Monday, February 14, 2011

Reflections on Happy Coupledom

This Van Eyck portrait, traditionally known as the Arnolfini Wedding, is sometimes held up as an early (1434) example of marriage being portrayed in art as an actual partnership rather than a mere contract or event. If that's so, I wish the man didn't look so miserable! Some people call this "The Shotgun Wedding," but more likely the style of the woman's dress, not pregnancy, accounts for the exaggerated size of her abdomen in the painting.

I love the convex mirror painted on the wall behind the couple and occupying such a central focal point in the overall composition. The mirror is decorated with ten scenes from the life of Christ and shows the presence of witnesses in the room - the minister and perhaps the artist.

When I think of the institution of marriage as it has evolved in Europe and the Americas over the centuries, with some even feeling today that it is obsolete, all I can think is how thankful I feel for my almost-fifteen years of happy marriage. I look at other happily married couples and have two other thoughts: 1) It's so great to see people who are so comfortable, truly comfortable, with themselves and each other and 2) I hope my kids are lucky enough to find healthy relationships like these.

I know that luck or blessing or whatever you want to call it is only part of the favorable set-up. There's also diligence, and patience, and good character, and the capacity to see and want and choose good character in others.

As my children get older and begin to be interested in more grown-up experiences and relationships, I often wonder: how can we guide our children to make choices that will bring them relationships like these, the kind that will give them peace, joy, and lasting love?

Modeling a healthy and mutually respectful relationship is crucial, and I'm contented that my children seem to see marriage as a beautiful and valuable bond, one to welcome if a compatible partner and the desire to build a life with that partner transpire. We also tell them that being in love is important but that love is not enough; common values and the commitment to support each other through shared victories and problems, to build a life side by side with hard work, are essential and go beyond the bonds of friendship and romantic love into a more sacred love, the intimate love of family. The kind of love that is an active process and a daily decision, not merely a feeling or an experience.

Over the years I've nurtured both indirect and direct ways of trying to pass on some guidance and wisdom, as much as I have, to my kids. When we watch movies together, for instance, I always make a point to comment on the relationships in them - what makes them work or not work, why certain ones look promising and other don't, who's a jerk and who isn't. Two films we've watched on DVD recently stand out in my mind as having moments that exemplify relationships with promise: Little Women and Amazing Grace. In both, we saw couples who were able to see and appreciate the truth about one another and were not afraid to confront each other honestly with that truth, even if it was hard. Along the same lines, both films showed couples who were at ease talking and opening up to each other, listening well, and valuing each other's thoughts.

If I were to add one more characteristic to look for in an intimate partner besides those already mentioned - respect, diligence, thoughtfulness, patience, integrity, supportiveness, appreciation, and the ability to talk and listen comfortably and truthfully - I would advise my children also to seek partners who are happy with and in themselves. This kind of happiness requires self-knowledge, security, a healthy spirit, humility, and responsibility and can be found in individuals who don't look to others to provide happiness for them and don't blame others when happiness eludes them.

I think my kids are getting the idea, and I'm glad. I'm also glad, though, to see that when a Facebook questionnaire asked my teenage daughter, "Is it possible to be single and happy?" her answer was, "Of course. I am."

This, I think, already sets her on the right track.


TR said...

I loved this post. My child is only two so we are a long way from discussing relationships. But I guess I hope I model a good relationship by treating my spouse with respect, going on dates and keeping our relationship alive in the midst of residency and toddlerhood, and just having fun as a family together.

I'll try to file away your idea to discuss relationships from movies for when he is old enough.

Old MD Girl said...

Have you seen this painting at the national gallery in London? What's amazing about it to me is that it is not a large painting, but the amount of detail contained in such a small space is really incredible. Take the mirror. Until I saw the actual painting, I never realized that it was just a couple of inches in diameter. How incredible that Van Eyck was able to put so much detail into that little piece of canvas.