This post is a continuation of the discussion we began on Friday about the most important quality in a marriage. Below is an excerpt from the memoir I am working on. It recounts a conversation Mike and I had via skype before we got engaged, when he was in PNG and I was in LA.
…Even when we were talking, on our carefully scheduled skype dates, it wasn’t guaranteed to be smooth and happy sailing. Occasionally we’d be talking away easily one minute only to find ourselves mired in a messy miscommunication the next. Or we’d be laughing and a moment later one of us would have blundered unexpectedly into a virtual minefield.
This was the situation I found myself in late one night, about a month before Mike was to arrive in LA in May. We’d been talking for an hour already, but before we wrapped up I suggested we dip into the question box.
The question box was a tool we used sometimes to help move us past the whats, whens, and hows of our days. A solid plastic rectangle, it held hundreds of small cards each with a different question printed on them.
What is one special holiday memory from childhood?
If you had to move to a foreign country indefinitely, which one would you choose?
What’s your favorite flavour of ice cream?
This night, however, the card that I randomly selected touched on a topic much weightier than ice cream.
“What’s the question?” Mike asked, after I’d been silent for a couple of seconds, debating whether to throw it back and pick another one.
“OK,” I said, deciding to stick with it, “what’s the most important quality in a marriage?”
“Commitment,” Mike said almost immediately. Then he paused and talked around the concept for a while, trying on words like honesty and forgiveness.
“No,” he finally said decisively. “Commitment.”
Sleepy and relaxed I opened my mouth and started to think out loud.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think it’s affection, or warmth, or… kindness,” I finished with assurance. “Yeah, kindness. I’d rank that above commitment.”
There was silence from the other end of the skype line.
“Hello?” I said.
“Is that because commitment would already be there?” Mike asked.
“I guess so,” I said. “I can’t easily see a relationship that’s full of affection and kindness not being built on some foundation of commitment, but I can envision it the other way around – a committed relationship lacking kindness. And that’s just ugly.”
“Hello?” I said.
“I’m a bit paralyzed right now,” the distant Mike finally replied. “I think I’m better at commitment than I am at affection. I just don’t think I can discuss this any more at the moment. I have to get back to the office over here anyway.”
“Oh,” I said, completely startled. “Uh, OK. That’s not one of my fears in relation to us by the way, that you’re not good at affection, but alright.”
“We’re OK, it’s not you, I’ve just stumbled over some of my own inner furniture,” Mike managed to reassure me before signing of. “We’ll talk soon.”
We did talk soon, but not before I’d spent an uncomfortable day or two wondering where I’d gone wrong. Perhaps, I ventured to my parents after thinking it through, it was the moment when I opened my mouth after Mike had bared his soul and basically insinuated that I didn’t think commitment was that big a deal and that I’d be in a marriage only as long as I thought the other person was being kind.
“Yeah, that might have done it, I’d say,” Mum said.
“Mum!” I said.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said, negating any reassurance the statement might have delivered by laughing immediately afterwards.
“I do think commitment is hugely important,” I said. “And I know any commitment – to marriage, to a place – is going to have times when it’s tested. I was just saying that I’m not sure commitment is the be-all and the end-all. I mean, would I really want to stay in a marriage indefinitely if sheer single-minded commitment was all it had going for it? Commitment might be an effective glue but surely kindness or something else has to be present much of the time to make it worth holding something together?”
Mum didn’t venture to touch that one.
“What do you think is the most important quality in a marriage then?” I asked her.
“Balance,” she said.
“Balance??” asked my father, who’d been listening in from the other side of the study.
“Balance,” my mother repeated. “What have other people said?”
“Well, two of my colleagues said trust,” I said, “and another one said good-will – the commitment to hold a good image of that person in your mind even when you’re not liking them in the moment.”
“Does anyone want to know what I think?” Dad asked in my favorite tone of voice – that of the patient martyr.
Apparently it’s Mum’s favorite tone of voice, too, because she was quicker off the mark than I was.
“Not really,” she said breezily.
“Yes, Dad,” I said, rolling my eyes at both of them. “We want to know what you think.”
“A commitment to love,” he announced. “It combines commitment and kindness.”
“That is not a single quality,” Mum replied.
“And balance is?” Dad asked.
Over to you… any further thoughts on this topic? I’d love to hear them. Or, uh, what’s your favourite flavour of ice cream? I’d love to hear that too. Hope your week is off to a good start.