Commitment has been on my mind a lot during the past week or so. Probably because we celebrated our anniversary this week, and being married for 53 years requires a lot of commitment. An acquaintance in his late forties and never married, someone who had been hurt by a failed relationship asked me, when I was writing about being married 50 years, what does it take to maintain a long relationship. I didn’t respond to his e-mail because the answer seemed too complicated. Our marriage took lots of strength and courage, compromise, laughter and tears, anger, hugs and kisses, time together and time apart, physical work, well reasoned decisions, a steady flow of money, personal sacrifice and flexibility, and much more. I probably had to draw on every positive attribute or trait I had and then had to learn a few new ones. But this didn’t seem to be an adequate answer to his question.
I’ve thought about his question over the past three years and seem to have found some clarity. I know the woman he wanted to be in relationship with and from her perspective he was having difficulty committing to their relationship – and that is probably what I should have told him: commitment.
There are a lot of commitments we can make in adulthood; nurturing children, a job, making money, family, sports, hobbies, continuing education, helping others, gaining status, equality, justice, losing weight. I have come to the conclusion, with some hindsight, that the reason JB and I were able to make our relationship work is that we put the commitment to the relationship first, before all other commitments, but not to the exclusion of all the other things we value. I think I have been committed to each of the things on my list at some point in my life; some for brief periods, some intermittently, all at different levels of intensity at different times. There were many years when I felt like the circus performer with all the plates spinning on top of poles, sometimes I had so many that I feared some were going to fall and smash into mounds of failure. I labored hard to fulfill my commitments, tried to keep all of my plates spinning, but the one commitment, the one plate that I wouldn’t let crash was my relationship to my husband.
This year I have been thinking about how our commitment has evolved with time. As newly weds our commitment needed to focus on learning how to live together, how to merge our unique routines that we had established while growing up but with marriage needed to be compatible with the other. You know, the nitty-gritty of daily life like spending and saving, picking up dirty underwear, bathroom clutter, dusting and dishes, paying the bills. As young adults we needed to be committed to putting the needs of our new family before the needs of our extended family and friends without breaking our old relationships. This was one I struggled with because JB’s mother was pretty dependent on him to help with household tasks she couldn’t do herself (he has been my reliable handy-man for 53 years). She seemed to have something for him to do every weekend and I was really jealous because I wanted his attention. I baked lots of cookies because I found it dissipated my anger. Maybe cookie baking a factor in making a marriage work? If my memory is accurate, it seems that in those early years the most important commitment was creating a new family unit where the needs of each individual was respected and with both being willing to compromise and sacrifice.
The nature of our commitment seemed to change in our thirties when we had three children and the excitement of being newly weds was extinguished by the heavy cloud of responsibility. As I look back, the third and fourth decades seemed the hardest. We frequently had to tell ourselves that our commitment to each other had to be stronger than our need to escape the stress of all the responsibilities. That was the time when there were so many demands on our time and energy that neither felt the other was pulling his/her weight even though each of us were contributing 150%. I felt like we were business partners more than marriage partners. That was the time when I (we?) no longer experienced the breathless, earth shaking beneath my feet, fireworks going off in my brain emotions of our dating time. During this time commitment meant making time for each other with weekly “date nights” so we wouldn’t forget who each other was. I learned that commitment is a decision, a calculation that involves a cost/benefit analysis. This was when I realized that commitment is a decision made between two people, mutually, and that maybe we would have to honor that commitment by staying together even though one or the other had fallen out of love. Maybe we were able to transfer some of our commitment to nurturing our children into our marriage commitment that had weakened.
Now, after living together for all those years, there is absolutely no question about our commitment to each other. Neither of us is going to leave the marriage for someone else, we both are committed to wanting both of us to thrive, be healthy, and lead a satisfying life. We don’t argue over decisions any more, our squabbles come when we get fatigued (usually me) or anxious (usually JB) and say something hurtful or snarky. We have learned how to live together with joy, laughter and pleasure in each other’s company. We have learned a hundred ways to commit to each other as we have evolved and changed over 5 decades, a half a century. But I wasn’t prepared for the new kind of commitments that aging requires.
When we are settling down for sleep, after catching up on the day’s political news and doing a little reading, before we put on our c-pap masks and turn out the lights, JB will quietly, hopefully say, “See you in the morning?”
“Yes, sweetheart, I’ll be here in the morning. I’m looking forward to spending another day with you.”
This isn’t a commitment to refrain from running away in the middle of the night – its an answer to a plea for reassurance that I won’t die before morning. He is wanting us to commitment to staying alive for a while longer because neither of us wants to face life alone.
What we need now is a mutual commitment that doesn’t seem to have been covered in our marriage vows – the “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish ’till death do us part” vows. We have faced all the threats to a marriage and have persevered – and have now become very aware of the ’till death do us part’ clause.
We have made the commitment to exercising, most days (okay almost every other day). We are committed to eating healthy, getting flu shots and all the other immunizations suggested for people of a certain age. We have committed to doing the bothersome testing to catch problems early. But we know that death is inevitable and that one of us will probably have to adjust to waking up to a new day without the other. Our commitment is to doing what we can to make the inevitable end of our relationship happen in the future – down the road a bit. And we sometimes talk about what conditions will warrant a commitment to allow the other to leave, to die with dignity.
Until that time comes, it seems we need to commit to responding with love and patience, with help and respect as we watch each other decline from the normal aging process, and from chronic conditions of aging that lead to death. It is a commitment to being gentle and understanding as we watch each other decline in strength and endurance. It means repeating things and helping each other remember, without a tone of voice that results in shame. It involves a commitment to look at each other’s bodies that have begun to take on the characteristics of an old person, and still see a lover that makes our heart skip a beat.