Promises, Promises

by: Gary Stokes

This is a letter to my granddaughter as she planned her marriage at 19: Dear Madie, As you know, I’ve been through the marriage ceremony several times.

My wives and I made quite a few promises that we were unable to keep.

Here’s an important thing I’ve learned about the promises we make at the alter: You cannot honestly promise to stay married until you die. I know that you and Matt want to stay married for life, and I may well hear you two make that promise at your wedding. But I hope not.

Instead, I hope you’ll make only promises that you’re pretty sure you can keep. Just like you, most people get married full of optimism and noble intentions.  But after the wedding, many people discover that they didn’t really know their spouse, or they watch their spouse change into a person who is no longer the right match. Spouses can go to sleep on their potential.  Spouses can become abusive, or they can become addicted. Spouses can become intellectually, emotionally, or physically inert, and stop growing. Spouses can stop loving or stop loving us.

We shouldn’t promise to stay in a relationship that has gone dead. Men and women who stay in a dead marriage have given up on life’s possibilities. Sometimes, divorce is the most life-affirming thing a person can do.  Instead of adhering to an unreasonable commitment,

"You just slip out the back, Jack          

Make a new plan, Stan      

You don’t need to be coy, Roy         

Just set yourself free,"                     

Paul Simon,  50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. But I agree that we must make commitments. 

So what can we promise? We can promise to stay awake, to continue to learn how to love. What is it to be awake with each other? To be awake is to be poised. When we’re poised, we are present, alive in the moment rather than distracted. Poised, we’re connected—to others, to this beautiful earth, and to our own purpose in life. When we’re poised we’re grateful, our cups filled to the brim. Poised, we’re creative, masters of improvisation, never at a dead end. Poised, we’re light-hearted, rather than heavy and neurotic.

When we are awake, we have our love at our disposal, ready and vibrant. Mary and I made the promise to stay awake when we married 18 years ago, and we have kept that promise. We begin each day talking over coffee about the most important issues of our lives—what we want to learn next, issues of our relationship that need attention, or our visions for the next stage of our lives.  We love to talk about our immediate plans for projects, enhancing our health, or our next travel.  We talk about how to strengthen our relationships with family and friends.

Staying awake, we learn together most days, so our life is rarely dull. We are tolerant with each other without giving any permission to each other to be less than we can be. The paradox of a real marriage, I think, is that we each retain our status as independent and growing persons, free to be entirely ourselves at the same time we agree to join our spirits together. 

Mary is free and independent, yet she gives herself to me. I am free and independent, yet I give myself to her. But we have to keep our promise to stay awake, to remain poised in the face of challenges, to continue to learn how to love.  If I were to go to sleep, my vibrant Mary would not have the partner she needs for her own growth and learning. If she were to go to sleep—stop challenging herself and instead be content to coast--I would be in a fix: she would no longer be the person I married, but someone else—someone else that I would not be able to stay married to. 

We have not always stayed awake. At times, of course, we go a bit unconscious with each other.  We sometimes have to remind the other about our promise to say awake, to continue learning even if the issue is difficult, to continue building a greater capacity to love. I have sometimes resisted Mary’s feedback, for instance, about my critical, judgmental perspectives. Mary has sometimes resisted my feedback about her irritation when things weren’t turning out the way she wanted. But we stay awake to our learning, and with practice our resistance has melted away. 

We can hear feedback from each other more easily and gracefully as we shrink our egos.  At our best, we give in to the other’s superior awareness quickly, saying, “Yes, yes, yes, you’re completely right. How can I forget so easily?  Thank you for being so patient with my slow learning.” Then we laugh sheepishly, but we laugh. 

We both have lots of potential: I have books to write; Mary has music to learn and play. We want to sail to Antarctica, drive to Nova Scotia, and ride our Harleys again through the mountains of Colorado every fall.  We want to expand our awareness.  We want to live fully. Time is precious.  We’re mortal beings, we remind each other every day, and there is not a moment to squander. We’re alive, full of love and gratitude almost all of the time. We look at the world together breathlessly, breathlessly. 

We have a heavenly marriage because we are keeping our promise to stay awake. May you and Matt make that most loving of promises to each other.

Love, Grandpa

Gary Stokes was founder and CEO of a national laboratory testing new strategies for the development of children and families in poverty. He has coached hundreds of leaders who are working to build stronger families, including Presidential appointees and other top executives in government and education. Gary writes for HopeAfterDivorce.org, FamilyShare.com, and LAFamily.com. His recent book, Poise: A Warrior’s Guide, charts a path toward a vibrant life of joy and practical advantage. Visit Gary's blog as he maps the universe of poise at http://thepoisedlife.com/.


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