The Essential Difference Between Marriage and Companionship

This week’s blog post is an excerpt from the introduction to True Companions  by Kelly Flanagan. Copyright (c) 2021 by Kelly M. Flanagan. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

 

When I began writing True Companions, I thought it was about saving this ancient institution called marriage. Seriously. I planned to right this sinking ship we call matrimony by convincing a whole generation of young people to quit jumping ship, to head to the courthouse, and to set sail upon the kind of life-changing journey marriage can become. Plus, “marriage books” sell like hotcakes. It all seemed like a very good idea.

Then, one day, a friend pushed back.

She asked about my next book, and when I told her what it was about, her face fell. “I love your writing,” she explained, “but I can’t pick up any book with marriage on the cover.” She is a single woman. Men have been cruel to her. An uninterested father. A boyfriend who abandoned her in the middle of a pregnancy. A husband who drank their marriage to death. Now, she has the courage to stand alone, while raising her young daughter on her own. She still hopes to marry again, but she has become less willing to settle for more of the same from the men in her life. In other words, for now, she doesn’t have a ticket for the marriage cruise, and she isn’t interested in reading about the poolside piña coladas.

I can’t blame her. So, I wrote this book for her and for everyone like her. It’s a book about a cruise we are, all of us, already on. This is a book about marriage that is also about something bigger than marriage. In her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes, “The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love.” What if marriage is a singular light within the great general light of companionship, but we keep trying to turn it into the big light itself? What if uncovering the secrets to a stellar marriage isn’t as important as finding our way to the truths at the heart of true companionship? This book is about the great general light of companionship, inside which marriage flickers and flames.

If I could, I’d go back in time and join my younger self in the early morning hours of his wedding day. I’d ride with him on that empty highway, with that bottle of champagne resting on the seat between us, and I’d tell him things he couldn’t possibly fathom yet. I’d tell him marriage is relatively simple. It’s a signature on a license at the courthouse, a benediction from the pastor, a kiss, a bunch of rice stuck in hair he won’t have for much longer, a rowdy reception, and years and anniversaries rolling by, until one day the rolling finally stops.

But, I’d tell him, companionship is something he already began, on a painful morning of confession months before. I’d tell him companionship is anything but simple. It’s hard work. It takes guts and perseverance. It’s a long walk through everything: sorrow and celebration, heartbreaking disappointment and heartwarming contentment, all sorts of uncertainty and a moment of clarity here and there. It takes everything you’ve got, and sometimes it gives you back more than you could ever hope for. It is a four-word vow lived out in the midst of our hardest humanity:

We’ll figure it out.

I’d tell him marriage is one very special candle that can burn within the big, bright light of companionship. Friendship is another one, of course, as is the relationship between a parent and a child, or the relationship between siblings. Really, wherever two or more are gathered, a little more light can be added to the great general light of companionship. I’d tell him he has spent much of his life thinking about how to get better at marriage and that might make him better at being married, but getting better at companionship will make him better at being human.

Then, he’d drop off the champagne at the limo office, where the lone attendant will look at him like he’s nuts, and we’d drive back to the hotel together. On the way, I’d be sure to tell him what I witnessed last Thanksgiving Day in a buffet line at a local inn. While someone ahead of me contemplated corn versus carrots, I had time to stand there with an empty plate and observe, through two panes of glass, the line moving a little more quickly on the other side of the buffet. What I saw was two companions.

I’m guessing they were in their early seventies, but something had happened to him. A stroke perhaps, or something nearly as catastrophic. His age was seventy-something, but his body was ninety-something. He slouched heavily with both hands on a walker in front of him, inching it forward with great effort, muscle tone almost completely missing. Large hearing aids were perched in both ears. With both hands on his walker, he was unable to reach for his own food. So she walked behind him, reaching for both of them.

They were figuring it out.

I watched as they slowly moved by the mashed potatoes and the stuffing and a bowl full of something made of marshmallows. She would serve herself and then lean over, with her mouth close to his ears, pointing at each pile of food, asking him if he wanted it. Sometimes he would nod. Sometimes he wouldn’t. Slowly, his plate filled up. It was all very hushed. I could not hear a word of it. Usually, companionship isn’t loud and fancy and intoxicating like a wedding celebration. It’s quiet and plodding and nourishing. I’d tell my younger self that I don’t know if the couple was married. They probably were.

But I do know they were companions.

 

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.