On the Keeping of Promises
"I'm thinking about leaving my husband," she began
crisply. And then she told me the story of her unraveling marriage and
her contemplated divorce. She was articulate and thoughtful, in her mid-thirties
I supposed, and clearly pained. I did not know her. I was a young pastor
just out of seminary, serving my first church, hardly wise in the ways
of the marital world. Her ill fortune was both unfamiliar and captivating
to me, and I knew just enough to keep my mouth shut and listen.
She felt herself growing more unhappy, she said, even depressed. It seemed
her husband of many years, while not abusive or addicted, was increasingly
inattentive and unavailable. The distance between them came slowly but
surely, over the years, until now their relationship was more practical
than emotional. She believed she had tried many possible solutions along
the way, to little avail. He felt, according to her, that there were no
real problems an antidepressant couldn't cure, and scoffed at the idea
of marriage counseling. She reflected, "My mother stayed with dad,
but I think she felt much like I do. I do not think I want to stay, but
I feel guilty when I think about leaving."
As her story continued, she revealed she had recently returned to work,
as the last of her children entered school. Economically, she could take
care of herself. A male co-worker became clearly interested in her--a
situation that both distressed and intrigued her. As we talked, she was
concerned about her children, about right and wrong, about her life and
her own happiness. "Is it wrong to want happiness and closeness in
my own life?" she wondered, "but then I promised him I would
marry for life."
My own pastoral responses to her that day were surely shallow. Having
only been married a few years myself, and being a neophyte counselor,
I had hardly plumbed the depths of relationships. I remember less what
I said to her, and more of what she said to me. I felt she confronted
me with an unnerving truth. As she was choosing to leave her marriage,
or to stay, so could anyone else. My wife, myself, anyone was really in
the position of constantly choosing for or against the marriage. I previously
and naively expected my marriage was already done, that the promise was
already made. Was it not quite that simple or automatic? Were the marital
promises really so shifting and demanding? The thought that her choices
and her responsibilities were not hers alone, but potentially anyone's,
Though that event was nearly twenty years ago, it essentially repeats
daily in my counseling office. The themes replay and the variations are
endless, but our lives are indeed composed of our intimate attachments.
Eventually, we too face the reality that our marriage is not "done"
but becoming, and, sadly, that it can come undone.
We are choosing to undo. Daniel Goldman in his book Emotional Intelligence
notes that though the divorce rate has leveled off, the odds that any
particular married couple will eventually divorce has continued to increase.
For American couples wed in 1950, about 30% end in divorce; for those
wed in 1970, 50% end in divorce; and for couples starting out in 1990,
the odds are that nearly 70% will end in divorce. The social pressures
and stigma have waned; the economic dependencies have lessened; the religious
commitments have blurred. Sometimes we must wonder if we have the choice
to stay married!
Often in my work with couples, I ask them to remember the original promise.
What was the love and the hope they felt when they decided to marry? Why
did they, of all the people in the world, decide to marry? What were they
looking for? Romance? Wholeness? Fulfillment? I encourage them to remember
the deep motivations that moved them then to each other. Could they rework
that promise in the now? Often leaving is seen as a solution, but will
leaving solve the deeper questions that moved and move us all? Herbert
Anderson has authored a very helpful book called Promising Again.
In that work, he suggests that the continual changes of marriages, and
the changes of persons, create an ongoing need to "promise again,"
to renew and rework our commitments, often in truly creative ways. Both
partners must covenant not so much to "keep a promise" as to
mutually keep "promising again" as the inevitable difficulties
and changes of life occur in their relationship. That process creates
the covenant of fidelity we all long for; that answers some of our deepest
needs and questions.
For Christians, of course, marriage represents not only their own creative
activity but God's; not only their promises to each other but God's promises
to them. The ritual of marriage in the Book of Common Prayer includes
this prayer for a marriage that speaks of God's promise: "Make their
life together a sign of Christ's love, that unity may overcome estrangement,
forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair." I wonder what would
happen if we nurtured, and were nurtured by, our deep promises to each
--Ron Johnson, Ph.D.
more about pastoral counseling.