You are here

Kent Nerburn on Marriage

The following is an excerpt on marriage from Letters to My Son: A Father's Wisdom on Manhood, Life, and Love , by Kent Nerburn. Many thanks to Mr. Nerburn for graciously encouraging us to share his thoughts with our guests.


Sometimes marriage seems easier to understand for what it cuts out of our lives than for what it makes possible within our lives. When I was younger this fear immobilized me. I did not want to make a mistake. I saw my friends getting married from reasons of social acceptability, or sexual fervor, or just because they thought it was the logical thing to do. Then I watched as they and their partners became embittered and petty in their dealings with each other. I looked at older couples and saw, at best, mutual toleration. I imagined a lifetime of loveless nights and bickering days and could not imagine subjecting myself or someone else to such a fate. On rare occasions, I would see old couples who somehow seemed to flow in each other’s presence. They seemed really in love, not just dependent upon each other and tolerant of each other’s foibles. It was an astounding sight, and it seemed impossible. How, I asked myself, can they have survived so many years of sameness, so much irritation at the other’s habits? What keeps love alive in them, when most of us seem unable to even stay together, much less love each other?

The central secret seems to be in choosing well. There is something to the claim of fundamental compatibility. Good people can create a bad relationship, even though they both dearly want the relationship to succeed. It is important to find someone with whom you can create a good relationship from the outset. Unfortunately, it is hard to see clearly in the early stages of a relationship. Sexual attraction blinds you to the thousands of little things by which relationships eventually survive or fail. You need to find a way to see beyond this initial overwhelming physical fascination. Some people choose to involve themselves sexually and ride out the most heated period of sexual attraction in order to see what is on the other side. This can work, but it can also leave a trail of wounded hearts. Others deny the sexual altogether in an attempt to get to know each other apart from their sexuality. But they cannot see clearly, because the presence of unfulfilled sexual desire looms so large that it keeps them from having any normal perception of what life would be like together. Truly fortunate partners manage to become longtime friends before they realize they are attracted to each other. They get to know each other’s laughs, passions, sadnesses, and fears. They see each other at their worst and at their best. They share time together before they get swept up into the entangling intimacy of their sexuality.

Laughter is one clue to compatibility. It tells you how much you will enjoy each other’s company over the long term. If your laughter together is good and healthy, and not at the expense of others, then you have a healthy relationship to the world. Laughter is the child of surprise. If you can make each other laugh, you can always surprise each other. If you can always surprise each other, you can always keep the world around you new. Beware of a relationship in which there is no laughter. Even the most intimate relationships based only on seriousness have a tendency to turn dour. Over time, sharing a common serious viewpoint on the world tends to turn you against those who do not share the same viewpoint, and your relationship can become based on being critical together.

Look for a partner who deals with the world in a way you respect. When two people first get together, they tend to see their relationship as existing only in the space between the two of them. They find each other endlessly fascinating, and the overwhelming power of the emotions they are sharing blinds them to the outside world. As the relationship ages and grows, the outside world becomes important again. If your partner treats people or circumstances in a way you can’t accept, you will inevitably come to grief. If you do not respect the way you each deal with the world around you, eventually, the two of you will not respect each other.

Look also at how your partner confronts the mysteries of life. We live on the cusp of poetry and practicality, and the real life of the heart resides within the poetic. If one of you is deeply affected by the mystery of the unseen in life and relationships, while the other is drawn only to the literal and practical, you must take care that the distance does not become an unbridgeable chasm that leaves you each feeling isolated and misunderstood.

Take the time to choose a partner carefully and well. Then the real miracle of marriage can take place in your life. Miracle is a powerful word, and I choose it carefully. But there is a miracle in marriage – the miracle of transformation. Transformation is one of the most common events of nature. The seed becomes the flower. The cocoon becomes the butterfly. Winter becomes spring and love becomes a child. Marriage is a transformation we choose to make. Our love is planted like a seed, and in time it begins to flower. We cannot know the flower that will bloom, but we can be sure that a bloom will come. If we have chosen carefully and wisely, the bloom will be good. If we have chosen poorly or for the wrong reason, or we do not tend our marriage with care, then the bloom will be flawed.

If you believe in your heart that you have found someone with whom you are able to grow, if you have sufficient faith that you can resist the endless attraction of the road not taken and the partner not chosen, if you have the strength to embrace the cycles and seasons that your love will experience, then you may be ready to seek the miracle that marriage offers. If not, then wait. The easy grace of a marriage well made is worth your patience.


Join more than 80,000 readers worldwide who receive Dr. Ben Kim's free newsletter

Receive simple suggestions to measurably improve your health and mobility, plus alerts on specials and giveaways at our catalogue

Please Rate This

Your rating: None Average: 4.8 (117 votes)
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.


I want to say that this piece is very helpful, thank you!

I've shared this article with almost everyone I know. I'm simply blown away by its brilliance, simplicity and truth. I've known a guy for over half my life. He's very religious and is a great person...but we don't laugh together, the way he deals with people and society is uninspiring and disappointing, I'm poetic and believe you can only obtain God through the heart....he's very literal has a mind-based approach to God and everything else in life. As much as I wanted it to work and thought that it could b/c we've known eachother forever, there was always a voice in me that said it's just not meant to be. Simple conversations were a huge effort. Our misunderstanding and miscommunication was at the core. This article confirmed yet again that the inner voice is always....always speaks the truth. Thank you Ben for your continued focus on complete health...mind body and spirit.

Maybe he doesn't have a lot to laugh about all of the time. Maybe one day down the road, he will have something to laugh about. When people go through negative situations, they react. When they've been hurt or are in pain some get very angry and sad and some take time to work through their emotions. They need time to do that. Maybe you could laugh with someone else who actually wants to laugh with you. Talk to other friends. If you don't have any other friends, you need to figure out why that is. Anyway, you feel a certain way, well allow that other person to feel how they need to feel. You are NOT the same person. You are able to think for yourself. Appreciate friendships as others do, but allow people to react how they need to react when they need to do it. If you actually value that person, you would be wise to do that. If not, then move on to another friend. Anyway, WE ALL react negatively at times. And that is the truth. Don't just assume everyone has it so easy. Many do not. Maybe some do, but some do not. They are just as human as you are.

There is a lot of good advice in this article. I think our modern society focuses too much on infatuation in partnering, instead of long-term compatibility (among other things). Very often people make some of the most important decisions of their lives while they are temporarily insane - and "infatuation" aka "love" (in the popular sense) is the definition of temporary insanity. There is Romantic Love and Companionate Love - the first is temporary, the second is what keeps relationships alive (IMO).

I also believe that tools like the Keirsey-Bates / Meyers-Briggs Temperament Sorter are valuable tools to help you understand other people in your life. It's not the be-all, end-all, but it's a good start to gain insight into yourself - and your relationships to people around you. For example, knowing that your significant other finds holidays and birthdays to be very important and special (to me, they aren't very important) can help you realize that you need to make it a point to *remember* and honor them. Conversely, your S.O. might want to realize that at times, YOU need some "cave time" and need to be left alone, and it does not somehow reflect on them. A bit of understanding and acceptance goes a long way, and helps prevent the little issues from festering into much bigger issues down the road. They say that "opposites attract" - but they are compatible only if they can accept the polar-opposites that exist in that other person and not try to bend them to their will. In that rare case, each might learn a little bit from the other and become a more well-rounded person.