“Marriage is a wonderful institution,” said Groucho Marx, “but who wants to live in an institution?”
If marriage is like an old people’s home, where you grimace your way through for better or worse obligations, I’d be scared of marriage too. But when I married my wife, Amber, I experienced something different: I discovered friendship set on fire.
Amber and I met at school, and over shared dinners with mutual friends, impromptu conversations in the hall, and studying for exams together, we forged a friendship. Our friendship conceived romance, and one year later, that friendship-romance birthed a marriage proposal.
After we married, we lived in a 500 square foot apartment in New York City, but we didn’t care about the small space—we were best friends. Once I had to round up a “flying” cockroach that emerged from our kitchen cabinet. Another time I evicted a mouse from the mouse trap and set the poor little guy free in the New York City streets. (Amber made me free him because she couldn’t bear the thought of letting him starve in the sticky trap.)
Even with the small living space, mice, cockroaches, the good times rolled and our friendship deepened. Sunday mornings we slept in, put some sticky buns in the oven, poured gooey glaze over them, and plunked on our recliner to watch a PBS documentary about New York City for the rest of the morning. We didn’t have an air conditioner, so when it was 95 degrees and we had friends over, we sweated like hippos while we leaned over the stove frying our steaks. But a good time was had by all, as far as we were concerned. We often invited friends over for discussion about things like God and sex and The Lord of the Rings. About twenty of us would gather in our tiny apartment, drinking beer and chomping on cheese and talking deep into the night. We had $55,000 in college debt, and money was tight. But we worked hard, enjoyed our lazy Sunday mornings and our loving friendship.
When Amber labored for almost thirty hours, giving birth to our son, Daniel, I was with her every hour, and our friendship deepened further still. Now, in addition to all of our shared interests and loves, we were also both looking at the baby we had made together. Then came our second son, Peter, and the expansion of our little family. Now we get to watch the two little people that we made interact with each other.
Does life get harder? Yes. But marriage still doesn’t have the quality of a stuffy and restricting institution. Sure, the arguments multiplied after children—gone were the lazy Sunday mornings—but our toes always find each other in bed at night. Some nights, Amber rocks Peter to sleep while we eat popcorn and watch Mad Men, our favorite TV miniseries. Then, when children are sleeping and peace is secured, we cuddle and talk about our day and dream about the future.
It’s easy to forget that the marriage vow is a vow not just to put up with each other for better or worse, but to love each other so long as we both shall live. That doesn’t mean that when Daniel is running around naked at midnight and peeing on the carpet I have to feel the same kind of ooey-gooey love for Amber that I felt the first time I kissed her. But it does mean, that like any good friendship, we will be there for each other no matter what.
An old poet once said that “love is friendship set on fire.” But the feelings of love can be fickle—which is where marriage comes in. It steers love through good and bad, and challenges a couple to deepen their friendship, rather than to grow apart. Unhappy marriages are real, of course, but the question for every generation is, What is the real purpose of marriage? To doom a couple to lifelong misery, or to guide a couple into a deep and lasting friendship?
No one wants to be alone, everyone wants to be known, and all of us desire a love that is stronger than the moment. That’s what I signed up for.