I’m not an expert on marriage. I’m not even much of a cheerleader for the institution of marriage. Weeks shy of my 22nd anniversary, I’m still not entirely convinced that marriage is all that good an idea.
It has its advantages, of course. I remember plenty of lonely dinnertimes during the (many) years I lived alone, and how envious I was of my married friends, who I imagined were at that very moment sitting convivially with their beloveds and clinking glasses and entertaining each other with stories they’d brought home from their respective workdays. I also remember plenty of nights when scary noises in my apartment — and, later, my too-big-for-one old house — had me wide awake, heart racing, and feeling immeasurably sorry for myself. And then there’s the whole two heads being better than one thing, the way couples can reflexively check in with each other about decision-making. And the fact that two people who can live companionably together for a long time and work out an equitable division of labor and look after each other and keep each other company in their middle and then old age, not to mention bearing or adopting children and raising them together (see above: two heads better than one) and launching them into the world together successfully, really may end up happier than they would have been otherwise. But it’s also true that living with another person day after day, year after year (decade after decade) is hard. I don’t know why anyone would pretend it isn’t.
It’s hard for a multiplicity of reasons. For some people, monogamy is hard (and for some people, monogamy is hard for a while and then suddenly it gets easy; and for some people, monogamy is easy for a while and then suddenly it gets hard). For some people, monogamy is never a problem — it’s having another person around (day after day, year after year, etc.) that’s hard. And it’s true that living with the same person for a long time means the ordinary everyday disagreements you’re bound to have from time to time with anyone with whom you’re close turn into familiar grinding routines (the same argument again and again and again! Your life is just like Groundhog Day!) until they’ve worn such a deep rut into the road you’re traveling on it feels as if you can’t steer out of it — or, if you somehow manage to, you’ll lose control of the vehicle and crash.
If I’m an expert on anything, it’s on living alone. I lived alone for 17 years before I met my husband, and I was good at it. I’ve been much less good at marriage (just ask my husband: he says I’m “very hard to get along with”). But it’s easier to be good at living alone, easier to be easy to get along with when the only person you have to get along with, the only one you have to adjust to spending so much time with, is yourself.
Still, I like being married and I’m glad I did it. And even though my husband and I have almost nothing “in common” and you’d be hard pressed to find two people born and raised in the U.S. of A. whose backgrounds are more unlike each other’s (and even harder pressed to find two people more unlike each other than we are, temperamentally), we have what I think virtually anyone would recognize as a “good marriage.”
And that’s what qualifies me to speak on the subject of good long-term marriages. Because if a taciturn, shy, introverted small town Southern Baptist preacher’s son with a taste for punk rock and heavy metal and the Dallas Cowboys, and a longing to return to Texas, where he spent half his life, and a gregarious, extroverted Brooklyn Jew whose idea of a good time is to invite 20 friends over for dinner (and queue up a mix of pop, R&B, jazz standards, and Grateful Dead for background music, and hope there’ll be dancing after food) and is happiest in New York City can figure out how to have a good marriage, surely anyone can.
So here goes. Think of this as advice from a reluctant but successful wife.
1. Take note of the things that drive you most crazy about your husband/wife. And then think about this: whatever those things are, they weren’t the stuff that you fell in love with him/her despite. I guarantee this: they were the real, deep-down reasons you fell in love in the first place. Whatever attracts you to someone is going to be what ends up infuriating you most. I have never known there to be a single exception to this rule.
2. Pay attention to your differences and appreciate them, if at all possible — and if that’s not possible, make peace with them. (It still drives me mad that my husband doesn’t care what he eats, that he doesn’t notice the difference between a risotto I’ve spent all day on and a microwaved “baked” potato with melted pre-shredded cheddar cheese. So I cook to please myself and I stopped hoping for praise and delight from him.)
3. Pay attention to the way the differences help to balance your life: their ying to your yang. Take a moment from time to time to be grateful for that balance, and recognize that if (for example) life were a constant social whirl, or there was nonstop conversation in your home, you wouldn’t get any work done. Or be able to hear yourself think.
4. Instead of battling over who does what and who does more around the house — one of the most divisive issues for couples — or devising a 50-50 split for all the chores, actually think about who is good at what (or at least who is less terrible at it), and see if it’s possible to divide things up that way. I fought with my husband about housework for years; we never fight about it anymore. We can (just barely) manage to afford to have someone in for three hours once a week to clean, because neither of us wants to and neither of us is any good at it, so we live with dustballs and sticky floors between her visits (well, I live with them; he doesn’t notice, and if he notices, he doesn’t care); I do all the cooking, because I’m good at it; he fixes everything that breaks or doesn’t work quite right (and lots of things break or don’t work right — we live in a 100-year-old house); we both do laundry, haphazardly, and only when we’re completely out of clean clothes; he hauls trash, makes the coffee, maintains the cars; I do the grocery shopping.
5. Stop waiting and hoping for your wife or husband to change. They are who they are. That’s why you married them.
6. But if he — or she — does change in some ways as the years pass (and people do, at their own pace, for their own reasons, having nothing to do with your wanting them to or pushing them to), marvel over those changes, enjoy them as well as you can even if you see them as negative changes (she used to read novels, now she only reads Buzzfeed; he used to go running and now the only exercise he gets is taking out the trash or mowing the lawn after you’ve reminded him 27 times), and take a little time to think about how you may have changed too, possibly even without realizing it, before you accuse your once-beloved of pulling a bait-and-switch. (I used to never watch TV — I disdained TV; the only reason we had a television at all was so my husband could watch his beloved Dallas Cowboys play — and now I turn the TV on almost every night, because by 9 o’clock I’m tired of thinking, tired of reading, tired of talking — and because the soap opera shenanigans on Nashville, the twists and turns of The Good Wife, and the banter of The Big Bang Theory comfort me.)
