He says: I have not always treated them well. She says: There are question marks that you have to endure. For more than 50 years the Wiesners are a couple. How it works? Maybe only with renunciation.
At some point, after more than ten years of marriage, three children born, they are at the crossroads of their love. Secretly like an enemy, a feeling has spread inside them that prevents them from realizing the value of their happiness; instead, in the midst of the rush hour of their lives, their children are still young, their parents are getting old and dying, they register only the difficult sides of their partner.
Looking back, the man says: "A serious crisis." The woman says: "It was pointed to the button."
He wants to go to Paris, his profession is his vocation, she says: "No!" She feels his job is his true love. She already accompanied him to Heidelberg, she was with him in America, she doesn’t want to go from Berlin to Paris with three children to wait for her husband at home. Parents, relatives, yes, even their own sister, are horrified by their behavior, because they live in different times back then, at the end of the seventies it is socially unimaginable that the wife resists.
He goes. She stays. With this decision, they break with the conventions of the time.
Forty years later, Helen and Bernhard Wiesner sit across from each other in their house in Dahlem. Both have white hair, an elegant appearance, and both their smiles and their silence are wise to life. They are ready to talk about their love, their marriage and crises, if their real name is not in the newspaper. Helen and Bernhard Wiesner are a well-rehearsed team, self-confident yet modest, well acquainted with each other’s weaknesses and gifted with what one loves from the other and what the other gives. And has done so for more than 50 years. Last year they celebrated their golden wedding, boisterously, happily, with their three children and seven grandchildren and countless guests. Helen and Bernhard Wiesner seem to be freed from all doubts. They say: "Maybe we reinvented our love in the crisis."
70 percent of Germans believe in eternal love
Spring and summer are the boom times for weddings. And Germans are more willing to get married again. For the first time since 2000, the number of marriages rose to more than 400,000 in 2015, and this trend continued in 2016. At the same time, fewer couples are getting divorced, 162,397 in 2016 – the lowest number since 1993. In Berlin, the trend is similar, more marriages are taking place, the number of divorces is decreasing. However, there is also a very pragmatic reason for this: in 2009, the legislature introduced the compulsory year of separation, and overall the costs of divorce have risen. "That’s when people prefer to live separately, but not divorced," says an expert from the State Statistics Office. Nevertheless, Germans, at least before marriage, are very romantic in their ideas; for years, surveys have shown that more than 70 percent of respondents believe in love for life.
But how do you manage?
In the Wiesners’ memory, the positive is omnipresent and predominates; after all, they have skipped over their abysses. But Bernhard Wiesner, like his wife born in 1940, has one more sentence to say at the end of this conversation: "Without Helen, I would be nothing, I would not be here in this house." Silence. "But I didn’t always treat her well." Silence. "That grumbles inside me."
He looks up, looks at her, she smiles mildly. She is a controlled woman who can still laugh as boisterously as a young girl. She replies: "Love is not fleeting, nor is it just romantic; it is always different, at best new. Love in a marriage must be constantly acquired."
Bernhard Wiesner wants to explain what distinguishes his wife, what she has done, she calls out, "Bernhard …, may I tell you myself …" Later, when she in particular takes the floor, he holds back. If he praises her, she is flattered, but does not like to let it be known. She is self-determined, every word, every gesture demonstrates it, she says that she always saw herself as equal, even if they both, man and woman, were not equal in everyday life. Now he hesitates, for he has first had to learn that the wife can be the breadwinner. At times. He says without irony and shame: "She basically raised me."
In the generation of Bernhard and Helen Wiesner, the understanding of the roles of men and women was still based on conventions – the woman had to conform. Divorce rates probably began to rise at the end of the 1960s for this reason; they were already as high in the 1970s as they are currently. Today, on the other hand, many couples are more equal in their marriage or their relationship, but in practice this often means that they want to live an ambitious ideal: not only to be equal, but also to be equal – equally successful, equally burdened, equally tired. Everyone does everything. Household, profession, education. Because everything should be possible. The roles, which once seemed clear, become mixed up. In the well-intentioned equality, there is a danger that the willingness to subordinate oneself to the other for the sake of love is also sometimes lost.
As the Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz puts it: "Pre-modern marriage was based on the power of implicit norms, on gender roles, on the tacit agreement about what men and women owed each other."In comparison, the modern marriage resembles a beehive of busy buzzing about how to improve one’s relationship with the means of conversation and the help of experts.
Is diversity in a relationship the better guarantee for love??
Helen and Bernhard Wiesner met in 1961 at the Free University of Berlin, he a chemistry student, she a history student, both active in the Protestant Student Community. At the first carnival party, she looks at him in horror, at his made-up eyes, his whole get-up, and thinks: "What a philanderer!."But he fascinates her. Later, while skiing on the Tauplitzalm in the Salzkammergut, there is a spark. "I was attracted to his tender care," she says. She had learned to assert herself, even against the views of her own father. He always encouraged her to disagree at home, but when she wanted to study, he preferred to send her to a domestic school in Switzerland. She counters: "I can also read cookbooks, I don’t have to study them."
