Monday, July 16, 2007


(News-Herald, May 2003) I’m not sure why so many people are interested in other people’s marriages. I don’t think it’s just a small town thing, but we certainly do like to play the game.

Probably the most common version of the game is to compare a couple to the unofficial, but widely known, Rules for Marriage.

It’s never too early to start that game. Back in college I knew a man who had almost never dated and a woman who had just come off a multi-year intense relationship. They had been seeing each other a week or two, I recall, when they announced their engagement. We thought they were joking. Nobody gets married with such little preparation. As you’ve already guessed, the punch line of this story is that now, twenty-five years later, they are still happily married.

We are forever noting the Rules that have been broken in the pursuit of matrimonial bliss. Too much age difference. Too much income difference. Too soon. Too late. Too mushy. Not mushy enough.

Many of us cling to the Rules with an obsessive tunnel vision. We know dozens of exceptions to the Rules, and dozens of people who followed the Rules and failed anyway, yet we hold tight to the notion that the Rules must be followed for success.

In life, some rules are valuable. Some rules are on the order of “Don’t stick your tongue in a running fan.” They tell you how to avoid fairly predictable unpleasant consequences.

But other rules are about trying to create particular consequences, and these strike me as more suspect. “Keep your tongue out of the fan and you will become rich and famous” is half good rule, half groundless hope.

It’s nice to believe in rules, nice to believe that if you just do the right thing, you get the right results. It’s comforting. It’s liberating.

And it’s a great excuse to be lazy.

We like rules because they can substitute for judgment. Rich or poor, well-off or struggling, we deal with one constant in life—making choices is hard.

One of the most basic pieces of information that most of us long for is an answer to the question, “How am I doing?” Do I have a good job? Am I in a good relationship? Am I good parent, spouse, friend? Am I happy? Should I be happy?

These seem like easy questions, but for many folks they aren’t. It is hard for us to look at out lives and decide how they are doing, to decide if they are going well.

Particularly something as large and amorphous as a marriage. There are good parts and bad parts, days of joy and days of misery, and long periods in which folks just go through the motions without thinking much about it.

What’s easier than thinking about it is carrying around a checklist. If I am doing A, B, C, and D, then my marriage must be good and my spouse and I must be happy.

And perhaps that’s why people who break the rules can seem so threatening. If you’re breaking the rules, and it’s working for you, then how can I be sure that following the rules is working for me?

Perhaps marriage is more susceptible to this effect because so many of us continue to think that romance and love are magical events that happen to us. You wander through life, waiting for the moment when your “soul mate” appears and announces his/her presence. As long as they match all the checkpoints on the list, you can remain confident that True Love has happened to you.

Well, it’s nice to be idealistic, I guess. But then one day you have an argument or a disagreement or you just look at the person once shone like the sun and now they just give off the dull glow of a waning 40-watt bulb, and you check your list of rules and there are too many being broken. So you conclude that that itch of discontent must be the Truth of your situation, not a condition to be overcome by commitment and work, and you head out the door, waiting for the next Soul Mate to appear.

Well, even the Bible tells us that we’ll know good or bad by its fruits. In other words, it’s not a matter of going through the right steps, but a matter of where you end up. If you’re in a good place, it really doesn’t matter when people tell you that you can’t get there from here.

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