Wanna avoid divorce? Stay married

WHEN MY PARENTS celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, I pulled my mom aside at the party that my eight siblings and I held for her and my dad at our childhood Catholic church.

"Wow, Ma, 50 years!" I said, thinking of the country's high divorce rate. "How in the world did you guys make it to 50 years?"

My mom was not a philosopher type who slowly unpeeled an issue to its core truth. She was more of an everyday sage who swiftly got to the heart of something that might take others an hour to figure out.

"Well, you know," she said, pausing for emphasis, "we never divorced."

I cracked up. My mother was at the beginning of the Alzheimer's hell that would take her life a few years later. Still, her response seemed awfully simple.

"That's it, Ma?" I asked. "You never divorced? Is that all you have for me?"

Before she could expound, a well-wisher whisked her away for another slice of cake - and I knew better than to get between my sweet-toothed mama and something from a good bakery. But I realized that her words didn't need further explanation.

What she'd meant was, "We never quit on each other. When we disagreed, we didn't quit. When we got stressed by the arrival of another baby, we didn't quit. When one year was harder than the last, we didn't quit.

"When we made each other so angry we couldn't see straight, we didn't quit. When we were hit with crushing grief, financial worry or midlife disappointment, we didn't quit.

"Not quitting forced us to find a new way to love each other when we'd outgrown the old one. Not quitting meant letting time do its work so we could get to the good stuff again.

"And one day we looked up, and 50 years had passed, and we were still together and we loved each other more than ever."

I know that's what she meant when she said, "We never divorced" - because I'd spent decades watching her and my dad never divorce.

Last week, while I roamed around the World Meeting of Families, I could actually feel the commitment of thousands of couples, some with kids in tow, who were just like my parents - committed to creating long marriages. They were there to learn how to have stronger families, and they knew it began with them.

That sense was echoed in many of the breakout sessions. One of my favorite presenters was Beverly Belgau, who, with her gay son Ron, spoke about homosexuality in the family. I disagreed with her belief that intimate LGBT relationships are wrong in the eyes of God. But I loved how she said that the Church and Christians in general focus too much on relationships that are "aberrations" while tacitly accepting the fatal flaws in traditional ones.

People believe that homosexuals "are a threat to the sanctity of marriage" and perhaps they are, said Belgau, an endearing mother of nine whose love for her son was obvious and touching. "But not nearly as big a threat as divorce, infidelity, pornography and premarital sex."

The room erupted in cheers from couples who knew that the real threats to marriage come from within it.

Like resentment, fear, entitlement, selfishness and every other tough human emotion that enter a marriage after the initial falling-in-love part has lost its sparkle.

"I often say to my patients that marriage is a marathon not a sprint," says Ann Rosen Specter, a Center City clinical psychologist who specializes in marriage and family issues. "The American myth of love is very much about newness and excitement, so when that wears off we think we're not in love any more.

"But the marathon truly is for better or worse. The kind of love you develop over the long haul includes many periods when you look at each other and think, 'I can't be with this person one more second! What was I thinking when I married him?'

"But then you work things out, and the love just gets deeper."

A few years ago, a young friend confided to me that she wasn't sure if she should marry her fiance because she didn't "know" how to be married. She's a hyper-organized person - the kind who has an app, a list and a flow chart for every project she takes on - but she didn't know how to take on marriage.

"What if I blow it?" she asked. "What if I get sick? What if he gets sick? What happens if I want to move and he doesn't? What happens if we disagree about how to raise kids?"

She was terrified of repeating her parents' failed marriage, which ended acrimoniously.

I told her what I knew for sure:

Marriage is its own teacher and, yes, you will blow it. Many times, maybe. But if you hang in there, you'll learn from your mistakes. You'll discover new things about each other, and those will inform who you become - which will then inform who you become when the next discoveries reveal themselves.

She asked how I'd managed to stay married so long -at that point, I think it was 27 years.

I thought of the dumb fights I'd had with my husband, how things that used to be a big deal no longer came up. I thought of the dumb fights we still have about stuff that has never, ever changed.

I thought of the heartache we've shared - the loss of loved ones, jobs and other body blows we hadn't seen coming. I thought of our pride as parents.

And I thought of the fun - set against a soundtrack of gut-busting laughs - that makes us joke, on every anniversary, "Let's not lose our learning curve on this marriage. What do you say we give it another year?"

I poured a cup of coffee and got ready to say all of this to my young friend in answer to her question. But first I gave her the best answer I ever heard.

"You know," I said, pausing for emphasis, "we never divorced."

Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie