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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Ultimate Downer of a Wedding Speech

A few years ago I was asked to speak at a wedding-weekend dinner hosted by the groom's family.

In my life, I'd suffered (and slept), through countless rose-colored wedding speeches that if used in an advertisement, would be defined as 'bait-and-switch'.  We married folks have a bad habit of gilding the lily, and IMHO, we do our single friends and children a disservice with our deceptions.

The reason it came to mind now is that the groom (who is still married and now has a beautiful son), reached out to me asking for a copy of the speech.  It turns out his younger brother is getting married soon, and he wants to give his little bro a copy.  He said it was the best advice he received regarding married life.

You can decide for yourselves if I did right or wrong:


Most people in my position, if asked to share a few words over a wedding weekend Shabbat meal, would probably offer the kind of speech that is long on blessings for a long, happy life of married bliss… and short on specifics on how to achieve that, or what to do when the real world intervenes and things don’t turn out exactly the way you envisioned them.

I think we can all agree that I’m not like ‘most people’.

So, when I sat down to write these remarks, I had a choice of going in one of two directions.  Happy and fluffy… or honest and a little dark.   I decided on the practical, honest one… even if it may not be as up-beat as one would expect at an aufruf.

To start with, who am I to offer any advice.?  After all, I’m not the groom's father and I’m too old to really be called a friend.  So what right do I have to offer advice?

There’s a term in English for someone who offers frank, harsh, or severe advice in order to educate, encourage, or admonish someone.  Such a person is called a ‘Dutch Uncle’.

I’ve never been able to pin down exactly what my relationship to the groom is.  But I’ve known him since he was born, and he lived in my home for nearly 4 years while he served in the IDF, so I think that ‘Dutch Uncle’ probably best describes not only my relationship to him… but also my responsibility to him. 

[looking at the groom] I can never approach the closeness of your relationship with your parents and family.  And I’m a whole generation removed from being one of your buddies.  So yeah… ‘Dutch Uncle’ feels about right.  I feel like that title gives me the right, and even the responsibility, to tell you some of the important truths I’ve learned over the past 25+ years of marriage. These truths may sound strange to you today.  But some day, if you are doing things right, they’ll start to make sense.

The one thing that seems to cause the most trouble for newly married couples can be summed up in one word:


The best illustration of this is an old joke about the difference between men and women that goes like this:

Men Marry Women with the Hope They Will Never Change. Women Marry Men with the Hope They Will Change.  Both end up disappointed.”

As with most jokes, at its core is a tiny kernel of truth… or at least a half-truth.

The full truth is that both men and women change throughout their lives, and neither really expects it.  And while I don’t have any scientific studies to support me on this, it seems to me that many of the marriages that don’t last contain at least one person who wasn’t able to accept or adapt to changes in their partner or themselves.

I recently read a compelling article in the New York Times by a middle-aged married person like myself, named Ada Calhoun.  It was entitled “To Stay Married, Embrace Change” (for those who are interested in a good read, it was in the ‘Style’ section on April 21st 2017)

The article starts out with the following statement that caught my attention right away:

A couple of years ago, it seemed as if everyone I knew was on the verge of divorce”.

That statement really resonated with me for the simple reason that Zahava and I have said the exact same thing to each other more than once over the years.

The author goes on to quote some of her friends whose marriages were in deep trouble:

He’s not the man I married,” one friend told me.

“She didn’t change, and I did,” said another.

And then there was the no-fault version: “We grew apart.”

The common denominator that shook the foundations of each of these marriages was ‘change’.  Or more correctly, the inability or unwillingness of one or both partners in the marriage to accept or adapt to change.

But if you look at all of the married people you know in your life, not one of them is the same person they were when they stood under the chuppah.  That means that, not only did they change… but they both adapted to and accepted the changes.

If you’ll indulge me one more quote from the article, I think it reinforces this point:

“Sometimes people feel betrayed by…change. They fell in love with one person, and when that person doesn’t seem familiar anymore, they decide he or she violated the marriage contract. I have begun to wonder if perhaps the problem isn’t change itself but our susceptibility to what has been called the “end of history” illusion:  “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished…”

The reason I’ve shared all this with you (and your soon-to-be wife if you decide to show it to her), is that if you don’t remember anything else I say to you for the rest of your life… please remember this one thing:  that as long as you are alive, neither of you are finished, or fully formed.  You are both works in progress and you are both going to continuously change; mentally, physically and emotionally.

Another thing that bears mentioning is that it may be ambitious, and even noble, to try to model your marriage after some of the happier marriages you see around you.  But the truth is you can never know everything that goes on behind the closed doors of those you know and admire.

We put on our best faces for the rest of the world.  But nobody outside your immediate family really knows what your life is truly like.

I’m not telling you all this to scare you.  I just don’t want you to be too hard on yourselves if your married life doesn’t seem to measure up to the marriages of others.

