My parents stayed married too long. They stayed and stayed, for twenty-three years, and in the fifteen I shared with them, I saw spite. I saw passive aggression. I saw flickers of a love they once had, only to see it roar into the house-burning flames of disappointment, mental illness, bad behavior, dishonesty, and far too much sacrifice.When their marriage ended, I sat with my mother over coffee, all sixteen years of me. She stopped, my mother, and looked at me with full, blue, red-rimmed eyes and said, “I don’t have memories without him in them, Hil.” And my heart shattered for her. Because it was still no reason to stay with a man who was ill, narcissistic, cruel. Forever was a bad idea.
If the marriage had ended the first time he stumbled, when I was eight, perhaps I could have still had a father I respected, loved. Perhaps I wouldn’t think of him as the man who devastated my mother. Perhaps the time away from the family would have shown him our worth, spared us his casual cruelty, his self-absorption, his violence. Perhaps I would have learned different things about men, and not lost myself, Radiohead style, in the briar patch of enmired sexual experiences, barely consensual relationships, and ill-treatment for a decade or more, thinking, “I deserve this. This is all there is for me.” I wouldn’t have had to spend my late twenties and early thirties healing that damage, finding the pieces of me that survived the blaze and fitting them back together again. I might know a little less about grief and loss.
It’s all neither here nor there, for my parents. But forever at what price? Why is Forever intrinsically worthy? Why is it inherently valuable?
It isn’t. It’s the moments and effort that make up forever that hold the value. I want to make promises about that. I want promises about that. The idea of someone staying with me merely because “they promised,” that the promise to do so is what constitutes the heart and soul of a marriage—I balk. I resist. I buck. No, says my heart. If it comes to it, it’s okay to leave. I’ll cry. I might beg. But leave with some love in your heart left for me. We will build the hallway to forever this way, and walk as far as we can down it. But I will never drag you. I will never tether you to me. You will always, always be free. I wouldn’t have you any other way. Stay because you want to. Stay because I make you laugh. Stay because I’m tough as nails and soft as silk. Stay because I’m fierce and flawed. Stay because you love the man you are with me, the person reflected in my eyes. But do not stay out of obligation. I want to be a celebration, not a duty. Even when it’s hard. Even when we’re sick. Even when we’re broke and scared.
Maybe forever shouldn’t be the explicit goal. Maybe the explicit goal should be in why we might want forever, and how to keep wanting it. What makes a relationship successful is not that it does not end—because hey. They all end, somehow. What makes a relationship successful is how much joy, delight, and victory you can wrestle from the jaws of a less-than-gentle world.
Let’s join hands and walk into that unknown with chips on our shoulders and swords in our hands. I’ll take every moment with you I can have.