How To Fail At Marriage

To write a sermon about staying married, which was requested by someone who bid on my sermons at the auction last fall, is to enter some of the darkest and more heart-breaking moments of my life.
I have to first look at the central failures of my parents’ marriage. To the outside world of our small North Carolina town, theirs looked like an ideal marriage – Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver. Both my parents were named citizen of the year at different points in their careers. I was even led to think that my uncles and aunts and grandparents had lovely, ideal marriages.
But beneath the surface, my mother deferred to my father at times when I know she wanted to rip his throat out. He failed utterly and completely in her eyes to live up to her high standards of service and goodness. He hung out with card-playing, golfing, whiskey-swilling reprobates while she wished he had hung out with Scout leaders and Sunday School teachers. While she took great pride in his accomplishments for our church and other local non-profits, she bristled at his endless card games, football games, basketball games, golf matches, and his apparent love for and yearning for life to be an endless party. But for me and my brother, the greatest failure of their marriage was her inability to protect us from his rage. He simply could not understand, and often yelled that lack of understanding, how his sons failed at sports, that my brother had difficulty learning to read, or for that matter that neither of us could get the weeds out of the front sidewalk to his satisfaction. He was the nicest guy in the world until something didn’t go to suit him. At that point, he did not hesitate to open up on us with his eye-bulging, screaming, dehumanizing rage. My reaction to this rage was to wish I had never been born. I have vivid, caustic, toxic memories of wishing I had never been born. No, it never occurred to me to offer an apology and a commitment to never do that again. That behavior came later. As a five, six, seven year-old child, I was simply filled from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head with the desire to have never been born. This desire for self-annihilation has followed me throughout my life. In fact, the greatest relief from this desire has come through my deep experiences of being one with everything, as the Buddha urged us all to be.
My model for marriage was built to fail. In fact, my father once said to my brother and me, early in our first failed marriages, “Boys, when your wife tells you to do something, just say ‘Yes, ma’am.’ Then go on and do whatever you please.” He said this in front of our mother who said, “Allen Jobe, I can’t believe you would say that in front of our sons.” She was shocked and horrified, but the message of more than 20 years had gotten through. That is exactly what he had done and modeled for us. At the risk of completely over-simplifying a terribly complex story, that is exactly what I did in both of my failed marriages. Rather than have honest, open communication with either of my wives, I simply said, “Yes, ma’am,” and went on to do whatever I pleased. Maybe I had moved up the scale from a desire for self-annihilation to a desire for self-sabotage. Not much of an improvement.
So hearing all this rather sad and twisted story, you may be wondering how did anyone imagine I could preach a sermon on staying married?
Reset the clock. Rewind the tape. What if I came to marriage with a desire for self-actualization, self-love, self-celebration and a desire to give that to my partner? What if I came into marriage with an understanding of the power of deep listening and the ability to speak my truth in the spirit of self-preservation? What would that look like?
As many of you already know, I posted on my Facebook page that I was writing this sermon and asked for suggestions. I had over 100 responses. Among those suggestions, one of the very best came from my oldest son, who is now in the seventh year of his first, and maybe his only, marriage. He wrote:
“I like what other people are saying about forgiveness, but I think a more positive-sounding and more generally applicable phrase that has kept me and Sarah humming along for near on seven years is radical acceptance of the other. That includes forgiveness, but also just fundamentally agreeing up front that there is another person over there having her own experience of the world, and having her own inner life and desires, and accepting that reality. As soon as you forget to accept all aspects of the other person or start to limit which parts you can accept by starting to say things like, ‘I really wish this part was different about her,’ you’re headed for trouble.”
Obviously, I loved that.
“There is another person over there having her own experience of the world.” As badly as I hate to admit this, I was 29 years old before I encountered this basic, fundamental truth. In any marriage, there is the one person and the other person. Unfortunately there are also two more people. There is the person one thinks one is married to, and there is the person other thinks other is married to. In my experience, at times of conflict and anger and crisis and fear and anxiety, that person I thought I was married to was almost never, in fact, real. She was made up, concocted and living in my head, and nowhere else. I would often go to war, not with anything real or actual or truthful, but simply with a thought in my head.
When I was 29 years old, I read Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. It is a wonderful book, but it shocked the hell out of me. Reading that book I suddenly realized that I had lived in a world of my own creation, entirely in my own head. If I thought something, it had to be true. Carnegie was the first to give me that truth that my son gave us on Facebook. There is another person over there having her own experience of the world. Oh my God. I was shocked and stunned and embarrassed.
