Lasting relationships are not lucky or unlucky

In the last blog, I left a mystery. What is it that Alison and I have in common which is odd and possibly unique?

Here’s the answer.

I was five years old, and playing with my older brother Alan in our front garden. Mum told us to stay there while she talked to the lady at the house opposite. Alan and I chased each other – the front garden was very small – I didn’t want to be caught any more – I unlatched the gate and ran to the safety of mum.

Except I never got there. All I remember was glimpsing something coming fast towards me. My mum remembered a screech of brakes, a massive thud, and seeing her son in the air, landing twenty feet down the road. I was conscious, so she got me to my feet and helped me indoors. (Moving someone just hit by a car isn’t an example to follow!) I was put to bed, and a doctor was called. Apparently all my ‘vitals’ were sound, but I was kept in bed for two days. The utterly blameless car driver returned the day after the accident to see how I was, and left relieved that I was well.

Alison was five years old. She was playing in the front garden, while her mum was across the street talking with a neighbour. Alison wanted to be with her mum, so unlatched her gate, and ran across the road.

And never got there. Her mum heard the bang, turned, saw Alison bouncing on the front of the car before being pitched forward down the road. Alison was helped up, taken into the house, perched on the kitchen worktop, and bumps and scrapes cleaned. Alison doesn’t remember a doctor being called but, thankfully, she was perfectly fine.

So I was five and run down by a car, and Alison was five and run down by a car. If we lived in the same town, you might think there was a crazy driver targeting five-year-olds. But those accidents were 400 miles apart. We grew up in very different places, but met, married, and eventually discovered we had nearly identical accidents when we were five. That may not be unique, but is highly unusual.

What is also unusual today is for relationships to last long-term. The divorce rate in both the UK and the USA is heading towards 50%, and a high percentage of unmarried couples also don’t stay together for as long as they first planned.

I’ve heard many talk of being either ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ in marriage, as if there’s a marriage lottery where chance decides if you win or lose. It really isn’t that simple. Certainly, you should make a wise choice, but there are also important beliefs, attitudes, principles, practices which determine how a relationship will go. I shared two of those in the last blog – commitment and dependency – and, in a moment, I’ll add two more. (And another two next week.)

One more thing before launching out. I believe almost every relationship can work out well, but that requires willing people. I’ll explain. Early on as a pastor, I hurried to meet with Lauren who’d walked out on husband Bernard the previous day. I never got the chance to share my good advice. As soon as I began talking about healing the marriage, Lauren said ‘I don’t want it healed. I don’t love Bernard any more’. And though we talked for longer, that was Lauren’s position and nothing I said or Bernard said could change that. She was determined to go her own way.

Three scenarios, therefore:

  • A troubled relationship can be restored when both want it.
  • A troubled relationship will likely dissolve when neither wants it.
  • A troubled relationship is also likely to be lost if only one wants it restored.

So no-one should think ‘If only I’d done more my relationship would have lasted’. Where two are willing to work at it, there’s an excellent chance. But if one won’t try, nothing the other does will compensate. That’s sad, but reality.

All that said, here we go with two more important principles for a lasting relationship.  

Sharing – being a couple, not two individuals

Chris and Janice’s marriage didn’t survive because Chris had an eccentric idea of what sharing meant. Half of the furniture was his, and half Janice’s. Half of the space on a window shelf was where he put his things, and the other half was where Janice put hers. Half the cups and mugs were his, half hers. He washed half the front steps of their house, and Janice should wash the other half. I don’t know if Chris thought half the TV screen was his, and half Janice’s, but he likely believed half the time he could watch his programmes and half the time Janice could watch hers.

Chris had no concept of everything belonging to both of them. For him, it all came under a Chris heading or a Janice heading. I tried to help him see how a deep relationship meant just one heading with both their names, but he couldn’t compute that. Janice found his rigidity intolerable, and the marriage ended.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for sharing. What matters is they think as a couple, and work that out in ways mutually comfortable. So, for example, Alison and I have never thought of having personal money or personal property. What we have is ‘ours’. When our children were very young, Alison’s full-time employment centred on the home. In later years she earned a wage. But nothing changed regarding money. When either of us thought we should buy something exceptional, we discussed it and agreed a way forward. It worked, and still does. Others will have their own ways, and that’s fine too providing both are content.

Intrinsic to what I’ve just written is openness and honesty. At one time I longed to start a club to train people in advanced motorcycling. (If you read the last blog, you’ll know my path to being an ‘advanced motorcyclist’ was rocky to say the least, but I got there.) But I couldn’t do that with the underpowered bike I was riding. My eyes were set on a 900cc Yamaha. Alison studied our annual budget. The unwelcome news was that we simply didn’t have the money for the Yamaha. I was disappointed but accepted that. But a month or two later, Alison said, ‘I’ve redone the budget, and if we make some changes there’s enough for the motorbike’. I asked lots of questions. I didn’t want the wrong kind of sacrifices just so I could have a 900cc motorbike. Alison showed me the figures, reassured me, and the Yamaha 900cc was bought. (A good investment – that was more than 30 years ago and I still have the bike.)

Three things made that possible – communication, honesty and flexibility. Communication – we talked about the situation. Honesty – both about the desirability of the purchase and the reality of the budget. Flexibility – I would have accepted a negative decision, but Alison made the effort to reorganise our finances to make the new bike possible.