He cleaned the windows – but the shutters were closed
She completes her first and second state exams as a teacher and wants to enter the profession, so he goes to Heidelberg to get his diploma there. He studies, she works there as a teacher. When her mother comes to visit one day, he demonstratively stands at the desk, checks the household expenses and remarks that there is money missing. Today, in her living room, Helen Wiesner shakes her head: "Back then, I was almost bursting with rage. I earn the money and he controls me.At some point she says to him, "You can also vacuum and do the laundry. He had never done that before. Once she comes home from school, the shutters are closed, inside loud music, he is happily cleaning the windows. He was too embarrassed to be seen as a man by the neighbors doing household chores.
Those were the times – times full of conventions and etiquette, which were mostly adhered to. Bernhard Wiesner was determined not to marry until he had his diploma. He had been brought up to believe that "as a man, you had to have something to show for it. He says of these pressures, both internal and external: "My faith has helped me not to lose myself."She says: "I was never afraid of life and its crises. I have always felt protected inside. My identity is based on trust."When she was a little girl, she fled with her mother and sister in 1944, from Danzig via Koslin to Stettin, and from there to Hamburg. The grandfather was a pastor, the father a lawyer and a strong personality. She says: "I had a choice: either I comply or I disagree."It started when she read the diary of Anne Frank at the age of 14 and never stopped.
Bernhard Wiesner grew up in Stuttgart with his mother and grandmother, and for the first eight years without his father, who was first in the war, then in captivity, and finally back in his hometown of Essen. It wasn’t until 1948 that the father found an apartment for all of them and brought the family from Stuttgart to live with him. "Family life had to be learned first," Wiesner recalls. Both parents have doctorates in philology, but the father is the patriarch of the house. The mother does not start working again until the early 1960s – household and children remain her tasks.
The Bible verse that Helen and Bernhard Wiesner chose for their wedding has always been a guiding principle for their lives: "Accept one another as Christ accepted you." So unconditionally. But that’s easier said than done for all the couples in the world. Helen Wiesner wanted to work, to have a career, to stand on her own two feet; at the same time, she saw how important the profession is for her husband, how good he is at it, how he thrives on it, and how it makes him happy. She had understanding for that.
Sitting in her chair in the living room in front of the bookshelf, Helen Wiesner formulates a life experience: "This gift of having come together at all is perhaps no longer seen as a value in itself today. Let’s put it this way: there are question marks that you have to endure, that you can’t dissolve, if you want to preserve love." Sociologist Eva Illouz finds that in our world saturated with knowledge, more "ambiguity makes sense" because it manages to "preserve our not-knowing of each other.". We should define dependence and inequality as something that does not threaten our freedom and love.
After her wedding in Heidelberg in 1967, Helen Wiesner wants to take off, she knows she has a talent for organizing, she dreams of maybe one day becoming a school principal. Then he comes, "I have a research grant to America, California, and you have to come with me." She answers: "I only come along pregnant, otherwise I have nothing to do there."
She renounces her own doctorate – he will later use the experience from the USA to help build up the Federal Environmental Agency in Germany, will become a federal civil servant and a sought-after expert in many places in the world. He says: "I was then, after all, the macho one who prevailed." She says: "Everybody was so proud of him, me too. So I went along the way, had his back. That was then already my decision. Of course out of love."
Until the crisis. Until he thought he had to leave again, even though he already had three children. Paris strikes Helen Wiesner rigorously. Instead, she builds a house in Berlin for her family from her grandfather’s inheritance. Looking back, she says, "I had to create clarity through this distance." He: "Soon it was clear that I had to decide. I went back to her and the children."
There are challenges that each couple must solve for themselves, such as how to resolve a stalemate of interests. Above all: how to forgive.
In the living room, there are pictures of the three sons, the daughters-in-law and grandchildren on the bookshelf. From the outside you see harmony and great happiness. What you don’t see is that this happiness and this love are based on hard arguments and tears. That doesn’t make it any less precious, any less romantic. She is also not more successful than others, she is who she is.
Philosopher Dieter Thoma, who has studied the history of the changing image of fathers, writes about modern parents: "Complaining about the double burden only cuts us off from our sources of happiness. These sources of happiness are children and profession."
So, as always, life is nothing but a point of view.
The Wiesners have one son in Hamburg, one in Frankfurt and one in Sydney. The grandfather of seven pulls out an album that the family gave them for their golden wedding anniversary. Each picture is a story, a memory, Helen Wiesner points to a black and white one: "Look, with bobblehead. He always wanted me to wear this."He: "I love the bob on you."
A new love can also be the old love
When the children are older, Helen Wiesner decides to go back to teaching after 20 years. Before that, she was involved in the church synod, in Aktion Suhnezeichen or in refugee work. Now Bernhard Wiesner murmurs softly in his armchair: "Was also necessary." Meaning: she needed this, and it did us good. It is the time shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Helen Wiesner goes to a high school in Weibensee with her subjects history and French. With her first paycheck, she buys a ticket and flies for a week to Mexico, where her husband is currently working. She comes back on a Sunday evening, Monday at six o’clock she has to leave for school. "I thought it was wonderful," she says.
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With the late, common professional period, another, new love begins with other conversations. Suddenly there is togetherness again, without children, together and yet autonomous. They go to the theater again, to the opera. And they begin to cultivate their circles of friends intensively. They enjoy playing the board game "Rabbit and Hedgehog" with the younger grandchildren. Bernhard Wiesner has been singing in the choir since his university days. And when Helen Wiesner talks about it, you can feel how proud she is of him. He says: "You can only sing if you open yourself up. Then it is liberating." It is probably the same with love.