A touching installment of Modern Love appeared in this past Sunday’s NY Times, entitled “We Pledge Allegiance…”, in which Debby Greene traces how the “no divorce” pact she made with her husband has played out in her marriage, thirty years down the line. Clearly the survival of any relationship is seldom a matter simply of resolve. Still, in a society biased toward self-determination and individual ‘freedom’, their pact seems downright radical. I should let her tell it:

Married-FX-season-1-2014Our first summer together, we read the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy to each other below high cliffs on a beach in Southern California. It was such an unexpected thing for me to do with a boyfriend that I knew this guy was different. We were both children of divorce, and although marriage and a family seemed 1,000 years away, we did agree on one thing: We would never mess up our children with divorce.

We married in our mid-20s. I don’t know how other people feel when they say their vows, but for us the phrase “Until death do us part” felt profound. I remember being surprised when I choked up saying “In sickness and in health,” barely getting the words out as tears streamed down my face. Though it seemed redundant, we also made a separate “no divorce” pledge, like taking out an insurance policy on our marriage…

As our children grew, resentment, blame and criticism seeped into our marriage, and loving each other became more of an effort. And yet, our “no divorce” pledge remained strong. No matter how bad things were, divorce wasn’t something we would let ourselves consider…

Their pledge, in other words, was born out of shared childhood wounds, which is probably why it took such root. We might say this is the law serving its protective function–in this case protecting the couple from themselves (and their past). By ruling separation out as an option, they not only couldn’t threaten one another with it (i.e. use conditionality as emotional leverage), they were forced persevere even when things seemed hopeless. Of course, the law may be enough to keep people under the same roof, but it tends to be much less effective when it comes to matters of the heart. Commitment on its own, however wise or well intended, cannot create love. For intimacy to flourish, something else is required. Debby remembers a good friend of hers getting divorced and the fallout it caused in their community:

She and I took long runs together, and the more she talked, the more I realized she needed to get divorced… As I viewed my friend’s divorce from this new perspective, our “no divorce” rule started to seem childish. It struck me that our attitude was like a closed fist, and if our marriage was to survive, maybe we needed to open that fist to allow space for possibility. Maybe doing so would let the strength of our marriage be derived from more than just the fears of two broken children...

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

The recession hit our family hard, too, but somehow we are still married. I’m not sure why. I’d like to say it’s love, but perhaps it’s simply luck. At one point, as we faced our construction business faltering, our life savings dwindling to nothing and a slew of other problems, we looked at each other and said, “Let’s not make it worse by getting divorced.”..

But the recession also gave us something unexpected: time and perspective. Without a backlog of homes to build, we had space to reflect, talk and get to know each other again. I began to appreciate my husband for who he was rather than who I thought he should be.

He may not be someone who buys me flowers or delivers on birthdays, but when I became obsessed with Dave Matthews, he bought me every Dave Matthews CD ever made, and when we go to restaurants he often orders my second choice so I can eat his meal if I don’t like mine.

Approaching my 50s, I know the “no divorce” pledge Josh and I made all those years ago is just one of those rules people make up to give themselves the illusion of control. Though I believe loosening our grip on our pledge saved our marriage, I think the pledge saved it, too. Our pledge gave us a strong foundation before we were ready to go it on our own, and by the time we realized we had outgrown the pledge, it had taken root and grounded us as we found the space to deepen our relationship.

The child in me still wishes there was a secret formula to make a marriage last: perhaps a dose of bringing each other coffee in the morning along with a smidgen of holding hands at the movies and a dollop of passionate nights. But my more-mature self realizes that after 23 years of marriage, the key for our relationship to grow and thrive is finding a soft place to land between the rules we make and the reality we live.

I don’t interpret her story as a condemnation of couples who, for whatever reason, find it impossible to stay together. After all, pact or no pact, divorce rarely feels like a choice. No one seeks it out. It’s more that Debby’s story offers some hope to those who are losing it, marriage-wise. This is not the hope of stronger willpower or better strategy, but of something close to deliverance. Circumstances beyond their control, AKA the recession (an act of God?), combined with a ‘letting go’ of control (an act of faith?) to accomplish a result they neither expected or engineered. There’s no formula–the whole thing is quite miraculous, in fact. Maybe that’s why we call it grace.

P.S. Some of the above sounds almost like a paraphrasing of something Olivia Harrison, wife of George, said in Martin Scorcese’s Living in the Material World documentary (2011):