In a couple of weeks I will celebrate my 44th wedding anniversary. I’m not bragging. Honestly, I feel lucky that I didn’t screw it up, when I think how very young and immature and needy I was at the outset. Like all marriages, mine dodged a few bullets along the way and should be considered a work in progress, but I have developed a few ideas of what it takes to be successful.
1. Make sure the story you are composing as a couple is one you will want to inhabit for a long time.
We met and married while still in college. Upon graduation, I went to graduate school and my wife supported us financially. When I finished my graduate degree she talked about going to medical school and I was (selfishly) not very enthusiastic about her making that much of a commitment to something that wasn’t me. I remember the discussion very well. We went back and forth for a long time and since we both wanted to have children I pressed my case with what I thought was an indisputable argument.
Husband: “Do the math. After four years of medical school and three years of residency you will be 33-years-old.”
Wife: (After a brief silence) "In seven years I will be 33 no matter what. The only question is whether I will arrive at that age as a doctor.”
She went to medical school. History has validated the wisdom of this choice. Of course, at the time neither of us knew how this would work out. Now we know that had we written our story as: “I talked her out of going to medical school and she always felt some resentment about this,” things might have turned out very differently for our marriage.
2. Work out the major, inevitable and recurring issues sooner rather than later.
Scene: a dark and cold apartment in midwinter. We have just returned home after a long day at work. Both are tired, hungry and cranky.
Husband: “What’s for dinner?”
Wife: “Why are you asking me what’s for dinner? I just got home too.”
Heated words follow this exchange. Then...
Husband: (Pounds the counter with his palm) “I want a wife!”
Wife: “I want one too!”
At this point the tension broke and we laughed for a long time. We understood that what we both wanted when we got home from an exhausting day was not a “wife” but a “mother” (preferably one who had been baking cookies all afternoon). From that point on we had a schedule for “who was doing what,” particularly regarding meals. The schedules change and we can’t always keep on track, but at least we have spared ourselves the stress of repeating this entirely predictable and dumb argument.
3. Experiences are more important than things.
In the early days of our marriage, we “made do” with hand-me-down furniture. I wanted to buy a new sofa for our living room. She wanted to take the money and go on vacation. We agreed that we could not afford both.
Husband: “Look, the vacation, and its enjoyment, will be over in a few days. If we buy the sofa we will have it and enjoy it for years.”
Wife: “At some point in our future the sofa will be sitting in a dump but we will have the memories of our vacation forever. Our shared experience is nonperishable.”
Duh! We went somewhere beautiful and warm to escape an endless Michigan winter and created memories of being relaxed and carefree together. (Note: Some years later we did replace that ratty sofa with a new one, which eventually found its way to the dump as did some of its successors.)
4. Mind-reading belongs in the circus, not in a marriage.
I had a client years ago who spoke wistfully about her wish that her husband would bring her yellow roses. He never did. When I asked her whether she had told him how much this meant to her she said: “Oh no. That would ruin it. That would take all the romance out of it.” Eventually she told him how important it was to her. He was shocked. Why hadn’t she told him so? After that, like clockwork, he started bringing her a dozen yellow roses every Friday night. And she was delighted. It turned out asking him to bring her yellow roses did not take the joy out of it.
5. It is sometimes better to see your role as a “pain killer” than a “problem fixer.”
OK ... at this point, you may be thinking (and I agree) that my wife has done most of the heavy lifting here. So let me chalk one up in the husband’s column.
While I have sometimes been a pain, I have more often been a pain killer. Along with the shared responsibilities, experiences and joys of marriage, there is the steady unfolding of life’s disappointments, losses and frustrations. Seeing my wife’s distress is a signal for me to slow down and take the time to listen very carefully. I resist the male impulse to try to “fix” her problem, and instead focus on being honest, supportive and absolutely present in the moment with her.
On these occasions I become, with apologies to Karl Marx, the opiate of the Mrs.
If one of the side effects of this “drug” is that it keeps her from remembering exactly how misguided I have been on other occasions (see above) so be it.
After all, this formula is still demonstrating its value after 44 years of clinical trials.
This program aired on December 27, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.