For 29 years, I had done a disastrous job of defining reality. I believed things I thought mattered did matter and things I did not think mattered did not matter. For everyone. I was horribly arrogant, egotistical, and self-assured in a cocky, insufferable way. In the 32 years following, I have worked very hard to listen better, to listen carefully, to make sure I hear what people are saying, to pick up the silent cues that speak to their emotions and fears. And on many, many occasions I have failed. And on many, many other occasions, I have failed to say what has been important to me. It has been a whip saw of silencing others and silencing myself in the dim and stupid hope of creating that false sense that “everything is okay” that was the byword of that Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver household I was supposed to have been raised in. There is no need to heap blame on my dead parents, or their parents. Everybody does the best they can do, but my being real here and now requires that I stop idealizing that “everything is okay” lie.
Everything is not okay. Nobody gets to be 61 years old without suffering some horrible failures and hurts and harm to others. How hard is it to simply to sit across from someone who is my life partner and say, “Baby, we’ve got to up the truth and reconciliation in this life we are living together. If we do not, we’re gonna someday walk away on the broken glass of dreams that did not come true. Or we’re just gonna get tired of disappointing each other.”
That will work, but it is scary and painful and challenging. It is a conversation I am sure my parents avoided for 60 years. They were good people reaching for their own versions of how they thought life should be lived. The problem was that it was built on a lie. And I built much of my life on the same lie. Just keep as many people happy as you can, avoid the crucial conversations, muddle through. There have been times when it has appeared to work, but the long game of muddling through is that what we end up with is muddle.
It is not the clear, soaring joy of a life well-lived. And I’m not even talking about an entire life. Nobody gets to live a whole lifetime. Those are deep and distorting myths, even lies. We live in only moments. The clear and soaring joy of moments well-lived have to be built on the truth. Telling the truth and listening carefully involves being your one true self. If you want to have a great marriage, be your one true self. Trust your partner to let you know when that one true self steps on toes. Trust your partner to be a one true self as well. Trust your partner to say, “Hey, there is a whole other person over here having an entirely different experience. You’d better allow for that, too.”
This has been a terribly embarrassing sermon to deliver. That old Ozzie and Harriet model wants me to have never told you the things I have told you this morning. How much more wonderful it would have been to say, “Everything is okay.” But some of you this morning may truly be wondering what it takes to make a marriage last and I have to tell you finally, it is the wrong question. The right question is what does it take to create a marriage in which two people can live clear, joyous, soaring moments?
And where do we find the guts to admit that such a high standard always requires a very gentle and kind tolerance for divorce? Helen Keller, Helen Keller of all people, blind and deaf from a very early age, said, “Life is a great adventure or nothing at all.” By that standard, some marriages have to end in divorce because the delusions of young love do not always lead to marriages that can sustain many clear, joyous, soaring moments. Too much hurt, too many disappointments, too many scotched (I don’t know this word – will others?) elbows or knees along the bike routes of life leave some marriages in lousy enough disrepair that they have to end. There that is. Let that be. Your birthright is clarity, soaring and joy. Your birthright is at least occasionally to be so unconditionally loved that there is no doubt you have hit the mother lode of marital bliss. People talk about finding perfect love. My Facebook respondents wrote a lot about how it is sometimes dumb, blind luck. Yes, sometimes it is. Go to my Facebook page and read the tenderness of some and the tattered dreams of others.
One of my favorite writers is Tom Robbins. I cannot recommend him too highly. Here are two of his quotes on this morning’s topic, “We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.” and “When we’re incomplete, we’re always searching for somebody to complete us. When, after a few years or a few months of a relationship, we find that we’re still unfulfilled, we blame our partners and take up with somebody more promising. This can go on and on – series polygamy – until we admit that while a partner can add sweet dimensions to our lives, we, each of us, are responsible for our own fulfillment. Nobody else can provide it for us, and to believe otherwise is to delude ourselves dangerously and to program for eventual failure every relationship we enter.”
Making marriage last is the wrong question. Make it first. Make it a first place where you and your partner find clear, soaring joy. Maybe not every day, but that would be best. Maybe not every week, but I think if eight or nine days go by without the very best clear, soaring joy you can imagine, maybe it is time to sit down and have that hard conversation. Maybe it is time to say, “Baby, I’ve got to up my game. I’ve got to tell you hard truths, and I sure am interested in what you have to say to me.”