Note: I wrote this little essay today over about three or four hours. It could probably use some revision, and later on I bet dollars to donuts I will think of other things to say. But I wanted to publish it today, as today is my 36th wedding anniversary. Here it is, in its current form.
I posted on Facebook this afternoon, against a backdrop of pink and an overlay of floating red heart shapes, “36 years of married bliss today.” It’s true, my partner and I have been married for 36 years. It’s not true, though, that every single moment of those 36 years has been blissful. I would hope none of my Facebook friends would take that post too literally. As I get older, I become less and less romantic or sentimental about my long-lasting marriage and I am typically bugged by people with long-lasting marriages who claim to still feel head over heels in love with their partners. I don’t know why that bugs me, exactly—either because I am envious or because it feels disingenuous. I mean, there is no question in my mind that I love my wife deeply and am ever grateful that she continues to be in my life. But I am not head over heels in love with her. I am happy when she comes into the room, but I’m not swooning. I don’t want to speak for her, but I bet she feels similarly and likewise unsentimental about 36 years of marriage. Exhibit A: she is off, a hundred miles away right now, teaching at a marching percussion camp with her tribe of drummers and I am home alone. With the dogs. This is not a problem. Did we celebrate early because we knew we wouldn’t be together? No, we got some take-out. Will we have a big celebration when she returns in a few days? It remains to be seen. As far as I know, there are no plans in the works. And yet, we love each other.
Marriages that last a long time are somewhat of an anomaly. Over the last few decades divorce has become ubiquitous. I make no value judgement about that fact. Some people should not stay married, and, of course, that’s their choice to make. I think in my parent’s generation, depression era babies, folks who lived through World War II, a lot of marriages lasted unhappily because divorce was not socially acceptable and women did not have the freedom or agency that they do now. I think the hidden secret life of my own parent’s marriage experience was, in their time, most unusual—a story that I won’t go into here but one that I am attempting to work into a memoir. Suffice it to say that after a monumentally rocky beginning, a beginning that would have ended forever most modern couplings, my parents stayed married until death did them part, and my mother, who lived about seven years longer than my dad, was loyal and loving to him to the very end. Some of her last words in this life were about joining my father, her beloved Glenny, in the hereafter. Their love for each other was deep and abiding, tender, kind, attentive, but not romantic or overly sentimental.
So, if, in my view, being madly in love after 36 or 40 or 50 years is not a real thing, what is it that makes a marriage a happy one? What is it that makes a marriage last? What’s the benefit of having a forever partner? What is the nature of love after several decades post courtship? You can read all of this stuff in Psychology Today, I bet, and I’m sure there are a half a dozen Ted Talks on the subject. I would like to field these questions without referencing any of that. I’m living it. I don’t need somebody else with a degree to describe or prescribe anything to me.
I wonder if the recipe for a long-lasting love relationship is almost pedestrian—kind of no-brainer-common-sense type stuff—but, given the failure of so many relationships, that’s probably not the case, unless most of us lack the common sense. I’m not willing to go there just yet despite the compelling evidence. I will attempt to spell out the recipe, admitting, of course, that it’s our recipe and no one else’s. More accurately, it’s my recipe. My partner in crime might come up with a very different list. Here are some of the things we do that might explain our longevity:
- We are kind to one another.
- We care about each other’s physical and emotional well-being, and we take good care of each other when it’s needed.
- We are supportive of each other’s goals and dreams.
- We enjoy each other’s company.
- We laugh together.
- We say, “I love you” with some regularity, maybe often.
- We make music together, literally.
- We have deep interests in common, but . . .
- We pursue our own interests without expectation that the partner will be as enthusiastic or even share the experience of that interest with us.
- We are supportive of and celebrate each other’s successes even though we may not share in that success.
- We are not solely dependent on each other for our individual happiness and contentedness.
- We do not make large financial decisions independently.
- We do our best to share household responsibilities.
- We do our best to share child-rearing responsibilities.
- We express our anger, but do not often fight; fighting has made up a tiny fraction of our experience together.
- We argue without yelling 90% of the time.
- We don’t argue a lot.
- We apologize to each other when mistakes are made, or feelings are hurt.
- We forgive each other these kinds of trespasses.
- We have transcended together seemingly insurmountable difficulties—in other words, when it might have been easier and more expedient to call it quits, we dug in to do the work that needed to be done toward real clarity, individually and together. We stay together not by obligation, but by choice.
Okay, well, this is what I come up with. It must be said, though, that our relationship is not a perfect one. A perfect relationship is not a thing. We annoy each other. We frustrate each other. We cannot help sometimes wishing that our partner was a little more this or that, or a little less this or that. And those things are hard to say and maybe unnecessary or unhelpful. Some longings might be unfulfilled. Maybe we no longer consider each other hot. Maybe we are too independent and the time we spend together could be deepened or enriched. Maybe we are too much like ships passing. Maybe. You know, there’s always work to do, ways in which the marriage could be stronger, and the goal is to avoid complacency and resignation even into what might be the last third of a lifetime. That’s not easy stuff, but it is important work.
But there is great comfort in the stability; in the sense or the feeling of a committed partnership; in the sense of having found a home with another person, in another person; in the richness of a history together that, counting the courtship, is four decades deep. In this moment of my life, feeling her absence and eager for her return, I wouldn’t trade that kind of comfort for the world.