Today is our wedding anniversary. We are not big on cards, flowers, or big celebrations; my parents weren’t, and they have been married for 48 years. It seems likely that we will soldier on without dramatic flourishes. I have also observed that the important work in a marriage goes on every single day, and that it is far more significant, in the great scheme of things, than some artificially-heightened hearts and flowers kind of affair. Instead of a card, I give my husband my full attention when he needs it, cover him up with a blanket and bring him tissues when he’s sick, and I raised my stepdaughter when she needed a mother. In addition to the card he just gave me (along with a copy of “Bazaar,” because he knows how I roll) my husband gives me compassion and a good ear even when I am ridiculous and hysterical, a big warm body to defrost my ice-block feet, and the feeling that I am always beautiful and desirable, even when I know I’m not. These are not gifts to be sneezed at.
Along the way, I have learned some things. Here they are, for what it’s worth; I do not pretend to have any secrets, or that we have some sort of “uber marriage,” but it seems mete and fitting, on this day of quiet, mutual love and appreciation, to pass along the diamonds of understanding that we’ve polished from the pile of iffy rocks that every marriage begins with. Some are cliché, but I will tell you this: sometimes, clichés are clichés precisely because they resonate with the experience of many people.
1. Focus on the marriage, not the wedding. This may seem to be an obvious thing, but I can’t tell you how many people I know who spent money they didn’t have, and months of time planning and stressing over an elaborate wedding, only to become divorced people within a few short years. I don’t remember my wedding; I had a new baby, I had just been in the hospital for two months, and aside from my dress (pretty) and the flowers (pretty) I don’t remember a thing. There were no bridesmaids, no flower girls, no venue, no DJ, no fancy cake, no reception, no updos, no manicures, no rehearsal dinners, and no diamonds with monthly payments. Nevertheless, like my parents “justice of the peace” wedding decades earlier, it “took.” I love weddings, and all that comes with them, but it seems like it’s more important to spend time making sure that you are marrying someone you can live with for a lifetime, than to spend time making sure that you have one beautiful day.
2. Work hard. Under what other circumstances would you take two people from different backgrounds, and in many instances different cultures, with diverse dreams and interests, and set them up to live together for all eternity, sharing everything and having to work together through a long series of high-stakes, complex issues? (Well, other than a reality series). I have discussed with a friend the fact that both of us, married for many years, have had days when we entertained thoughts of packing up, getting out and savoring our respective husbands’ realization that He Was Wrong and Should Grovel. I suspect that this fantasy is not confined to wives. If you want to be free to do as you please, and triumph in every conflict, you should be single. If you want to be a married person, and to build a relationship that you can live in for the rest of your life, you have to put that ahead of your own desires most of the time. Not, of course, if someone is physically or emotionally abusive, but if you are outraged by the fact that your spouse does not want to spend another Thanksgiving with your parents, and you are willing to fight to the death rather than give in…maybe you don’t get it.
3. Bite your tongue.I like to express myself, and I like to win. Oddly enough, my husband enjoys both of these things, too. Over the years, I have learned that sometimes it’s my turn to “win, and sometimes it is my turn to stop talking, say I understand and that I’m sorry, and move on. Interestingly, it is almost always better to stop talking and move on. This is very hard work; I not only like to win, but I like to concede and then, maybe 30 minutes later, bring up the hot topic again under the guise of “explaining it calmly,” which really means one more try at victory. It never, ever works. Unless the stakes are so high that you would be endangering the health and safety of yourself or a family member by giving in, it is usually better to stop yourself before you say the ugly thing, the “one thing too far,” the button-pushing thing. You know what those things are. They are not the things that NEED to be said, like “I am overwhelmed by the housework, and I feel like you should help more” but zingers, like “all you care about is your job.” If it’s not helpful, or factual, or kind, and you actually want to stay married…bite your tongue.
4. Don’t Be Twins. I am delighted when Rob and I discover a common interest, a television show we both enjoy, a book that we both read and discuss. Last summer, we started walking every day, and the post-walk talks were a great bonding time. On the other hand, we have different tastes in many things from politics to whether or not “Married with Children” is viable viewing. That’s fine. It really, really is. Neither of us surrendered our personality when we picked up the marriage license, and it would be incredibly dull to hurtle through eternity with someone who had no interests of his or her own. It’s good for married persons to have other friends, to go to book clubs, “girls nights,” lectures on wooden boat building…whatever sends you back home happy, engaged and ready to share that energy with the person back home.
5. Pay attention. If your best friend, or your best client was telling you something that was important to them, something that they really wanted you to know, would you be mentally going through your “to-do” list while they spoke? Familiarity breeds, if not actual contempt, a kind of laxity about making certain kinds of effort. You can say to yourself “he should know I have a million things to do,” but would you think that if your college roommate had called to tell you about her impossible mother in law? Well, you might, after 30 minutes, but you would never be rude enough to let her know that your attention had wandered. If you really can’t listen to what your spouse has to say because you are preoccupied, say so, take care of business and return ready to listen. Paying attention is often the path to someone’s heart in the first place; studies show that most spouses stray because someone else “listens.” Show your spouse the same courtesy you would show most people, and if you really need a rain check, say so before you get that glazed look.
6. Be nice. There is no one we are prouder of, and for whom our heart puffs more than our children and our spouses when they are pleasing to us. Leaving aside the children, I will remind you of the times when your spouse is dressed to kill and charming, and you are watching from a small distance, feeling all mushy and glow-y, or when he helps the lady with a baby and a toddler get everything out of the overhead storage bin, or when she tells you she has nothing under her trench coat, and the pockets contain Pistons tickets and beer. That’s when it’s easy to be nice. There are other times, times after an argument at night when his or her eloquently turned back makes you want to claw and rage, or the times when the chewing, breathing or mere existence of your beloved makes you want to climb the walls. Those are the times when you have to get tough with yourself and make it right by being the one who reaches out, forgives, or takes a walk and returns less critical and impatient. I find it helpful, in these situations, to think of my husband as a little boy, cute, innocent and vulnerable. (You probably aren’t love’s young dream when you chew, either).
7. Be loyal. Before I got married, my mother told me not to discuss my husband with other people, even (especially) in those cozy all-girl settings where it seems so natural and everyone else is doing it. It’s okay, if not optimal, to go along with the crowd by saying that your husband doesn’t feed the kids healthy meals when you’re not home, or that your wife has a serious obsession with attending candle parties. My test is that if whatever you say about your spouse will make the listener(s) even a little bit uncomfortable the next time they see him, keep your mouth shut. You can’t make them forget that they heard it, they probably won’t forget it. If its truly terrible and a deal-breaker, talk to a therapist, clergy or an attorney. If not, the person you should be talking to is your spouse.
8. Want to be married. If you wanted to get a black belt, learn to knit, or speak Mandarin, you would understand that it would take time and work and energy. For some reason, marriage (which is infinitely harder) is sold to us as a thing that should unfold organically in a swathe of rose-strewn white organdy. If it was easy, well, you know…..