Last week while on vacation, I sat up one night with my two favorite daughters (I only have two!) and watched “Jon and Kate Plus Eight.” I have to confess that I was more interested in watching this since I knew that Jon and Kate were no longer together. I wondered how they were going to navigate their lives with these eight kids, now separated and evidently heading for divorce. How weird is this, let alone how potentially scarring for these kids to have this all played out on national television!
Jon and Kate are very bright and competent people. But the most important relationship in their lives is broken for the whole world to see, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope expressed for reconciliation. Whenever they talked together it was just toxic. The hole they have dug just gets deeper. I can imagine Dr. John Gottman, at the University of Washington, with his notepad, jotting down every comment from each partner that validates his predictors of marital failure. One that I could see was total lack of respect from both sides and the pain of father absence already experienced by the children.
I could really empathize with this couple. Cindy and I have been there before… more than once. But that can’t be the end, can it? A marriage, eight kids together and that’s it. It’s over? What about the covenant before God and the community of witnesses? What about the commitment to each other “for better or for worse?” And I know this sounds so old fashioned, but what about the kids? Aren’t they worth fighting for?
Drs. Les and Leslie Parrot best articulate one concept of marriage that has helped me these past 35 years. I am a visual guy, and they give a simple illustration (simple is good too!) of a triangle for marriage. One side of the triangle is passion, the other side is intimacy, and the other is commitment.
Our culture glorifies the passion side of the triangle. It is so common, whether it be television, film, music, or Internet, that the number one determination for relationship success is sexual or physical attraction. We are obsessed with this side of the triangle. This is a very good and healthy part of a marriage, but should this be the determining factor of whether a couple stays together or not? If this is it, then we are relying upon a very weak foundation. We all know that passion comes and goes like an ocean tide. Besides that, it can also be easily led astray towards unfaithfulness, covetousness, discontent, and comparison. So no, clearly, this side of the triangle CANNOT be the foundation.
The second side of the triangle is intimacy or friendship. This side is much more stable than the other side, but it is still untrustworthy. It is a better foundation than passion for a long-term relationship but it can still be fickle. How many times in a marriage does one spouse look at another and think, “I don’t even know this person anymore?” This sense of oneness, closeness, “soulmateness” (not a word, I know) is wonderful and glorified in eHarmony.com commercials, but is this reality?
Cindy and I have experienced this kind of intimacy many times throughout our marriage. But there have been times when we have not. I think there are particular times when couples are at risk of losing this intimacy/friendship… after the birth of a child… teen years… empty nesting… difficulties or tragedies involving children… whenever things in the “family mobile” shift and changes. This is when we really need the third side of the triangle to persevere. This third side of the triangle has to be the foundation a marriage.
According to the Parrots, the third side of the triangle is commitment. This is what has been lost in our culture. I know many times in our marriage we have had to cling to this side of the triangle alone. During that time we know we need to go to work not on fixing the other partner but in looking at our OWN part. The commitment side of the triangle BUYS TIME! It buys us time just to be able to work on our issues, our stuff, without quitting too early. And this is what we have discovered: when we have clung to the commitment side, no matter what, in time the passion and intimacy DO return!
Then we can look at our kids, including my two daughters I watched “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” with last night, and know that as imperfect as we have been as parents, we have at best given them a great gift: the gift of dad and mom committed to each other for life.
When you combine that with the passion and the intimacy that eventually does return to the relationship, well, as the late Jackie Gleason used to say, “Ohhhh, how sweet it is!”
Image credit: Tory Byrne