. 

In the book, Lara Nelson and her husband, Joe, own a cherry orchard. The pandemic has brought their grown daughters back to the farm and, as the daughters help to pick cherries, they ask their mother about a summer decades ago when she was acting in the play Our Town, and had a romance with Peter Duke, an actor who would go on to win an Oscar. 

The daughters, particularly Nell–who hopes to become an actress herself one day–seem mystified why their mother would marry Joe, and live on a farm, rather than have the glamourous life of Hollywood.

I tell Rosemerry about the first moment in the book that takes my breath away.

Lara comes to bed. Her husband is already there, fast asleep. She doesn’t worry about waking him because in the summer nothing can wake him. The bulk of the work rests on his shoulders: The farm. The workers. The cherries that must be picked.

He works all day and then, after dinner, he says he’ll just finish up a thing or two, then proceeds to put in a second shift.

Lara looks at her sleeping husband. His hand on his heart. She puts her hand there and says, “live forever.”

I sigh at this gorgeous scene as if my sigh is enough to explain why this is a happy marriage. But Rosemerry won’t have it.


The truth is deeper than a “happy marriage”

“This isn’t a happy moment,” she says to me. “Look at what’s inspiring her to say this?” It’s death. The death that will certainly come.

It might sound like Rosemerry is raining on my parade. But I know her too well to think this is what’s happening.

Instead, she’s helping me to find the deeper truth. Which, as you will hear, is even more lovely.

So now, I will take you with me on my journey this week to answer the question “What IS a happy marriage?”


Marriage and the Mediterranean Sea

Years ago, I had the good fortune to visit the Mediterranean Sea. On the shore of the sea were zillions of white stones that ranged in size from a dime to a fist. These stones were burnished so smooth that not a single one had a rough patch nor a corner.

They. Were. Gorgeous.

Each of the stones sparkle like snow crystals after a hoar frost. They aren’t just white. The white is swirled with the tiniest hint of grey. Some of the stones contain more of that grey shadow, and some are so white as to be blinding.

I hold a singular rock in my hand. It nestles between my two tallest fingers and my thumb. Then that stone invites me to trace its smooth texture with my thumb. I rub the smoothness on my upper lip. Over and over I circle my thumb and marvel at the lack of any edges.

I close my hand over the rock and feel the calm of the shoreline where the ocean meets the earth. Whoosh comes a wave, licking the shoreline. Shhh it says as it recedes.

I am calmed by the rhythm. I am home in its promise to be forever smooth and present, offering gravity to my life.

Until I think about it from the stone’s point of view.

What has made these rocks smooth?

Of course I know: It’s the constant tumbling of the waves. Each wave brings a little sediment to each stone, acting like sandpaper on all those rough edges. The scientific work for this is Abrasion. That’s also the word that sounds like it hurts.

If you’re in your 30’s, the moment when Lara puts her hand atop her sleeping husband’s hand might not resonate with you.

It doesn’t occur to you to want your partner to live forever because you’re just trying to SURVIVE this moment. You’re trying to make dinner with one hand, because you’re holding a baby in the other. Or you’re racing through the grocery store and you practically fall asleep in your driveway you’re so tired.

And, if a thought like that were to occur to you, you might even have a moment when you think, “If my partner died, at least I could collect on the life insurance policy and I wouldn’t have to work so hard.”

You don’t realize that the dizzying dance of work you’re doing right now is the waves that are burnishing the bond you have to the person who shares your front door and your toilet.

The idea of a “happy marriage” shifts

The daughters in Ann Patchett’s book, Tom Lake, are in their 20’s. They think their mother made a mistake. Why trade the glamour of romance with Oscar-winning Peter Duke for the mundane life of the cherry orchard and keeping the promise of watering and trimming all those trees?

This is the age when you ask the question, “What is a happy marriage?” You want all the synonyms that go with happy: gleeful, ecstatic, ebullient.

But Lara, whose marriage has been burnished by the waves of life, wants to make them understand why she loves their father. She remembers how love felt different at 24 years old when she fell for Peter Duke. It felt like falling off a roof: wild and spontaneous. With no sense of the mess that would come to the pavement below.