7. Have reasonable expectations and periodically check in with yourself about them. This isn’t unrelated to any of the above, really — it’s just a more general way of thinking about it. What is it you want from your partner, anyway? Why did you get together with him or her to begin with? If you had the idea that one person was going to satisfy your every need — well, then, think again. It’s never too late to reconsider that fallacy. We are, all of us, complicated people. We have a multiplicity of needs and each of us has a multiplicity of abilities, gifts, traits, capacities. We’re not built to be fit together like key and lock, or like jigsaw puzzle pieces; we’re not designed to complete each other (despite what the rom-coms that I’m mad for and that my husband detests tell us). Any two people, no matter how close, no matter how much they love and depend on each other, will always be two separate people. When you first fall in love, it doesn’t seem that way, flooded with love hormones as you are. But once that gauzy oh my god this is amazing cloud of happiness dissipates and you can begin to see each other clearly — which is the first make-or-break time in every relationship (do you actually like each other once you really see each other?) — the reality that you will always see the world through two pairs of separate eyes sets in. Early on, those two pairs of eyes may well be fixed on exactly the same thing from the same distance, but that won’t always be true. Keeping this in mind will save you a lot of heartache. And possibly a divorce.
8. But there are ways in which you will have to act as a unit. Or a team, if you will. If you have a child, you will have to come to terms of some kind about how to raise your child. You won’t necessarily always be on the same page. Concentrate on what’s good about these differences (see balance, above). Keep in mind that two different perspectives will only enlarge the way your child experiences the world. And come together as a team whenever your kid is any kind of trouble, setting aside those differences in perspective as you instead see things from your child’s point of view.
9. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what conventional wisdom tells us is the single most contentious issue for couples, and that is money. My husband and I are lucky — we have very similar attitudes toward money (spend it if you’ve got it, don’t if you don’t, and, um, what’s a savings account again?). And when I say we’re lucky I don’t mean that money isn’t a problem (people without savings have problems, let me tell you, and I don’t recommend it as a way of life). I just mean that we’ve never had a reason to argue about it. Not once. Not even during the many years when I’m bearing the entire burden of supporting us (he’s an artist — a painter — and some years he sells paintings or is awarded grants for his work and some years he doesn’t/isn’t). I believe in him, I trust that he’s doing the best he can, and I want him to devote his time and energy to making his beautiful, fascinating paintings. And I’m lucky (luck again!) because I have a job — teaching creative writing — that I love. If I didn’t love my job, I’m pretty sure we would argue about money. I’d be resentful. So in this way we have been spared the usual bitterness about money, I suppose. But because we’re so often broke — we live from one of my paychecks to the next — we certainly could fight about money if we were so inclined. I truly believe the “secret” is that neither of us care about it very much, that both of us have lived on much, much less than we live on now and that we both feel confident we could downsize very easily if we had to. We don’t have expensive tastes, either. So while I can’t tell you how to fix problems concerning money, because I have no experience with those problems, I can tell you this, with certainty: check in with each other early on about your attitudes about money. If one of you is a saver and one of you is a spendthrift, if one of you expects to be supported and the other is content to earn the bare minimum necessary to live — or not equipped to earn more than that — you’d do better not to get married in the first place.
10. To make up for that depressing piece of advice, let me offer something cheerful to follow it. Conventional wisdom also says that, besides money, the other biggest predictor of trouble is religion. Especially once children are in the picture. I’m here to say it doesn’t have to be. As a non-believing Jew who nevertheless values all the customs of the faith of her birth (holding a Passover seder, building a sukkah, lighting Chanukah candles) married to a very much believing Southern Baptist with no interest in ritual or customs but a profound faith in God — who managed to raise a child who behaves ethically and is genuinely interested in both Christianity and Judaism — I can only tell you that the conventional wisdom is sometimes just plain wrong.
11. This is the second most important thing I have to say. So I’m going to say it in italics. Ride it out. What I mean by this is: if things are not going well between you but you think you might want to stay married — for any reason at all (because you hate the idea of getting divorced, because you have children and don’t want to put them through a divorce, because you’re aware that chances are that a brand new shiny relationship is going to eventually lead to exactly the same, or almost the same, or completely different but just as difficult problems that you’re having now) — and you care about the person you married and wish things were better between you but can’t figure out how to make them better… ride it out. Just sticking together and holding on may actually make them get better. Give it time. Don’t be in such a hurry to change your life.
12. But here’s the thing: if you didn’t actually like each other very much in the first place, what I’ve just said won’t be true. So this is the first most important thing I have to say. Don’t marry anyone you don’t actually like and respect. And don’t roll your eyes — don’t mutter, “Well, like I didn’t know that.” Because lots of people don’t seem to know that. If you’re “in love” but you haven’t checked in with yourself about the liking and respecting part? You’re doomed. Nothing I’ve said here will help. Otherwise? You’ll be able to weather pretty much anything — if you really want to. Which is the last thing I’ll mention.
13. Make sure you want to be married. Because — as noted — it’s not always going to be easy. But there isn’t much in life that’s easy that’s also actually worth doing over the long haul, is there? Easy gets boring.
14. Don’t be boring.