Happy marriages don’t just happen. They are the result of a deep commitment and hard work.
As children, my brother and I loved to hear the story of how my parents first met. My mother, a beautiful, slim brunette from Austria (I always tell her she looked like Audrey Hepburn), went skiing on the enchanting mountains surrounding Trento, the city in the Alps where my father grew up. On that particular Saturday, while they both were waiting in line to get on a cableway, my father stumbled, missed the cableway and ended up riding with my mom. In our family, it’s still a mystery if the incident was engineered by my father, who had sighted his future wife, or if it was just pure chance.
What I know, is that I'm here today thanks to my dad’s faux pas.
On that cableway they fell in love and love bridged their differences in language, culture and age (my father is nine years older than my mother). Since at the time of their encounter neither of them was proficient in each other's language, it might all have started as a misunderstanding, but it is one that luckily lasted for over 50 years.
What’s beautiful and inspiring to see is the love and friendship that continues to bond my parents.
One can only imagine how over the years, together with great moments and achievements, my parents have also faced great challenges in their marriage. I know that life has not always been easy for them; there were the moments of economic hardship, the years when my mother fought against depression, the sicknesses and deaths in the family, together with the worries and challenges that came with bringing up two sons. But time, rather than corroding their union, strengthened it.
A genuine commitment to each other has been at the root of their lasting love.
Over the weekend we watched the photos of their wedding, a half-century ago. They both looked young and beautiful and happy. “We were so naive,” my mom said, with a smile. “That’s maybe why you marry when you are young,” I said.
But despite being young and maybe naive, my parents on their wedding day genuinely committed to each other. And then kept that commitment alive over the years.
They saw love not just as a feeling (that can fade away, if not nourished) but also the expression of a will; the willingness not to give up on each other. Here the words of Erich Fromm come to mind:
Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.
Thus love, for my parents, has been love in action. As the author and public intellectual Bell Hooks wrote in her beautiful book All about Love, to “begin always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility.” That has been true for my parents.
Thus over the years, their love became also a deep friendship, which as psychologist John Gottman highlights in his research, is a key to make marriage work:
These [successful] couples tend to know each other intimately—they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in the big ways but through small gestures day in and day out.
In these small gestures my parents expressed for each other care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and additionally, a commitment to live in honesty and open communication.
Over the years, I saw them sharing words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service and affection—all qualities that Gary Chapman highlighted make up the language of lasting love [If you are interested in family conflict resolution, you can get here my free weekly tips.]
Of course, no marriage is all roses. Though I never witnessed huge fights, I did observe moments of disagreements, misunderstandings, reciprocal impatience and frustration when some conflict between them arose.
But, rather than seeing conflict only as a source of anxiety, frustration, fear and anger, they have been able to experience those moments as an opportunity to grow, to learn about each other, to make the necessary changes, to upgrade the quality of their friendship and love. It’s in those moments that they nourished the ability to be patient and to forgive. [You can download here the 8 secrets of effective negotiators, applicable also to family conflicts].
Recently, a friend forwarded me something that Pope Francis, who just ended his visit to the United States, said:
A perfect family does not exist. We should not be fearful of imperfections, weakness or even conflict, but rather learn how to deal with them constructively.
Our family has never been perfect. But imperfections were the ingredients that allowed us the ability to love and to grow. I think this is one of the great lessons I got from my parents; an experience that surely is not limited only to my parents or traditional families, but that I know is possible also to all forms of love, friendship and partnership.
At times the way might be tortuous. Success is rarely linear and sometimes it comes only after big failures. But what my parents' 50th anniversary suggested to me is how genuine committment is the premise of lasting love—together with the practice of constantly renewing and updating that commitment.