She asks her daughters, “Do you remember when you begged to go to the fair?”

You have to look at it from a different perspective:

Maisie is the middle daughter. She is studying to be a veterinarian. During the pandemic, when face to face contacts are rare, Maisie’s training has helped her neighbors.

Her neighbors don’t care that she doesn’t have all her certifications. They are grateful when she is willing to come in the middle of the night and help to deliver the foal who is tangled up inside his mother.

But, during the day, while they pick cherries, Maisie remembers being a kid. “I loved the fair.” She remembers the raucous rides and the gooey cotton candy. So much cotton candy! The thrilling rides that made her stomach surge into her throat.

Her mother remembers the puking and all that colorful cotton candy vomited first on one sister, then on her, and, on the way home, down her husband’s back.

So, Lara asks her daughter, “But would you want to go [to the fair] now? Would you want to go if it meant not helping to deliver the foal?”

Lara knows what it like to fall off the roof into love. She also knows the love that is two lives filled with complications slowly braided together day after day after day.


How the question changes

At 24 you ask yourself, “What makes a happy marriage?”

At 54 you ask, “Who will endure getting barfed on after the fair and laugh about it and still want to stay married?”

The question that’s most compelling changes as you live longer and longer with your sweetheart.

In your 20’s you most want adventure, and freedom, and excitement. In your 60’s you most want trustworthiness, and loyalty, and companionship. What you want from your marriage changes. You realize that happiness alone is overrated.

The question I was asking with Rosemerry wasn’t enough. That’s why she challenged me on it.


Here’s another story

In order to take you to the next iteration of the question I want to tell you a different story.

Let me introduce you to a conversation I heard with Krista Tippett and Kate DiCamillo.

Krista Tippet is the host of a podcast called On-Being. Kate DiCamillo is an author who mostly writes young adult fiction.

Kate DiCamillo wrote Because of Winn Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, and many others. Animals figure largely in her books and she often has a wide range of characters whose stories overlap.

When you watch her characters overlap, love gets revealed in the most gorgeous ways.

Krista Tippett quotes her daughter, saying how she fell in love with the characters in Kate Camillo‘s books and then their lives intertwined. It’s the intertwining where we REALLY fall in love. The overlaps. The entanglements. The struggles. The hopes. They all get intertwined and the beauty of this weaving together of lives is what we love about Kate DiCamillo’s books.

We love this because we crave belonging.

Part of a “happy” marriage is that sense of belonging right? A desire to belong is built into our DNA. We survived through the ages because we had each other’s backs.

But when our lives intertwine, it’s not always happy. Not happy in the sense of light-hearted, or joyful. Sometimes—oftentimes—it’s tragic. This is the burnishing. The waves of the sea tumbling those rocks, removing the edges, smoothing each stone so you can’t help but pick it up and treasure it in your hand.

Kate DiCamillo has one of the best answers to this juxtaposition where we want the intertwining, but we’re hesitant about the pain that comes with that togetherness.

In this interview DiCamillo tells the story of her childhood friend who would read Charlotte’s Web and cry and cry. But the instant she finished the book, she’d open it to page 1 and begin again.

“Why?” DiCamillo asks her friend, “Why do you read it again?”

The friend says, “I knew that a terrible thing was going to happen. And I also knew it was gonna be OK somehow. I thought that I couldn’t bear it, but then, when I read it again, it was all so beautiful, and I found that I could bear it.”

This defines for me what is a happy marriage.

It is the beauty of the sparkling, white stones even as another wave crashes upon them, with its fine sandpaper of silt, scraping away another layer to reveal even more soothing smoothness, to put gravity into your hand so you know you’ll never float away.

Then, in the interview Kate DiCamillo answers the question further by reading from a letter she wrote to young author, Matt. The letter is copied all over the internet, but here you get to hear her read it.

Now I’m going to quote from the interview:

If you want to listen, this part starts at 26:50 into the interview.

