The Beginning of Tradition
Two weeks ago I found myself sitting at a table at a wedding reception in Florida, talking with my fellow guests about lessons learned in our own marriages. The conversation led to the word ‘compromise’ and how important it is to the success of a marriage. Wise couples navigate all of the usual issues; finances, where to live, will they have children. Those negotiations take place in the months and years leading up to a marriage and are very important to the forming of a lasting union. As Robert Fulgam wrote,
“All of those conversations that were held in a car, or over a meal, or during long walks – all those conversations that began with, “When we’re married”, and continued with “I will” and “you will” and “we will” – all those late night talks that included “someday” and “somehow” and “maybe” – and all those promises that are unspoken matters of the heart. All these common things, and more, are the real process of a wedding.”
A point I raised to my friends is that we are often prepared by friends and families for the big topics, but no one ever talks about the little compromises that are part of everyday life in a marriage. Which side of the bed will we sleep on? What brand of toothpaste will we purchase? Will we use my mother’s meatloaf recipe or yours? The story I like to tell about small compromises involves milk. I grew up in household where we drank 2% milk. My wife’s family drank skim milk. For a short time after we got married we would buy both types. We soon found this impractical, but luckily the dairy industry provided us with a solution. We are now a 1% household and it has been this way for nearly 10 years. As I have suggested to many newlyweds over the years, this is what compromise really means in a marriage.
I should clarify that I don’t believe that marriage is just one long negotiation with centrism being the key to bliss. Most couples find there are certain issues on which they simply will not budge, which is why my wife still doesn’t fold my shirts the way I like them and I still insist that we only use a very specific kind of hand soap in our bathrooms. We’ve decided that those issues are really not worth changing our ways on and that’s okay too.
So Russell got married this weekend and I join the rest of the League in wishing him the best. With the recent Supreme Court rulings and the advance of same-sex marriage from state-to-state I can’t help but think of those unions and the kinds of compromises they are making, just like us straight people. What they are really doing though is forming traditions. Most of us have some family tradition, maybe involving a certain restaurant we go to every Mother’s Day or a song we sing every Christmas. Those traditions had to start somewhere. Maybe they were a conscious choice or maybe they just sort of happened. A friend of mine was raised in a house where they served their chili with macaroni and when I was invited over for dinner I thought it was so weird. Ever the curious anthropologist I later asked him about it and he said that his mom grew up in Michigan and apparently that’s how they fixed it there. Since she did all the cooking she brought that with her to Kentucky. Today his three Louisville-raised sons eat their chili with macaroni because that has become a tradition in their family.
What marriage has taught me is that ideally we find ways to honor the best of both families while also creating our own new stories. I’ve often wished someone would start to think of family trees as not just a collection of names but as a collection of traditions. How interesting it would be to be able to trace a recipe or a favorite vacation spot across the generations and discover just how it came to be. It would also be very interesting to see where certain traditions ended and to ask why. As someone once said, “Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.” The important thing is to recognize when we have to make that distinction.
In my 20’s I began to self-identify as a conservative because of my love of tradition. As an anthropologist and historian by training I have a great affinity for those cultural institutions which define us as a people. On our best days conservatives serve as protectors of our most important traditions. We fight the good fight in state capitals and town halls and even on blogs. These battles are often losing fights though because, as Disraeli said, change is inevitable. For a long time I believed the tradition of heterosexual marriage was something we should protect. I still believe my intentions were good, but my viewpoint was too narrow. I was choosing to fight for one tradition while ignoring the opportunity to allow new traditions to flourish. Across the country today heterosexual and same-sex couples are making the kinds of small compromises that will become traditions of unknown origin for their great-grandchildren. As a lover of history, I can’t help but think that is pretty cool.