“So, Dad, what advice do you have for the newlywed couple after 35 years of marriage?” This in a jocular tone from my son Aaron, who at that point had been married for all of a few hours. The small wedding party was sitting in a waterfront restaurant across the Brooklyn Bridge from New York City Hall, where he and his bride had been married in a brief civil ceremony. “The first 35 years are the hardest,” I replied, within earshot of my wife and without giving the question nearly enough thought. It reminded me of some unsolicited advice my wife and I had gotten from my mother shortly before our own wedding 35 years earlier. “Don’t get divorced,” she had said, as if every starry-eyed young couple was just itching for the opportunity to jump ship at the earliest opportunity. A child of divorce herself, my mother had been married 53 years when my father died. Toward the end of her life she was asked for the secret of a long marriage and without missing a beat had replied, “Never hit your spouse with a blunt object.”
For much of the past two millennia, marriage has been regarded neither in romantic terms nor as a sacrament, even within the Roman Catholic Church. Romance goes back at least as far as Helen of Troy but was rarely thought of in connection with matrimony; indeed, a passionate marriage was often viewed with suspicion. Any man in love with his wife must be so dull no one else could love him, Montaigne once opined. The institution of marriage was essentially a contractual arrangement whose details, especially those involving any transfer of assets, were carefully negotiated by the families of the bride and groom. Although a priest may have been present to bless the union, the ceremony itself was usually performed outside the church. It was only when the Protestant reformer Martin Luther declared marriage a “worldly thing” to be handled by civil authorities that the Catholic Church began insisting that priests officiate at weddings.
The wedding vows we are most familiar with are taken from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, written in 1549. Here you will find the bride and groom promising one another “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for fairer or fouler, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us depart.” There is no suggestion here that the couple will necessarily live happily ever after. The underlying premise is that you are dealt one hand in the game of matrimony, and you play the cards you are dealt. To underscore the seriousness of this undertaking, the text notes that everything is “according to God’s holy ordinance.” For good measure, the vows end with each party saying, “thereunto I plight thee my troth” -- a pledge of faithfulness. The word “plight,” used here as a verb rather than a noun, means “to pledge” but derives from an Old English word meaning “to bring danger upon.” If you make a solemn pledge of this type, you put yourself in mortal peril by not fulfilling it.
Marriages may be made in heaven, but they are frequently unmade on earth. Thomas Cranmer, author of those fine words on the sanctity of marriage in the Book of Common Prayer, proved adept at both the making and unmaking of marriages. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer had presided over the dissolution of Henry VIII’s 23-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon after the pope had denied Henry’s request for an annulment to marry Anne Boleyn. This move also led to the dissolution of ties between the churches in England and in Rome. Cranmer had served as chaplain to the Boleyn family before the king made him archbishop. His ties to the family did not prevent him from annulling this second marriage less than three years later so Henry could marry Jane Seymour. Anne Boleyn was then beheaded on trumped-up charges of adultery. Cranmer also had a hand in the annulment of Henry’s subsequent marriages to Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, the latter of whom was beheaded as well. So much for the sanctity of marriage.
I wonder what advice I might give my son about being married, now that I have had five more years to think about it. I suspect I might come up with pretty much the same answer as before, with suitable adjustments for the time elapsed: the first 40 years are the hardest. Quite apart from whether or not the couple has found contentment, even some measure of happiness, the fact remains that marriage is hard. It’s hard to get it right, not the least because we rarely try hard enough. After 40 years, I can’t say I am exactly starry-eyed. But I still think marriages are made in heaven, even if we make a thorough muddle of them here on earth.
No matter that Cramner's actions left so much to be desired, his words have endured, just as some marriages endure -- a small miracle in itself, considering that you are yoking together two fallible human beings for a lifetime. The secret, I suspect, is contained in the final words exchanged by the bride and groom in the traditional wedding ceremony: I plight thee my troth, however this idea actually gets expressed these days. It is the solemn promise we make to the person with whom we are yoked, as solemn as we can make it, whether or not we believe God’s holy ordinance has anything to do with it. The future king of England and his bride, Prince William and Kate Middleton, made a similar vow in their recent wedding at Westminster Abbey, as did the groom’s parents before them -- hopefully with better results this time. In Thornton Wilder’s play, The Skin of Our Teeth, Mrs. Antrobus confronts her wayward husband with these words: “I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage.” For better for worse, for richer for poorer, for fairer or fouler, in sickness and in health, we play the cards we are dealt. Sometimes the promise is all we have to hold on to, and so we hold on; we hold on, if need be, by the skin of our teeth.