Kate DiCamillo goes on to say to Matt, “I have tried for a long time to figure out how E.B White [author of Charlotte’s Web] did what he did. How he told the truth and made it bearable….The only answer I could come up with was love.

“E.B White loved the world, and, in loving the world, he told the truth about it: Its sorrow, it’s heartbreak. It’s devastating beauty. He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth.

“And with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we are not alone.”

My friend, Rosemerry, knows this. It’s why she challenged me about my question, “What IS a happy marriage?” She could feel me searching for something so much MORE than a happy marriage.

Rosemerry, and Ann Patchett, and Krista Tippett, and Kate DiCamillo, and the Mediterranean Sea…they are ALL inviting me to wonder.

To pay attention.

To notice all the layers that go into making up a life of love filled with the complexity we long for.

Try this date night discussion: 

This week I invite you to talk with your partner about the enormous variety of questions you could ask yourself about your relationship.

When you learn how to ask a wide variety of questions about your marriage, your marriage will expand to meet your curiosity.

So discuss among yourselves. What else do you want in addition to a happy marriage?

Just recently I spent a day with my granddaughter who is almost 2 years old. We sat together while she poured water out of a tiny teapot into a tiny cup. Then back again. Back and forth. Back and forth.

She’s wondering. Does the water always go into the cup? She’s noticing the tiny spills and she wipes them up with her sponge. She pays attention. She sees nothing but the teapot, the cup and the water that flows back and forth.

She doesn’t wonder if this is what she should be doing. She doesn’t compare her pouring to my pouring. She is lost in the fascination of living in this moment and paying attention to this moment.

A happy marriage is based in wonder. It’s flavored with familiarity. Love is being able to belong at the shoreline where the burnishing and the sparkle meet.

To quote from Tom Lake one more time, “The suffering exists BESIDE wet grass and bright blue sky, recently scrubbed by rain. The beauty and the suffering are equally true.”


There’s more to marriage than happiness

Maybe that is why Rosemerry questioned my premise. I thought my task was to make marriage less boring. (And occasionally, I still believe that is my task.) But my task, at least today, is to notice why the question, “What is a happy marriage?” is the wrong question. Or it’s not the ONLY question.

Because marriage is filled with all sorts of moments: some blissful. Some boring, aggravating, peaceful, kind or mean. There are moments when you want to run far, far away and never return. And moments when you put your hand on your partner’s sleeping hand and you beg them to live forever.

And what Rosemerry’s truth detector was noticing in me is that I want to make all of that happy. It’s not always happy. Some people would tell me it’s rarely happy. But it’s beautiful.

So beautiful that you don’t ever want to imagine an end to that love and beauty. You put your hand atop the hand of your sleeping partner and you whisper, “Live forever.”

Try this relationship habit: 

This week’s habit for your happily ever after is to ask a different question about your marriage.

Instead of asking the same old question, “What makes our marriage happy?” You could ask, “What is most familiar in our relationship?”

Here’s an example:

Once, when we took a vacation with my grown children, including my daughter’s husband, we were in the car on a long drive. And I was playing the favorites game: What’s your favorite season of clothes to wear and what is your favorite item of clothing to wear during that season? (My answer to that question is two pair of tights. I’m happiest when I can wear 2 pair of tights).

Then I asked this favorite’s question: What’s your favorite landscape to look at?

Guess what? all 5 of us mentioned the view from our living room window. Now I will admit, it’s a gorgeous view from my porch. I’m a very lucky woman, but my family has had the luck to see amazing places and we’ve certainly seen more spectacular views.

But part of the beauty-equation, at least for the 5 of us, includes familiarity. The landscape we see from our living room is the most familiar. And that was enough to help make it our favorite.

With this in mind, try asking yourself the question, “What’s my favorite part about being married to you?”

Or “What makes our relationship familiar and cozy?”

How about you?

I’m beyond curious to know what questions you come up with. Please text me and let me know what questions you found. I’m at 970-210-4480.

I can’t wait to hear the questions you find that help you cultivate a marriage that inspires that hand-on-top-of-hand-“live-forever” whisper.

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