Meeting halfway in marriage

October 9, 2017

From the Pews

Dan Steger

By Dan Steger

I work as a salesman for a Twin Cities company that makes graphics and signage for use in retail stores. My biggest customer is based in New York City, where I call on them about once a month.

Usually this involves a series of short business meetings, but on a recent trip I catered in lunch for the entire department, a group of about 30 people. As we tucked into our lobster rolls and sodas, the room buzzed with a number of small conversations. Lobster rolls, I knew from 15 years’ experience, are a real crowd-pleaser!

At one point, one of my longtime close contacts asked me from across the large conference room table, “Dan, do you have any big vacations planned for this year? Like – where did you go last year? Bosnia or something?”

I smiled. People always struggled to remember the name. Or maybe it was the geography? “You mean Croatia. No, nothing like that this year. That trip was to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. This year we’re going to Wisconsin.”

At this I was met with wide-eyed stares from a number of those in the room. “Thirty years?” asked a young woman of about 30 years herself. “You’ve been married 30 years? That’s amazing. What’s your secret?”

By now the room was very quiet, and all eyes were on me, a situation with which I was not entirely comfortable. Although a career salesman I am fairly introverted and prefer talking with people one-on-one or in small groups.

“Well, I can answer that with a story, but you may regret asking as it’ll take a few minutes.”

“Go for it. We’re all ears.”

“OK, this happened on our wedding day, just before the ceremony itself. My wife and I are both Catholic, and we married in a big, old neo-Gothic, or neo-something, church in St. Paul, Minnesota.” When in New York I am always careful with place names, adding MINNESOTA and waiting for a sign of recognition. People often nod pleasantly but indistinctly.

“It’s a traditional church in an older part of the city, and I was a parishioner, largely because my father grew up there and my grandparents were still members, attending Mass every day.

“We wanted a Mass, not a civil ceremony, and in this parish there were certain rules about weddings. They were on Saturdays at 10am, period. You want a 5pm wedding? Try 10am instead. And this was fine with us. Neither of us were, or are, super-devout, but we wanted a traditional, classic Catholic ceremony and loved the family ties to the place. The church was beautiful, and was decorated for Christmas. We were happy to be flexible about the rules.

I still had everyone’s attention at this point but knew I’d have to move from this church talk to the “good part” or I’d lose them.

“So it’s just before the ceremony is to begin, and I’m in the sacristy – backstage, so to speak – and I’m terrified. Sweating bullets. The prospect of being in front of a hundred or so people really made me nervous, and that was on top of the significance of the rite itself.

“The priest approached me. Father Patrick Lannan. He was the textbook priest. Irish, hugely round in stature, ruddy complexion, gregarious. He’d known my grandparents for years, and treated me like we were old friends, although we were barely acquainted. I was 25 and frankly just an occasional churchgoer. But he didn’t seem to mind that at all. He clasped his hand on my shoulder, and believe me when I tell you I remember this like it happened yesterday. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Danny, you don’t look like a groom. You look nervous.’

I said this in my best attempt at an Irish accent. Fr. Lannan didn’t speak in one but I used it for dramatic effect. Not really my style but I was going for broke. It seemed to work, judging from the smiles in the room.

“’That’s because I AM nervous, Father.’

Looking around the table I saw that I had everyone’s attention. Most had finished lunch but none were leaving. Generally people stayed 5 or 10 minutes for these lunches, or simply grabbed their sandwich and headed back to their desk. Lunch in this office was not a leisurely affair.

“’Sit down. I’m going to tell you how to get on in married life.’

“At this point I was struck by two things. The first was the irony of a 60 year old celibate priest telling me how to succeed in marriage. But I’d been a Catholic all my life and was used to advice from priests about all kinds of things. And second, frankly, was irritation. I was in the middle of a full-on nervous breakdown and this guy wants to have a fireside chat? But dutiful lad that I was, I sat. And there was no saying NO to Fr. Lannan, that much I knew.

“He sat back in his chair and said, ‘People have problems because they want to meet in the middle on things.’

“He paused to let this sink in but I found this chestnut very odd. I thought meeting in the middle was kind of a tried-and-true way to make relationships work.

“He continued. ‘The problem is that if you go halfway, and your wife goes halfway, you will never meet at all.’

“I was totally confused at this point, and very anxious that it might be 10:00 and there we were chatting in the sacristy while a church full of people sat impatiently waiting for things to start.

“’The problem is that your idea of halfway, and her idea of halfway, are not half way at all. They’re short of that. They’re 40% or something. But if you make it a point to go 60%, and she does the same, you might just meet in the middle after all.’

“At this point he stopped, and smiled at me, and waited for my response. It took me a couple seconds to realize he was done. I was still waiting for the punchline, for some profound, poetic nugget; for the heavens to open and for angels to sing. But he was done and all I had was this bizarre mathematical formula. Forty per-cent. Sixty per-cent. What? My memory of my reaction is crystal-clear: I thought this was the dumbest piece of advice I’d ever heard.

“But Fr. Lannan suddenly stood, looking very satisfied. I stood also, not quite sure what to say. ‘OK, Father. That’s great. Thanks.’

“He nodded in total agreement. He looked me in the eye, put his hand on my shoulder again and said, ‘NOW you look like a groom. Let’s get you married.’

“So that was my piece of advice, this bit about always going more than halfway. At the time I didn’t think much of it. In fact, in the following days I forgot it altogether. But how many times do you think I’ve thought of it in the 30 years since? Hundreds of times. Countless times. Might’ve been the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

I suddenly became self-conscious, realizing that my story was done yet I still had the attention of the entire room. In awkward situations like this I usually made a dumb quip, and this no exception. “There you have it!” I said, upbeat. “Lobster rolls and life lessons! Probably more than you bargained for today.”

Another of those present, a woman with whom I’d done business for years, piped up: “That was an awesome story, Dan. I will remember that.”

I smiled and thanked her. People nodded, either in agreement or just to be polite, I wasn’t sure. One by one they stood, collected their things and filed out.

Father Lannan’s advice really summarized a couple key truths about success in marriage, at least from my experience. First, it’s human nature to overestimate one’s own contributions to relationships. Countless times I’ve found myself thinking I’d really gone that extra mile for my wife, only to admit to myself later that – as Fr. Lannan had said – I’d only gone 40% of the way. And second, marriage is work. Hard work. It’s hard to dig deep and swallow your pride sometimes in order to find harmony with your spouse. It takes patience, and confidence in yourself and your partner, to put aside the disagreement of that moment; to step back and see the bigger picture. I often think of the Rolling Stones lyric:

You can’t always get what you want.

You can’t always get what you want.

But if you try sometime,

You just might find,

You get what you need.

Dan Steger is a salesman and freelance writer. He and his wife Andrea have been married 31 years. They have two adult children.

 

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