02/14/2014 06:03 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2014

Just Keep Swimming

by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

When Lynne Cox was a little girl on her swim team in New Hampshire, she never wanted to get out of the pool. She wasn't the fastest, and she rarely won races, but that didn't matter; she was still always the last to get out of the water. In her book, Swimming to Antarctica, she tells the story of one particularly blustery morning. All the other 8-year-olds on the team were complaining about the cold water, the cool air, and the discomfort they felt in the pool. Their coach, reluctant to call off the practice, offered them a trade: They could get out and dry off if they spent extra time on calisthenics in the locker room. They took him up on it and scurried inside--everyone except Lynne. She asked if she could keep swimming.

Turns out that Lynne's slower strokes and her naturally buoyant body allowed her to remain at a comfortable temperature in cold water longer than the others. Her teammates routinely passed her when completing their laps, then stopped swimming and lingered by the side of the pool. Because of their inactivity, and because most didn't have as much body fat, they would quickly begin to cool down.

But one of Lynne's coaches recognized her ability to withstand the cold and simply endure being in the water longer than most swimmers--and Lynne began to understand that her pace and her body type were assets, not liabilities. She drew on those assets as she trained for the more challenging, longer, colder swims she would come to love. Starting at age 15, Lynne Cox began a career in which she would set and break numerous cold-water swim records. Swimming to Antartica documents many of her incredible achievements and natural accommodations her body seemed to make to all manner of cold-water conditions.

So what does this have to do with Valentine's Day? In a word: nothing. But in another way, I keep thinking about love and marriage, and about Lynne and her determination to stay the course. My parents were married for nearly 52 years before my dad died; many of their friends had been married longer. Just a few months ago, their good friends celebrated 60 years together. I like to think of those couples as the long-distance swimmers of love, if you will. Maybe all of them decided, consciously or not, decades ago, that their marriages would withstand even the coldest of times.

Seems to me that staying together is a choice couples make every day, year in and year out, whether they acknowledge it or not. Sure, you may have repeated the "in good times and in bad" pledge with sincere intentions, but who can imagine what "the bad" could possibly be over the next few decades? Sometimes it feels so very easy to remain true to that commitment. Some days it feels very hard. Some years it feels very hard. No one tells you that. But I'll bet if someone asked my parents or their friends, they would say, "Of course it's hard! You have your good times and your bad times, and that's your marriage. It's called life, and it gets stormy and cold from time to time. Why would you expect sun every day?"

Even so, marriages end. Some of them should--those with no "good times." They're toxic; or they're relentlessly hurtful and debilitating. They destroy people, dreams, and even other relationships. They don't build, and nothing good can come from a relationship that robs you of something very precious: Yourself.

But ending a marriage, even a destructive one, is a sad time. Couples may quietly mourn what might have been, even when they know it's impossible. It's a loss for everyone around them.

Couples like my parents and their friends, couples who stay the course through tide and weather, understand something many of us don't about marriage and partnership and loyalty. That's not to say they never considered calling it quits or separating. I'll bet at least some of them did. But the fact remains that they've spent a lifetime together. These champions of long-time love never jumped out of the pool because of cool breezes or cloudy skies. They didn't start looking for another way to keep warm when they began shivering.

Was that the best choice?

I don't know. But I do know this: They just kept swimming, and they got to shore together.

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates--and broods about--life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, "Really? You're kidding me, right?" (Or wants to, anyway) and welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

For more from Maria Rodale, visit