Love, yes, but be committed to marriage

Before you hopeless romantics hurl a chocolate heart at my head, let me qualify that. What I really mean is this: Don’t marry only (or even mostly) for love.

On Feb. 14, the day when more American couples get engaged than any other day, love abounds, especially since it so often comes with roses, champagne and, of course, diamonds (preferably emerald cut.)

I like nice jewelry just as much as the next woman. I’m also a big fan of marriage, even though, sadly, my first one didn’t work out. But in my previous 26-year career as a Georgia judge, I dissolved more than my share of unions. That, along with my own personal experience, underscored the obvious: Marriage is always a complicated proposition. Divorce is almost always a tragedy, even more so when children are involved.

Research shows that children living with married parents have greater self-esteem, are less delinquent, are more likely to delay sexual activity and have lower rates of teen pregnancy than children from single-parent families. As such, marriage is the most pro-child institution we have. Additionally, married parents report being happier, more satisfied and having fewer emotional problems than divorced parents. For our children as well as ourselves, it’s time for our country to recommit to the institution of marriage.

When I served on the trial bench, I once refused to grant a divorce to a couple who had been married for over 40 years. The husband was caught on tape doing some unprintable things in a car with ... let’s just say he had to bring some cash along. Peering down at him from the bench, I thought, You are a stupid, stupid man.

However, personally, I don’t know of any long-term marriage that doesn’t go through a “stupid” phase. It didn’t seem to me that this couple really wanted to divorce. In fact, in a private conference the wife confided that she just wanted her husband to behave. And so I mandated counseling. The lawyers were furious. But a few years later, after I was appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court, the chastened man showed up at my office. He told me that he and his wife had worked things out. And he thanked me. In all of my judicial career, that was one of the biggest gifts I ever received.

There is a lot of conventional wisdom on the key to a successful marriage. Marry someone you love. Marry someone who makes you laugh. Marry someone who can put up with you. Marry someone who is financially secure. Marry someone with similar values, common interests and a good education. All are good advice. But after years of thinking about and studying this country’s divorce epidemic, I now believe that the key to most successful marriages is when the couple is more committed to the health and longevity of the marriage than to each other. That way, during those times when they can’t stand each other — and those times surely will come, as no one is perfect— they have something to fall back on and remain committed to.

Of course, I’ve been around long enough to know that some marriages just can’t be saved. My first one couldn’t. I was only 20 when love and lust and that heady feeling of being swept away prompted me to utter those life-altering words: “Yes, I’ll marry you!” Yet two children and 20 years later, my marriage unraveled, notwithstanding the five years of counseling my former husband and I put in trying to save it. And when the marriage finally fell apart, I knew it was for the best. As for my son, who was 11 when his father and I split up, his parents’ divorce remains the biggest blow in his life. Nevertheless, I take comfort in the fact that I gave the first marriage a real go at it.

I’ve now been remarried for 13 years. My husband is wise. I need wise. He always has my back. I like that. Did I mention that I also love him? I do. Sure, we have our issues. (Ladies, I solved the toilet seat one by putting a bright yellow, not-so-kind reminder bumper sticker on the underside of the lid.) Still, I’m committed to not only him, but to making our marriage work. As I said, I believe in love, but I also believe in marriage, and I really don’t want a third one.

The Honorable Leah Ward Sears is a retired chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and is a partner at the Atlanta office of Schiff Hardin LLP. Sears also serves as the William Thomas Sears Distinguished Fellow in Family Law at the Institute for American Values and is a visiting professor on contemporary issues in family law at the University of Georgia School of Law.

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