Author Sandra Tsing Loh has now declared marriage to be obsolete.  She and her husband of twenty years both had affairs and are divorcing.  She has concluded that marriage is simply obsolete these days.  It was useful in the agrarian culture up until early in the 1900’s, since many hands were needed on the farm.  Marriage is no longer useful.  Studies of primitive humans reveal that the spark in a relationship is programmed to last about four years, long enough to have two babies up and out.

I am tempted to get on a soap box and with great self-righteousness rant against such silliness.  That would be far too easy.  I have counseled couples through some very tough times over the years.  Some worked through their problems and found a new relationship that had more resilience and strength an intimacy than before they struggled through whatever it was.  Some concluded that they needed to divorce and begin new lives.  There were money problems, affairs, trust issues, problems with alcohol misuse, abusive behavior.

I respect those who worked out their relationship, and I respect those who chose to divorce and begin new lives.  Does that sound unpastor-like?  Divorce is among the most painful experiences anyone can have judging from what people shared with me over the years.  It is frightening how many killings are done by estranged spouses.  When I moved to Oklahoma City five months ahead of Mary Ann and our children, who were finishing the school year, I was standing just inside the door of a Skaggs Drug Store returning a faulty alarm clock I had gotten the day before.   As I was standing at the counter, someone ran in and hid behind the counter where I was standing.  When the doors opened, I smelled the gun powder.  Fifty feet away from me, outside the door of the store, an estranged husband shot his ex-wife in the face.  After a time, I went out the door to leave and walked by the paramedics with her.  She died there in that spot.  The ex-husband was found at Lake Overholser about a mile and a half away.  He had taken his own life.

Having seen the level of pain that comes with it, I no longer judge those who have chosen the path of divorce.  Those who have experienced divorce are unlikely to recommend it as something to be sought after.

With that said, most of those who divorce do not then conclude that marriage is obsolete.  Apparently, almost 90% of those who divorce choose to remarry.  It appears that we are wired to marry.  I realize that sounds ridiculously obvious, but apparently it is not obvious to some.

Assuming that in our primitive brain the spark that brings a man and a woman together has a four year shelf life, the conclusion implicit in the author’s contention that marriage is obsolete is that there is no point it staying together once the spark has expired.  In fairness, I think she would say that it is no longer sensible to try to recreate the spark after many years of marriage.

I guess the author’s conclusion might be reasonable if the spark were all there is to marriage.  To use her metaphor, a spark is what gets the fire going.  It would be pretty hard to weather a cold winter if the heating system in the house never had more than a spark.

If we chose to live only by what lay in our primitive brain, the fight or flight impulse would preclude the possibility of living in peace with other human beings, at least other than those in our tribe.  What makes us human is the capacity to use our frontal lobes to reason out a better way to live.

If we chose never to move from the spark to that which the spark ignites, of course marriage would become obsolete. What the spark ignites is relationship.  The spark ignites feelings that grow into actions that produce newly discovered feelings that spark levels of trust and intimacy that could never be experienced if the spark were to remain the only measure of the value of marriage.

The spark needs to be in contact with some sort of combustible material or it will produce absolutely nothing but a tiny burst of light and heat lasting only a fraction of a second.  The combustible material is made up of promises and commitments that are lived out day by day in big ways and little ways.  The combustible material is not romantic gestures (although there is a lot to be said for them).  The combustible material is made up of time spent listening to one another, arguing with one another, forgiving one another, standing up to one another and giving in to one another.

Long marriages provide the possibility of a kind of relationship with a beauty and depth, that is far beyond the spark that brings couples together in the first place.  People who have not chosen to marry or are divorced or widowed, can also find deep and lasting relationships that grow out of the combustible material in their relationships with those who are closest to them.  Marriage, however, is certainly not obsolete as a meaningful and fulfilling way to live for as many years as life allows.

For Mary Ann and me, marriage is hardly obsolete.  It is what allows us survive in difficult circumstances.  We get to experience relationship that is deep enough to weather irritations and frustrations and misunderstandings without any of it stealing the fire from us.

When in the Seminary training to be come a pastor, I was in a choir that sang Bach’s St. John Passion three times over four years.  The third time we sang it was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had in my life.  I will never forget singing the chorale at the conclusion of the Passion.  The power of that chorale lay in what had gone before.  Each aria and recitative and chorus sung over almost an hour built one on the last until all that had gone before filled the last chorale with overwhelming joy, more deeply moving than there are words to describe.  Without what had gone before, the chorale would have been a beautiful hymn.  With what led up to it, the experience touches me to this day, forty years later.

No, Ms. Sandra Tsing Loh, marriage is not obsolete.  For me, our marriage, now, after forty-three years is the chorale at the end of the something that has been building in strength and power for all these years.  The spark has ignited something enduring and of great beauty.

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In last night’s post I said I would do it.  Tonight I will keep that promise, or threat, depending on your perspective.  As I said last night, this is rated PG45 since that number exceeds the ages of our Daughter, Son and their spouses.  As Daughter-in-Law Becky once said when I was only hinting at something that could move into the forbidden area of parents intimate activity — “Too much information!!” 

