We’re Still Together
There’s a tree out in the backyard
That never has been broken by the wind
And the reason its still standing
It was strong enough to bend
When you say something that you can’t take back
Big wind blows and you hear a little crack
When you say “Hey well I might be wrong”
You can sway with the wind till the storm is gone
Sway with the wind till the storm is gone
Like a tree out in the backyard
That never has been broken by the wind
Our love will last forever
If we’re strong enough to bend
Strong Enough To Bend, Tanya Tucker
In a career that may never be equaled as a basketball coach, John Wooden won a remarkable 664 games and lost a mere 162. His UCLA teams won 10 national championships in 12 years including seven in a row from 1966-1973. During this period his teams won 88 straight games. In his career, he led four different teams to perfect 30-0 seasons.
If you were to ask John Wooden about his greatest decision in his remarkable career, he would unquestionably point to his decision to marry Nellie Riley, his high school sweetheart in 1932. Nellie was the center of John’s universe and the person he claimed knew him better than he knew himself. He once remarked that marriage like sports did not build character but revealed it.
Nellie and John were married for 53 years before she died of cancer in 1985. For the last 24 years since her passing, John Wooden sits down on the 21st of each month and pens a love letter to Nell, his best friend. According to sports journalist Rick Reilly, there are over 260 letters stacked neatly on her pillow, tied with a yellow ribbon. Her side of the bed they shared remains undisturbed. When asked by Reilly if he was afraid to die, a then 90 year-old Wooden remarked, “ of course not, Death is my only chance to be with her again.”
With over a 50% divorce rate in America, it’s even odds at best for couples to make it to the mountaintop together. The cynics delight in reminding us of just how perilous the path is to the peak of life partnership. British author Len Deighton once wrote, “the tragedy of marriage is that while all women marry thinking that their man will change, all men marry believing their wife will never change.”
In any relationship and in life, you are really three people – the person you project to the world, the person you secretly see yourself to be, and the person your partner knows. It’s that last person who is probably the most accurate version of who you really are. Most relationships get into trouble when the chasm between our face to the world and the person our partner knows becomes too great. It seems the more we seek to be the same person all the time, the more capacity we have to focus on others which is the essential ingredient to love and the antithesis of self worship.
It is a paradox of the human condition that we seem to gravitate toward our opposites. I have a theory that in every relationship, there is an agitator and a fixer. The agitator is an expressive, aggressive and more mercurial partner while the fixer is the moderating influence, the rock, and a steady hand. When two agitators marry, it can be a combustible combination. When two fixers exchange vows, the relationship may seem the equivalent to watching a test pattern at three am. And, yet while our personal preferences and aggressive or moderate styles bring a rich trousseau to our relationships, the foundations that remain the strongest are built on shared values. When we see one another for who we are and who we are not – forgiving our limitations and reveling in our possibilities, a relationship breaks out of its chrysalis and takes wing.
In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king and in love the ability to reflect even momentarily, sometimes prevents us from falling prey to the false positives -the cotton candy rush of self-esteem borne out of immediate physical attraction. We all learn the hard way that the currents of a relationship change with the trade winds of time – the arrival of children, life events that challenge our faith in one another, illness, success, disappointment and death. Woody Allen, mused that a relationship “ is like a shark, it has to keep moving forward or it dies.”
Those who have been married for decades do not gild the lily of love. They talk of constant compromise, trying to avoid taking one another for granted, expressing appreciation, forgiveness, making time, playing the mood music, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, recognizing perfect moments, never forgetting that anything you put ahead of each other eventually comes between you, you and remembering that resentment is liking drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. As these couples hurtle through life and fall prey to life’s ruts and distractions, they always circle back to find one another. “A marriage”, Honore de Balzac mused, “must constantly fight the monster which devours everything: routine.”
Commitment is not 50/50 but in fact two people giving 100%. When the rate of change outside the relationship exceeds the rate of change within it, the end is near. Many endure dark passages where they are overwhelmed by excessive responsibility or self-pity and must fight the instinct to abandon ship. Some idealize relationships and love, wondering why their best-laid plans are constantly sabotaged. Many make the mistake of comparing their private “insides” to other people’s public veneers. We cannot resist the invitation when Cosmopolitan asks us to “rate our mate.” We forget what Oscar Wilde assured us when he said “the only normal people you know are the people you do not know very well.”
And we are still together. A gentle sigh in the dark of midnight. A smile across a crowded room. An extemporaneous moment at a piano recital – rare moments that are only complete when it can be shared together. There are flash points, disagreements, and tired, lazy shortcuts that lead to hurt feelings. But most of us find our way back to one another like emotional strays that once fed, keep returning for sustenance. For all their periodic insanity, we need our relationships. Perhaps some of our stories are not as romantic as John and Nellie Wooden or New man and Woodward but we all have chapters remaining to be written and common music to left to be made. Our experiences together are the fine threads in our common tapestry of commitment. Each couple is its own unique work of art. And the beauty of that art is always in the eyes of the beholder.
Woody Allen sums it up best in Annie Hall, “this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.”