It’s one thing to be married; it’s quite another to act married. The two are different as the sun from the rain. In a similar way that becoming a father is a thoughtless biological impulse, to act a daddy is sacrificial, spiritual, and above all meaningful. To be married takes but a moment, a blink of emotion. To act married requires a lifetime of intention and thought. I think this is what’s meant when people say, ‘marriage is hard’; they’ve finally learned that to be married, becoming husband and wife, is always the easy part. It’s a gasping admission of the reality that acting married, behaving as husband and wife, is where things start getting real. Perhaps this is why too many consider their wedding the happiest moment of the marriage.
I was reminded of all this during a conversation the Queen and I recently had with a new acquaintance.
The northern suburb of Atlanta is bordered to the south by the Chattahoochee River. Like a ribbon, it rolls its way through quaint public parks, splendid estates, and modern treeless subdivisions. Of the many benefits this area lays claim, good jobs, better schools, and little crime, being a divorce hotbed is perhaps the most nefarious. I once read a news article stating the area within a 5-mile radius of my house has a near 70% divorce rate. Whether factual or not, entrepreneurs have taken notice. Dotting this suburban landscape are bars and restaurant’s catering to the opportunity marital failure provides. Their preeminence is eclipsed only by their reputation. Locals, many of them former patrons, myself included, know why one goes to the likes of Sage or Pastis.
This cocktail of the newly single and the abundance of convenient locations to facilitate changing that has created a cottage industry for local law enforcement. Our new City Hall is evidence to what misdemeanor traffic violations can buy. Few residents have been spared and it’s always a topic of conversation when ticket scarred locals get together. It was just such a conversation wth our new friend, a married father of two, casually mentioned he was nabbed on a particular night making his way to one of these well-established meat racks. Knowing the night and place, since in our earlier single lives the Queen and I separately frequented there, we shared a double take, glanced at each other, and filed the point away for a later conversation.
One of my favorite writers, the essayist F.W. Boreham, has a name for them, pansies. A pansy is a particular habit or behavior that has been outgrown. The fifty-year-old mom hitting to the clubs represents a pansy. The seventy-five-year-old retiree with the Ferrari is another. The Queen and I take a similar tact with, among other things, clothes. There are things that, as a 45 years old, I simply should not wear anymore. I never had a six pack, and certainly don’t now, so a lot of my workout attire is best left to my early thirties or Tony Horton. She and I have an understanding that any time one of us comes from the closet wearing something better sent to consignment or Goodwill the other is to suggest gently that it might be a ‘pansy’. This approach helps keep hurt feelings and arguments to a minimum.
There’s a notion shared by too many that says marriage shouldn’t equate to the loss of one’s identity. That I can be the same person after marriage as I was before. This idea, which is the logical outworking of a culture that idolizes individuality, is categorically wrong. Marriage is the acceptance of another person into one’s life. It is the conscience decision to share ourselves with someone else, letting them in and making room for them in our hearts, minds, and lives; sharing with them our fears, hopes, and dreams. But for that to happen, with any iota of success and harmony, don’t we have to make space for that person? Otherwise, how can we ever reasonably hope to fit them in?
As a single man, I had developed particular habits no sane woman could ever have accommodated. Living alone for many years before my first marriage and lacking the accountability of a roommate and particularly a girlfriend, I had nurtured behaviors that would be intolerable to most. Yet those habits had grown to become part of the person I was at the time. Good or bad they were weaved into the shape of my identity and reinforced who I was as a person. Whether it be the style of attire, culinary and health habits, how I spent my leisure time or money, or any host of other behaviors, each had become an individual layer making up the whole of my individuality and identity.
Today many of those habits have all but vanished. Why? For reasons that we all should understand. I recognized in my first marriage, as I recognize in my second, that sustaining a successful relationship demands I sacrifice some of who I am to make room for who I might become. It means giving up part of my identity for the purpose of making room for another’s identity to have an influence in my life. So like a garden with finite space, we are forced into a choice; leave everything planted as is and stay who we are where we are. Or uproot some of the old outgrown pansies and make room for the daisies and daffodils a spouse offers; and whose blessing will help lead us in new and better directions.
This was the conversation the Queen and I had getting ready for bed later that evening. Here was a husband and father of two young children who continued nurturing a pansy that should have been pulled long ago. He may have chosen to ‘be’ married but he wasn’t choosing to ‘act’ married, and I believe that is a crucial distinction missing with far too many couples. We get enamored by the thought of beauty that comes from another’s roses and tulips in our garden, so we ‘become’ married. But we refuse to pull up any of our old pansies to make room for them, so we don’t ‘act’ married.
The question then is, how does a couple ‘act’ married?
Divorce has taught me many things. Often our greatest lessons are learned in the midst of our greatest failures; and in the shadow of that failed marriage, I came understand just how important this idea of acting married really is. And one of the very first steps I’ve learned towards doing that is to appreciate and honor what marriage means.
I’ve observed in the most successful married couples one commonality – they leave no doubt they are married. After many years they still act married with the same intensity experienced when becoming married so long ago. They have marriages that are lived outward as much as they are felt inward. They understand that how they behave, what’s said, their actions, and whom they associate is each a reflection of how they honor their marriage, and most importantly their spouse.
I don’t think it’s an unfair assumption that our new friend was dishonoring his marriage, and his wife, by behaving in a way that outwardly reflected something contrary to his reality. What does it say about a married person to partake in what otherwise caters to unmarried people? What does it say about the commitment and conviction to his vows? Furthermore, what does all of this represent for his wife? Similar to how a husband frequenting a strip club may cause his wife to question her own beauty and value, what does our friend’s behavior of spending energy at single bars and meat markets say to his wife? Does it make her feel cherished and exclusive, or do his actions lead her to question her self-worth and his loyalty?
The road to divorce is often paved with the best of intentions. But wanting to do right is best served when we follow through on those desires. As a couple stands at the altar and solemnly promises to love, honor, and cherish the person facing them until death do they part, it’s easy to look over, and in time forget, that most important of the three. To honor a marriage, and a spouse, is how we ‘act’ married. But that is far more than just an verbal assurance of ‘I Do’. It’s a solemn promise inwardly to live that marriage outwardly.