Since I am old and by some measures (probably most measures) a little stodgy, there is no need to fear too much information.  In saying that, I have, of course, lost all those curiosity seekers who ended up here in hopes of finding something titillating.  I am not sure this old ticker could handle much titillation.  With that said, we old folks still have young folks living inside of us. 

I remember sitting in a movie once, I think it was one of the Grumpy Old Men movies of some years ago.  There was a scene in which Walter Matthau and Ann-Margaret kissed — right on the lips.  Everyone in the theater who was under thirty groaned audibly.  From right behind us I heard at an “Oh gross!” 

I do have to admit that the thought of kissing Walter Matthau full on the mouth is hardly appetizing.  Then again, Ann-Margaret is another story.  What the young among us probably don’t understand is that we old people think other old people are cute, sometimes downright good-looking. 

What is at issue for Caregivers and Carereceivers is how to keep romance alive when meals are often interrupted by bathroom duties and waste management is a routine activity, when arms and legs and stomachs have grown or the skin on them gathered into wrinkles.  How is it possible to get excited about one another when one is tired and annoyed by having to do everything for the other, and the other is tired and annoyed at being followed around and scolded every time there is some behavior the other one doesn’t appreciate? 

Now comes the real problem.  I have just asked the question.  How the heck am I supposed to answer it???? 

Let me start this way.  Mary Ann and I are in our mid-sixties.  When I look at her, I see the cutie whose engagement picture hangs on the wall of our bedroom.  Forty-four years has not stolen from me the feelings that drew me to her.  I would not presume to speak for her.  In fact, I might actually prefer not having her speak to this issue.  I can remember the feelings I had before we met, fell in love and married.  I remember the profound loneliness of being a young single fellow who sometimes felt deeply sad, not sure why.  Once Mary Ann entered my life, never again did those lonely, deeply sad feelings return.  While I don’t fear death, I do fear the return of those feelings, should she leave before me. 

How do Caregivers and Receivers experience romance?  First of all, we do!  Understand, romance is not just about body parts and orgasms and ejaculations.  In fact, those whose understanding of romantic love centers on the biological act of intercourse, have no hope of ever experiencing romance.  By the way, old people actually do know about the biology of conception.   Some of us have had children.  While I happen to have been a pastor at the time and am familiar with the Biblical account of the Virgin Birth, we had our children the usual way. 

I have read many emails from those who are caring for a spouse who has ceased to be the person they married.  They have only memories to draw on for those romantic feelings.  How can they find a way to express their love.   If love was just about body parts and couplings, there would only be sadness left for many. 

The marvel of it is, love, romantic love, has depth and awe and wonder that is only hinted at when people first fall in love.   My favorite movie of all time is no secret to those who know me well.  It is “The Man from Snowy River.”  I don’t know what lies deep in the recesses of my psyche that draws me to it, but I can tell you what I recoginize about it that draws me.  They are simple things.  I love the photography, the scenery.  That movie is the reason one of my dreams has been to visit Australia.  The scenes of running horses will take your breath away.  There are two central themes that draw me to it.  One is the coming of age of a young man who proved himself in spite of the odds against him.  I suppose a 5′ 6″ kid with who had Rheumatic Fever and was not at all popular might understandably enjoy that sort of theme.  The other central theme is the romance that grows between Jim and Jessica.  It is beautiful and touching even to a guy not much into chick flicks.

In the sequel, “Man from Snowy River Two,” the ending is, as with every such story.  Maybe not in so many words, but the ending is, and they lived happily ever after.  “Happily ever after” is what romance is about.  The “ever after” in happily ever after lasts through smelly socks, passing gas, spitting up babies, rebellious teenagers, unsuccessful recipes, stupid comments, throwing up, diahrrea, tragic events, bad mistakes, arguments, hurt feelings.   The love that creates and sustains a relationship after riding off into the sunset can endure waste management, food that lands on the lap and on the floor, caring for bedsores, seeing that blank look of no recognition in the eyes of the object of that love, because of the dementia, hearing harsh and unloving words from the mouth that you kissed in former years. 

That isn’ t pretend love.  It isn’t some poor substitute for the rolling and grunting of biological coupling (which, by the way, is great fun).  It is something that is in its own way, beautiful and meaningful and romantic and intimate beyond anything that could have been imagined when lips touched in that first kiss decades before. 

I will say this much that is specific and personal.  Once or twice a week, I have the job of washing and drying Mary Ann’s hair.  (The Bath Aid does it twice a week also.)  Mary Ann has great hair for which she often gets complements.  While the Parkinson’s has taken much from us, washing Mary Ann’s hair brings wonderful feelings of intimacy.  It is tactile and gentle and relaxing and warming.  Running my fingers through her hair as I dry it is my experience of “happily ever after.”   The other day, Mary Ann gave me a kiss on the neck as I was bent down pulling up the disposable underwear after using the commode.  (Too much information?)  Strangely, in a way, the Parkinson’s has brought more intimacy than it has taken away. 

I would like to think that  Jim and Jessica will grow old together — that their love will grow until they know what it is really like to live happily ever after.

Those of you who are in the throes of caring for a spouse whose chronic illness creates barriers in your relationship, I guess I would like to know what brings real romance into your lives.  How do you cope? 

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Comments are appreciated.