Why Do Couples Let Their Marriages Die?

I don’t know who uses the word “mine” more: children or lovers. Strange, but even in this so-called “enlightened” era of marital “partnerships,” most lovers still want more than the almost comically businesslike prenuptial agreements fashioned by lawyers. Real lovers desire to possess each other and whether they are even aware of it at the outset, they are inexorably propelled toward an exclusive relationship with their beloved. Nothing is more painful to lovers, even among those who were formerly promiscuous, than infidelity. Lovers, inevitably, demand exclusive rights; “You are mine,” they say. Monogamy is essential to their mutual need, belonging to the beloved.

While a formal egalitarian version of marriage has considerable appeal today, particularly in comparison to some of the lopsided alternatives that brought it into fashion, something about such an arrangement seems inadequate in real life. A carefully crafted equal relationship with equitable sharing doesn’t satisfy the longing to possess—and be possessed by—the love of their life.

Marriage as a partnership, no matter how congenial, does not come close to characterizing the nature of the memorable love matches in history—Jacob and Rachel, Romeo and Juliet, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Prosaic relationships seem almost bloodless in comparison to the relationship portrayed in the three brief lines of Emily Dickenson’s poem #1028:

’Twas my one Glory ––
Let it be Remembered
I was owned of Thee.

Dickenson’s words convey a relationship far richer than mere partnership; her words call up deep emotions, something soul stirring. Those words speak of total surrender, of an all consuming passion, of a union so total that . . . that what? That it could only be a myth? Certainly the realist in me wonders whether she felt that way at all time? Or whether these were just the feelings that stirred at some peak moment . . . and then faded.

Her words make no sense unless the object of her love was a man rich in grace and nobility, a man worthy of more admiration than seems normal for most humans. Perhaps she was not seeing things realistically. Or perhaps her deep love transformed an ordinary person into someone who won her devotion and surrender. Who can say? What is clear is that she gives us a picture of a connection to someone whose love and “ownership” of her brought her a sense of fulfillment, of reflected distinction, of “glory.”

I am confident that Dickenson’s words convey the hunger of many women’s souls. Her sentiments cause something to stir in many—both male and female. The poet captures a priceless idea: the fulfillment of the instinct to totally belong to the beloved. It is interesting to consider the Scripture’s characterization of marital intimacy: it does so by the use of the verb “to know.” To be known, to be understood is an integral part of being loved, of belonging.

For lovers, there is another dimension to the idea of ownership. It is a delicious surrender, living out the desire for total union, for oneness without limits, a complete belongingness. Though it involves an abdication of independence, it is made with joy and confidence because it says in one breath, “I am yours,” and, triumphantly, in the next, “You are mine . . . all mine!” Mark well, that the loss of independence of which I speak is not a ticket to perpetual bliss with no conflicts or angry disagreements. It is instead about two persons’ commitment to “be there” without question in times of need, of being someone who can be relied upon despite what it may cost.

This is an ownership that carries with it a huge obligation, an ownership that carries with it enormous responsibility. It is not about domination or control, but it is about as territorial as you can get. It demands complete fidelity and total faithfulness.

Surprisingly, such love is not based on attractiveness, though that probably was the initial pull that brought the couple together. Instead, when a couple “owns” each other, the relationship has moved beyond merely finding one another attractive to a state of connectedness based on the meaning to be had in meeting each other’s needs, the apex of belongingness.

This satisfaction from caring for someone else’s needs is not, of course, limited just to marriage. Not long ago, I saw a video clip of Dick and Rick Hoyt competing in the Iron Man triathlon. Dick (65) has competed in over 900 races as a team with his son, Rick (43), a paraplegic who was injured at birth. Dick has pushed Rick’s wheelchair in eighty-five marathons (26.2 miles)—including 24 Boston Marathons. They have competed in 212 triathlons (running, swimming and biking) including the Ironman competition (15 hours) in Hawaii.

What moved me to tears watching the Hoyt video, was how this father and son “own” each other. Many a man is proud of his son’s physical abilities. Dick’s pride rests in his son’s spirit. Dick’s relationship to Rick is not based on the son’s physical attractiveness or in his athletic prowess; instead, we see a demonstration of a father’s commitment to the needs and desires of his son—racing was the son’s idea. Father and son belong to each other, knit together by the bonds they have forged through their commitment to each other and the straining together after their mutual goals.

Here I see a parallel, however limited and inadequate, of God’s love for us. Though we are misshapen by pride and anger, jealousy and greed, envy and covetousness, God sees us as His. Only His love and grace make this possible. When we reject Him, in spite of His love for us in our fallen condition, that rejection—in favor of the independence to “control” our live—leaves us shorn of the glory that would be ours by virtue of His loving ownership of us.

Recently, I reflected gratefully upon the love I share with my husband and how “right” and “perfect” is the bond between the two of us and how that wonderful bond extends to our children and grandchildren. The thought struck me with powerful force: inevitably one day something will happen to one of us in that family bond and nothing will be totally right ever again. We must treasure the belonging and cherish the ownership of each other.

Tragedy and death are natural aspects of life and none of us will escape such events and human separations. The real tragedy, though, occurs in the million of couples and families who “let” their relationship die—either through stunting its potential as it goes through the various stages of its development or being unwilling to do the things that could set the union right when something goes wrong.