Good Manners

I got married when I was just 21 years old. It was the summer between my junior and senior years of college; my husband, two years older than me, had graduated the previous year. I knew at the time it was crazy.

I come from a long line of happy second marriages. For one reason or another, every grandparent, aunt, and uncle in my family has been divorced. Even my parents, who will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary this year, were both previously married to other people before they met each other. “It’s like a book I read once,” my dad says of his first marriage, of which I wasn’t even aware until I was about 12. His entire love affair with this woman, their marriage and ultimate divorce, is simply irrelevant. It never came up.

My mom was 21 when she got married the first time. It was the summer between her junior and senior years of college. This fact, along with the rest of my extensive family history of divorce, was not lost on me when my then-22-year-old boyfriend started bringing up the idea that he’d like to marry me.

Divorce never seemed like the end of the world to me. I knew so many people who had survived it, who had gone on to meet partners with whom they seemed better matched. It didn’t seem like an easy way out that only selfish or weak people resorted to. These people helped raise me, they told me the stories of my family tree, they hosted fun slumber parties and took me to get my ears pierced (thanks Aunt Liz - you’re still the coolest). They are loving and hard-working and good parents and it never occurred to me once that any of their divorces were a mistake. I trusted them. I still do.

But at 21 years old, with a year of college left and no real idea what I wanted to be when I “grew up,” feeling head-over-heels in love with my boyfriend, their divorces haunted me.

What assurance did I have that we wouldn’t follow in their footsteps? Why on earth would we think we could enter into a marriage the same way I imagined they had — young, in love, and excited to build a life together — and not meet the same end?

My now-husband didn’t really share my concerns at the time. In his family, no one had been divorced. Everyone got married young and stayed married forever. Divorce was not part of his heritage; it did not haunt him as a viable outcome of getting married when you’re hardly an adult and have been dating your partner for barely over a year.

He was confident and at-ease about his desire to marry me. He was the ‘why not?’ to my ‘what if?’. I loved it. I loved him. Somehow, I can’t recall exactly how, he assuaged my fears and convinced me that getting married so young could actually work out. I wanted to believe that, of course, and it felt good to let my heart quiet my head for once. I never had a supernatural feeling that he was “the one,” but I decided I could choose to make him the one. On a rainy December day he proposed and I accepted.

We slated the wedding for August in Santa Barbara, two weeks before I’d start classes for my final year of college. I got to work planning the wedding and finishing out the spring semester and securing an internship and continuing to be a housemate to seven of my best friends who had somehow convinced a landlord to let us live in a single family home together. There were ample distractions to keep that quiet, but still present, fear at bay.

Prior to getting engaged, I had enrolled in a six-week study abroad program from May to June. I’d earn eight units of World Civilization credit on the trip, which would allow me to graduate a semester early. Even though spending six weeks abroad just two months before getting married seemed a bit stressful, I decided it was worth it. It would force us to get the wedding details planned out before I left, which might actually be good. It would allow me to finish school and join my husband in “the real world” sooner, which seemed like a respectable priority. And maybe it might actually be good to spend some time apart before we joined our lives forever; distance making our hearts grow fonder and all that.

So in May of 2003, with my wedding 98% planned and everything I’d need for six weeks packed into a single carry-on suitcase, I kissed my fiancé goodbye and boarded a plane for Sri Lanka. It was a time before iPhones and social media and international data plans. I had a calling card and a 35mm point-and-shoot camera and a rough itinerary that promised access to Internet cafes at least once a week. Our plan was to try to talk on the phone once a week, using email only to schedule the calls since my Internet access would be limited and potentially costly.

Maybe it was the jet-lag, or maybe the stress of everything I’d been balancing finally caught up with me, or maybe it’s just what travel does to a person, but from the moment my feet touched the tropical soil on that island, my heart cracked open. The sunsets were so beautiful I cried. I prepared milk-tea every morning like a holy ritual, drinking it alongside sliced pineapple that I understood to be an everyday communion. I watched the way the Sri Lankan men walked in the village streets with their arms around each other’s shoulders, showing such closeness and affection, and I vowed to be better at showing love to my friends.

And then I saw the way they did family. On the outside it seemed unrelatable and old fashioned. Women lived with their parents until they were old enough to wed, which they did by way of arranged marriage. After a brief arranged courtship, both families would gather for an extravagant multi-day wedding celebration. The newlyweds would often continue to live with one of the sets of parents, who likely also lived with grandparents or other extended family members. There was a formality to it. They couldn’t hide in the shadows of isolation and unaccountability. They couldn’t get away with having a private version of marriage and a public one. Their families and their villages bore intimate witness to the marriage relationship, literally and figuratively just beyond its boundary.

At first that formality seemed exhausting to me. As a 21-year-old American raised on romantic comedies and girl power, I believed that marriage should be a place where you could let your guard down and be your bare, true self. Your worst self, if necessary. I believed that true love was supposed to survive that, to forgive it, to be strong enough to see the best in each other even when we were too tired to do the work of actually being our best.

What I saw in these Sri Lankan families was something different than that. What I first understood to be a forced formality I began to see as something much simpler, purer. I saw these couples offer each other the grace of good manners. Not out of obligation or manipulation or archaic cultural norms, but because it served the relationship. They dressed well for each other and served each other and spoke about each other with respect. It was a stark contrast to the family sitcoms that had partly shaped my view of marriage. These people were nice to each other.

I looked closer and closer, observing the relationships of the families we did home-stays with, the interactions of the mom-and-pop shopkeepers were bought souvenirs from, and the way our various tour guides spoke about their spouses. Hidden in their subtle, everyday relationships was an antidote to that haunting question still in the back of mind: How do you stay married forever?  Beneath each interaction was a kindness that seemed to provide an answer:

Good manners.

It wasn’t sexy or romantic or even particularly inspiring, but it felt useful and true.

When I heard my now-husband’s voice on the phone that week, I collapsed into tears. “I just want to be nice to you. Forever.” I sobbed.

I explained what I had seen, how it had unfolded slowly in front of me, transforming from foreign to sacred. I promised to him that I didn’t want our marriage to be a place where we let ourselves be the worst versions of ourselves, but instead a place where we wanted to be the very best that we could be, respecting each other so much that we might never be too tired to be nice. I vowed to be as nice to him as I was to coworkers and acquaintances, and I wondered at how backwards it was to save our best manners for those people while we so often had nothing left to give each other.

So from 9,000 miles away, two months before we’d take our actual wedding vows, we made the vow of Good Manners. It was a vow that allowed space for my fears. It acknowledged that the love feeling might come and go. There would be hard days. There would be hurt feelings and bad choices and questions that we just wouldn’t be able to agree on. But we could commit to Good Manners. To saying please and thank you. To giving compliments often and accepting them graciously. To giving the benefit of the doubt. To apologizing. And forgiving. To speaking about each other with respect and admiration, and to searching for reasons to continue speaking that way. To simply being nice to each other.

I returned to California in late June and six weeks later we stood in front of our family and friends and chose to make each other “the one.” We promised that we’d continue to make that choice every day for the rest of our lives, and we prayed that it would be an easy choice more often than it would be a hard choice.

It’s no guarantee, of course. We know that good manners aren’t enough to sustain an entire marriage. We’ve been lucky. We’ve had more good days than bad days over the past fourteen years together, and there are many more days to come. Life is long, and while I don’t know what lies ahead of us, I do know this: When we got married, we didn’t commit to,a feeling, we committed to a choice. And for better or worse, in the good days and the bad days, good manners has always been a good choice for us.