I am meeting with a lot of couples these days regarding officiating at their wedding ceremonies, as May to October is high season for weddings. The wedding industry has become so commercialized that we often forget what the hoopla is all about. While planning for their wedding day, most couples spend at least 90 percent of their energy focusing on the reception. Yet whether custom-designing their ceremony or planning a traditional religious ritual, it is the ceremony that is the real heart of the matter. The entire day — the gathering of friends and family, the fancy clothes and feast — are all happening because these two people have found each other and are pledging to love, honor and cherish one another for the rest of their lives.
The sad truth is that at least half of these happy couples will end up divorced. It seems that loving, honoring and cherishing each other is easier said than done. These three expressions of our caring are activities, not just nice concepts. They must be engaged in each and every day to keep a marriage healthy and dynamic.
One of the greatest keys to creating the kind of environment where loving, honoring and cherishing each other will occur is captured in my favorite wedding ring exchange. It symbolizes the true essence of a successful marriage. Each partner places a ring on the other’s finger only up to the knuckle while pledging his/her love. Next, the recipient takes the ring over the knuckle and acknowledges receipt of the gift of the other’s love. In this way, each one acknowledges that he or she is the giver and the receiver of love. This signifies the fact that in order for the exchange of love between two people to remain alive and vibrant, four things have to be happening at once. Each partner must openly give his or her love to the other while also remaining open to receive the love of the other. Again, this is easier said than done.
When the wedding has passed and time marches on, couples are left to figure out how to keep the four doors of love open in order for them both to feel safe and nurtured in the love they share. It behooves us all to pay far greater attention to the responsibility we have taken on through our promises in the wedding vows. They are not simply pretty words; they represent sacred commitments, and it is important that we keep our promises. We do so, or not, through the choices we make and the behaviors we express moment by moment, day by day and year after year.
It’s easy to slam one of these symbolic doors shut when our partner disappoints us in some way. But when that becomes the normal way that we respond to each other, the trust, safety and foundation of the relationship is eroded. In time, alienation, judgments, distancing and hostility replace the love, trust and hopefulness that started the union.
In marriage, two people pledge to be there for each other — as partners and as flawed beings, through both the good times and the bad. That commitment gets tested by the winds of change, by fate, choices, personal vulnerabilities and circumstances. Next time your partner does something you don’t like, try doing these four things:
- Separate your reaction to your partner’s behavior from your loving support of the person. Let him or her know why you are disappointed, how the behavior impacts you and why you find it so upsetting.
- Affirm your love for your partner. Let him or her know that your doors of giving and receiving love are still open and that giving this feedback is part of that loving.
- If necessary, let your partner know that while he or she is welcome in your heart, the particular behavior, if a significant enough issue, may not be welcomed by you. Let them know what the consequences will be of continuing the behavior.
- Invite a discussion of what each of you can do individually and together to move through and past the problem.
If a couple has built a strong enough bond, most anything can be overcome together. Here’s an example: Let’s say you find out that your partner has been having an affair. Once you gather your wits enough to have a civil conversation or to write your partner a letter, try something like this:
I am devastated to find this out, and I hate that you did this to me and to our marriage. We promised to love, honor and cherish each other, and this behavior is none of those things. You have broken the deep bond of trust between us, and as a result I do not feel safe with you emotionally or sexually.
Our love is deeper than this behavior. Know that I love you and that is why I am standing here in front of you, wanting us to find a way through this together. I need you to know that any continuance of your affair is a further strike on your part against the sanctity of our marriage. I will not and cannot tolerate that. If you choose to continue your affair, I will recognize that as your choice to abandon our marriage.
If you choose to end your affair and would like to restore our marriage and work together to rebuild what has been broken, I am here. You have one week to make your choice. If you stay in our marriage, I would like us to seek professional help to guide us through the process of finding our way back to each other.
Notice in these three paragraphs, which could be spoken or written, you address all four doors of loving — the giving and receiving of love by both partners. If those four choices are not made, the love will not survive.
What are you doing, or what could you be doing differently to keep the doors of loving open in the relationships in your life?
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