I don’t want you to go into this thing thinking your parents or my wife and and I... or any married couple you may know, have some magical gift or secret recipe for our marriages' longevity.  We don’t. It takes constant work.  Hard work!  And the easier someone’s married life looks, the harder they are probably working at it.

Don’t get me wrong… marriage is great; perhaps the greatest thing of all!  But what makes it great isn’t that it is always good, or always easy or even always happy.  On any given day of being married it can also be hard, challenging or even frightening.

And one of the most frightening things that you will discover is that you are going to fight; …at first, a lot.  And I promise you that your fights are all going to be about one of the following three things: 

~ Money, Family or Sex ~ 

Seriously, if you are married 90 years, nearly every argument you’ll have will be connected - at least tangentially - to at least one of those things.

And like I said, arguing can be scary, for the simple reason that we all tend to think that by fighting, it means our marriage is failing.  After all, nobody else we know who is happily married seems to be fighting!  Guess what?  They are.  

It took me a long time to figure out that our arguments were simply an indication that something or someone in the relationship had changed… and that it caught one or both of us by surprise. 

As humans, we’re hard-wired to notice change… and to be alarmed by it.  From a survival and evolutionary standpoint, change has always been the doorway to the unknown, and the unknown is scary… and often dangerous. So it’s no wonder that change often triggers our primal fight or flight reflex!

Just remember what I said at the start of this upbeat little pep-talk:  Everyone, and everything changes over time, even though nobody expects it.  We’re never finished changing, and as much as we may try to be perfect and find perfection in others.  Perfection doesn’t exist… at least outside of Hashem.

To quote Robin Williams from the film, ‘Good Will Hunting’:

“You're not perfect, sport, and let me save you the suspense: this girl…, she's not perfect either. But the question is whether or not you're perfect for each other.”

And I’ll take that movie quote one step further by telling you that this myth of ‘bashert’ - some perfect soul mate that you are destined to marry and spend your life with - is just that; a myth. 

I’m not saying that you and your bride aren’t soul mates.  Right this minute, you may be.  But tomorrow… and the day after that, you’ll both be a little different.  And you will have to work to recognize the soul mate in each other… just as you’ll continuously have to work to be that soul mate for each other.  And while I can tell you from experience that it is totally worth the effort…it’s also really, really hard. 

And what makes it even harder is that some people are really good at making it look easy.  But don’t be fooled by appearances.  I don’t care who you are; being a grown up is hard.  Being someone’s life partner is hard.  Being a good husband or a wife is really, really hard.

Remember what I told you about never knowing what is going on behind other people’s closed doors.  What you are seeing outside your house is what people want you to see.  You are watching everyone else’s highlight film, while late at night your own blooper reel seems to be playing in an endless loop in your head. 

Keep that in mind any time you are tempted to feel like you, your spouse or your marriage isn’t measuring up.  Chances are you’re doing just fine.  You are just making unfair comparisons.

You may not be aware of this, since you’ve been busy getting ready for your wedding, but May 21st 2017 is a fairly significant date.  While you two are standing under the Chuppah on Sunday, something momentous, and a little bit sad, will be taking place not too far away.

After more than 100 years, on May 21st 2017 The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be giving their last performance before folding up the big top for the very last time.  It would be a shame not to find some deeper meaning in the timing.  All that excitement. .. all that magic… all those illusions… coming to an end, at the very moment in time that you two are starting out your new lives together.

What I would suggest you take from this is what I’ve been saying all along:  That what you see outside your new home together isn’t real; at least not completely real.  From where you are sitting, there is magic at work… and illusions… and excitement.  That’s what you’re meant to see.  It’s what you two will also show the world.

Don’t get me wrong; some of it will actually be real.  If you work at it, and conscientiously practice at it, maybe even a lot of it will be real.   But the love, happiness, satisfaction and respect you’ll have later on in your marriage will be completely different from the feverish, confused versions of those feelings you experienced when you first met and started dating.  And I promise you that it can be so much better.

A hint of this washed up in my email inbox a few weeks ago when a friend sent me a screen grab of a tweet someone had written about an event they had witnessed:

“My parents are wine drunk watching jeopardy and my dad just looked at my mom and said "you're my best friend" and that's all I want in life.”

That may not sound like much to you now, but as you travel down the bumpy, lonely, challenging road of life together, sharing that kind of intimate, trusting lifetime bond with another human being will make you feel like you’ve won the lottery.  It will feel like sitting in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night.

Since you are a musician, and the son of a musician, I feel like I should end on a musical note, so I I’d like to close with the wisdom found in the well-loved standard ‘Paper Moon’ as it eloquently explains how everything outside the two of you isn’t really real, and you shouldn’t build your expectations for yourselves based on the illusions created by others;

“Say, it’s only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me
Yes, it's only a canvas sky
Hanging over a muslin tree
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me
Without your love
It's a honky-tonk parade
Without your love
It's a melody played in a penny arcade
It's a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me”


[Postscript: At the wedding a couple of days later, I was called up as a witness as 'the Dutch uncle' of the groom.]

Posted by David Bogner on July 22, 2020 | Permalink


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