Couples share their definition of marriage

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Exactly 365 days from now, Katie Barbour, 22, and Adam Bertrand, 24, are to be married in a religious ceremony at Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. The two have known each other since childhood -- Adam was a friend of Katie's brother -- and were engaged in late May.

Nothing about their wedding or pending marriage hinges on how Missouri voters decide an Aug. 3 ballot issue that would create a legal definition of marriage.

Defining marriage won't change anything for couples already legally wed, but it could make people reconsider what a marriage is.Whether or not the state creates a legal definition of marriage, area couples say that isn't what makes a marriage.

Marriages are different for every couple who weds. Some are very traditional, with a husband as the primary wage earner and a wife who stays home to raise children. Others are more contemporary with a focus on developing partnerships and learning to become family.

Barbour's and Bertand's relationship is grounded in familiarity, faith and love.

"Our relationship is probably different because we'd known each other for so long and dated before," Bertrand said. "We were away from each other and it was fun when we'd be together but wasn't easy to be apart."

The pair started dating again seriously a year ago, around Thanksgiving. "Something just clicked this time," he said.

It wasn't too long until they started talking about marriage and sharing their lives.

Barbour said being married means growing together spiritually while learning to grow as a couple. Marriage is about sharing a life and "respecting each other and being a Christian family and growing together," she said. "It's very sacred. It's about honoring the Lord together and being a family and raising children in a godly home."

Barbour and Bertrand have seen other couples, including their parents, who have loving relationships, that set an example for them. But they've also talked about the reality of divorce in society.

"Too many couples our age think that if it doesn't work out, they can always get divorced," Bertrand said.

But Barbour said she and Adam talked about how divorce affects families and "how serious we are about not doing that. We don't want that at all."

Few couples who marry ever truly believe they'll end up divorcing. Yet couples continue to divorce at steady numbers. Nationwide, there were 4.7 divorces for every 1,000 people in the United States during 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Missouri's divorce rate mirrored the national data. The rate is calculated based on the number of divorces per 1,000 population, which provides a more accurate number than comparing the number of marriages per year to the number of divorces for that same year.

Divorce and remarriage, step-parents and blended families are a fact of life in America today. The key to a lasting marriage is in the commitment, said Bonnie Poythress, a wife and mother of five children. She and her husband, Roger, have been married 21 years.

"It's hard to anticipate going through all the milestones in life and having your first child or five, and how your marriage will weather something like that," she said.

It's important to understand what each partner wants out of a marriage relationship and what each person brings to it, she said.

When she and Roger married, they were ready to start a family, but having children changes the dynamics, she said.

"We have very little time together," Poythress said. "And we're busy."

With five children -- ages 20, 18, 15, 11 and 7 -- there's always some activity or sporting event to attend. But the Poythresses, from Jackson, did institute a date night several years back. Once a month, they go out to dinner or do something together without the children.

Bonnie Poythress describes their relationship as a partnership. "You do whatever you need to do to make it work."

Pat Reagan and David Briggs also consider their marriage a partnership. The couple wed 4 1/2 years ago in a Unitarian Church. Theirs is a second marriage for both, which gives them a different perspective on the subject than a newly married couple.

Being married "means that you are partners, not that it's a business deal or a love affair, but that you're family," Pat said.

But even knowing that their relationship together would be more of a partnership didn't mean there weren't expectations they had for each other. Young couples and couples in first marriages try to mold each other. That hasn't happened in this relationship because she and David recognize each other's differences, she said.

David is thinker; Pat is an artist. David is retired; Pat teaches at the university. David rises early each day and enjoys solitude. Pat is more apt to attend parties or social events without David. The pair don't always eat meals together or go to bed at the same time, but they manage to find other ways to communicate.

"You don't have to be a couple all the time," Pat said. Nor do couples have to conform to the standard images of marriage and roles for husband and wife. Pat continues to work, and because David is retired he does more of the housework.

In the three years prior to their marriage, the couple talked about practical aspects of living together as husband and wife and even considered not marrying at all. But the commitment that comes with marriage was important to them both.

"I had a better realization of what was important in a marriage and a relationship" when marrying Pat, David said. "I don't recall that in my first marriage."

But some of that wisdom comes with age. There wasn't an urgency in getting married to Pat like there was in 1966 when he was just out of college and about to leave for Vietnam, David said.

In the frenzy to have a wedding, couples don't always understand what being married really means.

60 years' experience

When Alton and Martha Bray of Cape Girardeau married 60 years ago at her parents' home in Illmo, Mo., there wasn't any talk about marriage counseling before a wedding.

"We just played it by ear," Alton said.

Things worked out well for the Brays because they talked about problems and concerns. Alton said the couple "had a good working relationship."

"We were fortunate," Martha added.

Both came from strong, loving families that helped set an example for their marriage, the Brays said. And their professional education probably contributed to the fact that they made decisions as a couple, Alton said.

In 60 years of marriage, he's learned "you have to be willing to give."

And while theirs has been a happy union, with three children, six grandchildren and a great-grandson, it doesn't mean there weren't problems.

"We didn't go to bed mad at each other," Martha said.

"But that's not to say we didn't disagree," Alton added.

"We wouldn't be normal if we didn't," Martha said.

It was normal in the 1940s for couples to stay married. But times have changed. Today people are talking about same-sex marriage and considering what social impact it might have on marriage.

The Brays know it won't affect their marriage, but it could impact society by changing how people view families and raise children.

Pat Reagan thinks it's time for people to reconsider what it means to be married.

"I think as a culture we have a silly, unrealistic media idea of marriage. We always think it's the bride picture and the happy family, and it has to have love and romance and sex. But it's a partnership that is about advancement of two individuals economically and socially -- not to mean that it's about getting ahead but that it's easier as a couple.

"You help each other make a life. Life's hard. It's never what you expected. Couples grow to understand what a marriage is; the happiest couples accept it.

"It's hard to be married but it's harder to be single. It's not about loneliness but about getting through life. It helps to have a partner."

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