It didn’t end there for me, though. My mind kept coming back to the subject over and over again. I think I’ve learned quite a bit about commitment through the years. Sadly, my insights came only after disastrous failures. I’ve paid dearly for my education. My tuition was enormous, not only in dollars but also in pain. I wish I could have matriculated via some other means.
I suppose, in some way, I could blame my parents (It's the fashionable thing to do, is it not?). Their marriage lasted through Death. Even as a child, I knew it hadn’t been easy for them. They led tortured lives in many respects. They struggled, truly struggled. Through it all, they remained committed to each other. Their marriage was their bedrock. I simply assumed commitment would come naturally to me (after all, I had good teachers). Well, as in so many things, I miscalculated.
In fact, I was dead wrong.
My first marriage disintegrated fairly rapidly. There were many reasons for that, and I’ve touched on a few already. One thing is certain, neither my wife nor I were truly committed to each other, or to our marriage. I could blame it on youth, I could blame it on stupidity, I could give you lots of reasons (all of them valid to one degree or another), but the truth is, it was primarily a character flaw in me.
I suffered a great deal after my divorce. I did a lot of soul searching.
I did a lot of penance. I sank far in my own eyes. My self-esteem was absolutely shattered. To this day, I feel ashamed of myself for that first marriage. I vowed that I would not marry again until I knew, absolutely knew, in my very marrow, what it meant to be committed to someone. What it meant to be committed to marriage…for life.
It took more than a decade before I was sure.
I thought I got it right this time. In many ways, I did. There were no others for me (at least not until years after the marriage completely collapsed). I was absolutely committed to my wife, to a life together; and I worked hard, very hard to make it a good life. We were together twenty-one years, and most of those years were wonderful. I had no doubt, whatsoever, that I had met the love of my life…that she and I would grow old together, that we would love each other till the last breath.
I know I’ll spend my remaining years puzzling over what went wrong. I suspect our story is similar to those of a great many couples that find themselves in divorce court after decades of marriage, staring at each other incomprehensibly, as if at a stranger. I can’t point to a climactic event, a cataclysm that destroyed something we had worked so hard to build. It wasn’t that. It was an almost imperceptible shifting of the earth beneath our feet. It was a gradual erosion of two souls that continued until the entire edifice collapsed in a momentous roar, a terrifying howl of pain.
Here I sit, disconsolate. I’ve come to learn, again through failure, the deeper meaning of commitment.
“Commitment is not a one-time decision. It’s a choice you make…again and again and again…That’s what makes it difficult.”
I already understood what that meant in a fundamental way. When one commits to a partner, to marriage, the commitment is not something established simply, in one shot, at the altar or before a judge or ship's captain. The commitment is tested time and again. Other people enter our lives, new roads beguile us, alternatives tempt us. The commitment to one’s partner is tested time and time again. Each time we choose our partner yet again, sacrifice something for their sake, we suffer hurt (of varying degrees). Life’s just like that. That’s what makes commitment difficult.
Ah, you thought the lesson ended there? No. I actually got that part right. Here comes the really hard part. What I missed (and so did my wife) was the deeper, the deepest, truth about commitment. The commitment is not to the institution of marriage. It is not just to a partner. True commitment is the daily, never-ending, absolute commitment to your partner’s happiness.
I’m not going to beat myself up as savagely for failing, this time, as I did after my first divorce. Don’t misunderstand, I’ve been going through Hell over all this for at least five years now. I came to grasp the importance of being committed to someone’s happiness several years ago. My wife still doesn’t understand. I daresay, a great many husbands and wives fail to grasp the importance of being committed to their spouses’ happiness.
I see what happened in my marriage happening in many others. Husbands work hard to be good providers, partners and fathers. Wives work just as hard (usually moreso). The commitment is real, it is honest and steadfast and earnest…but, often, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to just be a good provider, partner or parent (although that can carry you through a lifetime together). One must be committed to your partner’s true happiness. And, that, my friends, requires an awful lot of love, dedication, insight, self-denial, biting-of-tongue, wisdom, devotion, spirituality, honesty, grace, patience, acceptance and…well…every skill one can muster. No wonder so many marriages collapse, even the good ones. How many of us can honestly say we are truly dedicated and committed to our partner’s happiness? Let’s face it. Most of us are dedicated to our own happiness and, therefore, we seek partners we think will make us happy. Most of us then try to modify our partner (in countless ways) to ensure our continued happiness. We push and pull, criticize and admonish, judge, struggle to control, berate, debate, lecture and hector our partners in an attempt to make them pleasing to us. Being committed to our partner’s happiness is the exact reverse process. We must push and pull, criticize and admonish, judge, struggle to control, berate, debate, lecture and hector our inner selves, to make ourselves pleasing to our partners (assuming, of course, the partner is worthy and deserving of the effort...mine were). It’s not easy. We are all egocentric by nature. We all have our needs. It’s too easy to focus on our own happiness rather than someone else’s. We all fail our partners to some extent.
* * *
Maybe it’s a function of age. Maybe I’ve managed to acquire a bit of wisdom along with the gray hairs. Maybe it’s because I no longer feel a need to make a mark on the world, or prove something to myself. Maybe it’s because I’ve been so unhappy for too many years. Whatever the reasons may be, I realized some time ago that all I really want in life is to make someone happy. Truly happy. Maybe that sounds funny to you (it would have sounded funny to me, say, thirty years ago). But, it’s true. I’ve had my day in the sun. I've tested myself in the world. I’ve come to know my strengths, my weaknesses and my self. My ego drove me for decades; but it’s not nearly as powerful a driver any longer (my hunger drives me, now). All I want is to make someone happy. I know today, in my very marrow, that that would make me happy, too.
Funny, isn’t it? (Well, no, not really). Just when I finally learn the most important truths about commitment I have no one to commit myself to…