This I Believe

Mikkael - Shaker heights, Ohio
Entered on July 19, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: love, setbacks
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I believe in marriage.

I am a doctor who specializes in treating older adults with leukemia, and I also conduct leukemia research. My friends, family – even my own patients – ask me how I can face cancer – that malignant golem everyone else avoids – every day. The truth is, it’s easy, and somewhat selfish.

I am constantly surrounded by people who have rearranged the priorities in their lives, to focus on what’s important: appreciating the nuances of a random day; their friends who drive them to and from appointments; their children; their husbands or wives.

These are lovely people to be around!

A few years ago, I started to investigate the secret to a long marriage. I mean, who better to answer than a couple facing a cancer diagnosis, people who may have drawn closer as the potential for death nears? Naturally, being a researcher, I was fairly scientific about the whole process. I was only allowed to ask a couple who had been married 40 years or longer. Both husband and wife had to be in the room, and each had to be healthy enough to answer on his or her own.

“50 years, God bless ya! So, what’s the secret?”

About 40% of the time, they gave the easy answer, the one you always hear:

“You have to have a sense of humor.”

Of course you do. You can’t make it very far through life without a sense of humor. But was that the key to a long and happy marriage? Or were they just being polite, and really saying, “Hey doc, let’s get beyond this marriage discussion and talk about my cancer, will ya?” I always found this answer genuinely unsatisfying, but maybe my standards were too high.

Another 30% of the time, the answer would be, “It’s a lot of work.”

That’s it? Fifty years together, and the most you can say about the person to whom you’ve devoted your life, your husband for God’s sake, is, “It’s a lot of work?” Is the purpose of staying married just so you can say, on your deathbed, “Well, I may not have liked him very much, but we lasted 60 years?” This answer depressed me.

Five percent of the time, people refused to answer. Another 5% of people gave the wrong answer. How can you give the wrong answer to this question?

“Well, I couldn’t find anyone better, so I had to settle for her.” Completely serious, wife sitting across from the guy, open-mouthed, aghast. And I would think to myself, “This is going to be the longest car ride home of your life.” But at least the answer was honest.

When I started my field research, I even had a follow-up question:

“Fifty years? So how many of them were happy?”

The answer I was expecting was a wry, “Fifty-two!” Many times that would be the answer, and we’d all laugh. But sometimes, more than just a few times, the answer would be, “Forty-eight.” What happened during those other two years? We’d all sit in an uncomfortable silence, and I wouldn’t know what to say, except “I’m sorry,” so I stopped asking the follow-up question.

I did this for two years, collecting data, analyzing it, struggling to find that nut of truth in durable matrimony. For two years, as my own marriage disintegrated, I desperately tried to learn, from my patients, whether a marriage lasted just because it was the right thing to do, or because there was some deeper, happier motivating force.

And then there were the other 20% – what I called the 20% club. When I asked them what the secret was to their long marriage, they’d shrug their shoulders, the husband would take his wife’s hand, sometimes stroking her thumb with his, and answer, “I don’t know, I just love her.”

Another two years have passed. I don’t ask my patients about the secret to their marriages anymore, my research is now complete. I am engaged to be married again, this September. And why, you may ask, am I committing myself to matrimony again, when the percentages, as I have documented myself, are so clearly stacked against me?

I don’t know. I just love her.