Sharing feelings, dreams, fears, possessions, money all centre on seeing yourselves as one couple. Get that right, and most things fall into place.

Forgiveness – finding a way to move forward

A and B are a couple. For A never to wrong B, and for B never to wrong A, either A and B must both be perfect, or A’s and B’s relationship must be entirely bland and boring. Since all relationships exist between imperfect people, the first of these isn’t possible. And, since two people will inevitably pull in different directions sometimes, the second isn’t possible.

So we have to be able to forgive each other.

This isn’t the place for a comprehensive thesis on forgiveness. But I have preached and counselled about forgiveness for decades, so I’ll set down three key statements.

Forgiveness isn’t only what we need to give another, it’s what we need ourselves.

Larry has plunged himself and Lizzie into debt. He’d assured Lizzie he was on top of their finances, and they could afford the foreign holiday, the big screen TV, the second car, the bikes for the kids. But, while rummaging in a drawer, Lizzie found letters making final demands for payment, and threats of court action against them. Confronted, Larry admitted he’d been weak and greedy, hoping somehow it would all work out. But it hadn’t.

Lizzie, a disciplined and organised person, resents Larry’s folly. How can she forgive recklessness which has jeopardised their financial future? And then she remembers how, last week, she ranted at one of their children’s teachers, and claimed their daughter’s poor exam marks must be the result of incompetent teaching. But once she got home, she calmed down, realised her allegations were unfounded, and she was venting her own guilt and disappointment on an easy target. She’d have to apologise and ask forgiveness.

So, just as Lizzie is thinking that Larry is in the wrong, she realises she’s also in the wrong, albeit in a different way. Larry needs forgiveness; Lizzie needs forgiveness. Neither is perfect. ‘We are all sinners’ says the Bible (Romans 3:23). We need forgiveness from those we’ve wronged, and need to give forgiveness to those who’ve wronged us.

Forgiveness isn’t ignoring a wrong, but an essential step towards putting things right.

I learned violin from ages seven to twelve, and played in concerts organised by the violin teacher, Mrs Black. One evening we played in a village community hall, and though we were all string players one piece needed the sound of a church bell striking eight times. I was handed a musical triangle, and at the right moment I was to solemnly strike the sound of the bell. I got it spectacularly wrong. When the pause came in the music, I began with firm strikes on the triangle: BONG (long pause) BONG (long pause) BONG (long pause) – and then, realising I was going far too slowly, I quickened my bonging – BONG  BONG  BONG  BONG  BONG. Three slow strikes, five super fast strikes – the strangest church bell ever. The concert finished, and what Mrs Black said to me was … absolutely nothing. She didn’t speak to me at all. But she did bring it up at the next rehearsal, scolding me in front of others in the orchestra. And my relationship with Mrs Black never recovered.

I knew I’d messed up. A private word would have sorted it out, and I’d have played in that orchestra under Mrs Black’s leadership for years more. Instead I left.

There’s no need to pretend a wrong hasn’t been done, but forgiveness is a vital early step to restoring a relationship.

Forgiveness is not only a gift for the other, but one for yourself.

Jenny’s relationship with Martin was completely broken. That wasn’t surprising because she only found out Martin was having an affair with her best friend when Martin announced he was leaving. For months Jenny was in a state of shock, then gradually began to get life together again for herself and their two children. Around then I got to know her, and Jenny was very clear she could never forgive Martin for his betrayal.

The bitterness I heard in Jenny’s voice was unmistakeable and understandable. We talked over a lengthy period, and she accepted she hadn’t moved past the pain Martin had caused. She wasn’t sure she ever could. I reassured her it was possible. Then one day she told me she wanted to forgive him.

‘But I can’t feel anything but sadness and anger,’ she said.

‘Okay, I recognise that. But keep acknowledging you want to forgive even though you don’t feel forgiving.’

And that’s what she did. Over time, Jenny’s desire to forgive became a decision to forgive. And that’s when healing began, the bitterness eased, and a seed of trust was planted. That seed grew, and after some years she met Jack who was a wonderfully steady, loving man. Jenny responded to his love, they got married, and last I knew they were enjoying years of great happiness.

Every story won’t be like that. But the principle is sound: forgiving someone isn’t just a gift for them, it’s also a gift you give yourself.

That’s almost where I’m ending on this theme of lasting relationships. There’ll be two more important principles in the next blog. Please join me for that.

But finally, there’s one more factor that Alison and I have in common.

I left home aged 16 to become a trainee journalist with Scotland’s premier quality newspaper. Two years later I became a Christian, and soon sensed a new direction for my life. But I needed more qualifications for admission to university, which added another two years before I could enrol at the University of Edinburgh.

Alison finished school at age 18 with great qualifications for university, except that her university of choice was revamping the course she wanted to study and enrolling no-one that year. Rather than go anywhere else, Alison deferred her application and meanwhile searched for work. She lasted three weeks in a cigarette lighter factory, after which she felt so brain dead she resigned. Instead she worked the rest of the year as a checkout operator with the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. The work wasn’t exciting, but she enjoyed meeting customers, especially those who made a deliberate choice to bring their purchases to her checkout. Then her year was over, and she enrolled at (you’ve guessed) the University of Edinburgh.

Lots of factors could have been different about when and where each of us went to university. But they were what they were. We enrolled at the same time, met three weeks later, and so it all began… It must have been meant.