One of my favorite quotes about love and marriage comes from Oscar Wilde: “A man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her.” While that saying makes me laugh, Wilde is also getting to something important: marriage is tricky. And in today’s society where the martial woes of everyone from our politicians to the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are headline news, we are presented with every reason in the world to give up on our relationships—and fewer and fewer reasons to stay. While researching my novel, The Divorce Party, I sat down and spoke to women, men, and married couples about why they do stay. And, sometimes, why they wished they had. This is the best advice I’ve found.
1. Love Is a Decision
Watching Governor Sanford stand up eighteen months ago and speak about how he found his soul mate in his Argentinean lover reminded me of something Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and author, wrote about sweat lodges. She wrote that the only way to be in a sweat lodge—to experience all that it brings—is to sit far from the exit. Because if you sit too close, you will find a reason to use it. The same is true of any long-term relationship. If you decide to look for an exit, you will always be able to find it: whether it comes in the form of another lover, or another life. But the couples I spoke with who decided to commit to their marriages and relationships—to be present for them, to help them grow more sacred—told me that they were immeasurably rewarded for that decision. The more committed they grew to their marriages, the further they sat from the exit, the more joy and peace they found there.
2. There Is No Weakness in Forgiveness
“I’m not happy anymore”; or “I’m disappointed”; or “I have doubts.” Three familiar catch phrases that free us up to not work to bring a relationship back to a positive place. In fact, we are conditioned these days to believe that the brave thing is to move on when the honeymoon is over. But that very standard makes it hard for any long-term relationship to survive inevitable disappointments. While some would argue that it is brave to pick up and start a new life when a relationship begins to ebb, the truly brave thing—the hard and valuable thing—is to figure out how to find a new flow together. As one couple, who is happily married after forty years together, informed me, “The most invaluable gifts come on the other side of the bad periods. If we hadn’t forgiven each other for the hard times, we never would have experienced such good ones.”
3. Someone New Won’t Be New for Long
One factor is consistent in all studies of marriages and long-term relationships: a main cause of divorce and separation is infidelity. Those that stray (statistically, women as much as men these days) cite many factors as reasons: a breakdown in passion, a breakdown in communication, a breakdown …
But statistics also tell us that the chance of a relationship born from infidelity being successful is less than one in one hundred. Less than 1 percent. More often than not, the best thing someone new has going for him or her is being … new. And once they aren’t anymore, you are left in an even more precarious position. Whoever you choose, it always comes down to one thing. How hard are you willing to fight to make the relationship work? How easily are you willing to give your relationship away?
4. Often the Person You Are Running from Is You
Surprisingly, of all the reasons couples gave me for why they chose to end their marriage or relationship, the loss of love or mutual friendship was often notably absent. It often came down to something else: the desire to start a new life. To not grow old. Or at least to not feel like they were. It is difficult to stay with the person who knows you best when you don’t like what we see in the mirror. It may be easier to blame your partner than to take a hard look at yourself. But at the end of the day, it isn’t your partner’s responsibility to change your self-image, or to fix your self-doubt. It’s yours. And, if we want to like ourselves better, running out on a person who likes us the way we are isn’t a wise starting point.
5. You Don’t Need a Reason
Like anything worth having in this life, marriage and long-term commitment are hard work. Sometimes knowing that can be enough to help us not pick at the scabs while they are healing, to not make things worse as opposed to letting them feel better. As a lovely couple in Seattle, Washington, reminded me, things will feel better. “Be good to each other, be patient. If you allow it, love always lives through that.”