He’s a fictional character in the Cohen Brother’s movie The Big Lebowski and he’s played by the actor Jeff Bridges. And while Bridges has played dozens of roles over his long career, this may be the one he is most associated with. He was so convincing as the Dude, the role seemed to be an extension of Bridges himself.
Now, I love The Big Lebowski and have seen it dozens of times; the interplay between the Dude and his movie buddy Walter (John Goodman) is priceless. So when I belatedly heard that Bridges had put out a book called The Dude and the Zen Master, co-written with his friend Bernie Glassman, I ordered it immediately. And like the movie, I’m captivated by it.
There’s a lot of rich wisdom in this book and it’s presented in a unique manner, a dialogue between Bridges and the Zen master Glassman. Like two veteran jazz musicians, they jam on a variety of subjects, from the purpose of life to intimacy and relationships to overcoming the inevitable bumps on the road.
But the part of the book I’m focusing on here is the nature of love and marriage. Bridges has been married to his wife Sue for 35 years, a notable feat anywhere but especially for a “Hollywood” couple.
He has some keen insights on the path his marriage took and I can totally relate because they mirrored my own path. (I celebrate 20 years of marriage to my wife Laney this year.)
You’ll see Jeff’s words in italics below; I’ve taken the liberty of organizing his thoughts into a progression of five key moments of realization because I think they accurately represent the arc of marriage, at least from my own personal perspective.
#1. It starts with finding your true love.
Bridges meets his wife on a movie set in Montana in 1974. The first few times he asks her out she turns him down until one night he sees her in town and “we danced and I fell in love.” The very next day Bridges has an appointment to look at a house that’s for sale and he invites Sue to come along on what’s officially their first “date.”
#2. Next, you have to overcome the commitment-phobia.
Things progress, but like a lot of us guys, Jeff becomes frightened by the thought of marriage and a life-long commitment. You begin to wonder: Is this really the one? What if I fall out of love? What if another woman comes along that I love more?
I felt cornered, not by Sue but by myself. I couldn’t bear to let the love of my life slip through my fingers, but at the same time I was afraid of declaring: This is the one! To make a long story short, I finally got the courage to ask Sue to marry me, with the secret caveat that I could always get a divorce.
Bridges eventually reaches one of those “Oh no, what have I done?” states of mind during their first year of marriage. Sue picks up on it and offers to annul the marriage if he doesn’t want it. Bridges response is “No, no.” In his words, it takes a couple of years but “I finally got with the program.”
#3. In time, you see the depth and beauty of married life.
Once you get past the first few shaky years, you find your relationship growing stronger, the roots growing deeper. You have a perception shift where you no longer see what you’re missing, but see the beauty in all that you have. This was especially true in my case when our first child came along.
You close one door, the door to all other women, but you open a door that leads to a long hallway lined with doors. Incredible doors like children, grandchildren, deeper intimacy with the woman you love, and so many other things that would not be available to you without marriage, without the water under the bridge…thank God I went for it.
#4. You engage in epic battles—and the marriage endures.
Like all of us who have been married for a while, you know that it’s not always bliss, especially if you both have strong personalities and opinions. Arguments and disagreements are bound to happen. The real test is in how you handle them.
We do have one ancient war that comes up again and again, which basically runs like this: “You don’t get it; you just don’t get me; you don’t understand.” And that’s true. I don’t entirely know Sue or her perspective, I never will. And she won’t know me or where I’m coming from, really, entirely…but as this ancient war rages, with each battle it becomes more apparent that this inability to truly know the other’s perspective is what we have in common.
#5. Come hell or high-water, you’re in it for the long-haul.
With time you know that even the “ancient wars” can’t give you a big enough reason to split. You have an unbreakable bond. An occasional storm may hit, it may even cause damage to the home that is your relationship, but the foundation stays rock-solid. And you become expert at repairing the home, each time making it a little stronger.
Knowing that we learn to take our differences and not so seriously, we open up…I now find that when the war raises its head again, I feel: “Great, here it is again, now we get to learn how to love each other even more.”
And a final thought on marriage, one I couldn’t put any better than the Dude himself:
What is marriage? You’re setting an overall context: “Okay, we’re going to jam. We’re going to experience all our stuff, I’m going to get pissed at you and you’ll get pissed back, but we’ll be in a marriage. We know we’ll have tough times, but we’re doing it all together.”
This post originally appeared in Elephant Journal, July 12, 2013.