In 1996, a then little-known Barack and Michelle Obama were interviewed as part of a photography project on couples in America.
A breathtaking excerpt of their interview ran recently in the New Yorker.
“I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person."
I found Barack’s take lovely, but a little fantastical. I found myself wanting to know more — tangibly — about what makes a successful married-with-children relationship. So, I asked my parents, who celebrated 40 years of marriage last month.
Although I have seen pictures of me in skinny pigtails and a ruffly dress at their wedding, I don’t remember the day. My mother says there wasn’t actually that much to remember. She and Dad married at a courthouse in Washington, D.C., and afterward, drove to my grandparents' corner lot rowhouse for finger foods and cake.
There was no bridal party, no line-dancing, no carving station, no honeymoon.
There was the two of them, and there was me, and the only other thing that mattered, they say, was commitment.
What does that word really mean? I asked my parents recently.
My husband and I celebrated just 13 years of marriage and already commitment has taken on a new meaning to us now than it did when we exchanged our own vows.
“A commitment is just that,” Dad said. “If you take those vows seriously, even when things are hard and you feel like saying, ‘Forget this mess!’ you remember that commitment and wait a few days and realize you can keep going.”
“You’ve got to stick it out,” Mom said, “even when things get sticky.”
How does one “stick it out?” What does it take to do that?
“Patience, respect and tolerance,” said Dad.
“A healthy balance,” said Mom. “Your Dad and I are different in a lot of things, but we balance each other out. He’s humorous. He manages to bring humor when I’m all uptight. Or when he’s down, I’ll say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’”
Mom says you have to remember to find time for closeness, even through busy times.
“When you have a bunch of small kids around, it’s easy to lose yourself,” she said. “Especially for the women, with the cooking and the shopping and the child rearing. But your Dad always reminded me that ours was the first relationship.”
“That’s right,” Dad agreed. “At first, the commitment is just between two people, but then it grows. You buy a house, or a car, then you have some kids. That commitment grows to include all of the things you have together, but primarily, it’s the two of you. We have to make sure to keep our relationship alive, even though you have other responsibilities.”
But what does it take to keep a relationship alive? Practically, how does one do that?
“Personal growth,” Dad said. “And some growth together, too. You have to mature into the relationship. It’s not going to be the same as it was in the beginning. When you’re younger and people start to change, it’s easy to say, ‘forget it.’ When you get older and you mature, your outlook changes, your perspective changes. Growth is a good thing.”
He went on: “Young people in love always say, ‘Oh, I want to grow old with you.’ I don’t think when you say that and you’re looking at someone who is beautiful and young and slim, you don’t think about what growing old with them actually means.”
Mom: “It’s a loooong time.”
Dad: “It’s a long time and it can be hard at times. The hardest job anybody has is to stay married. It takes work. It’s not all easy. You have to believe the benefits of it outweigh everything else.”
I do love what Barack Obama said about familiarity and mystery, surprise and wonder.
But I’m putting my money on the Occam’s razor of relationship theory, as told to me by my Mom.
“You’ve gotta go through it,” she said, “to win it.”
It’s been forty years of commitment for her and Dad — and that looks like winning to me.