I wrote a book filled with advice about how to have a great and lasting marriage. It’s a pretty good book, and if you don’t own it, you should click here and buy it right now. But let’s be honest, what do I know? I’ve only been married 5 years! The joke’s on you! My parents, on the other hand, have been married–to each other–for 43 years. It’s nauseating, but it does kind of makes them experts. So after I read author Lydia Netzer‘s take on how to stay married 15 years, I thought I’d ask my parents how they managed to get to 43 years and counting. I also asked them for $10,000. Here’s what they said:
1. Don’t overthink it.
2. Don’t think of it as work. (like the advice that relationships take work, you have to work at it, etc.) You already have a job. This is supposed to be the other part of your life. (see Rule #1)
3. Be prepared to make sacrifices. Our parents and grandparents got this (maybe because divorce was taboo), but succeeding generations are very entitled. So here’s what happens. You have to give up some personal life dreams and plans and ordinary expectations in order to accommodate someone else’s. Often. (Go to Argentina again instead of a cruise. Get a bouvier instead of a poodle. Live in a messy rather than neat house. Have a certain number of children. Not get a motorcycle. Live in the city. Live in Capri. Spend money on these things instead of those.) And then every time it happens you just have to do it. Maybe you trust that over the long haul it works out or maybe you just don’t even think about it after the decision is made (see Rule #1). Yes, you do have to draw a line in the sand sometimes (no driving the kids without seatbelts, no spending every single vacation with in-laws, no living in Pocatello). But that is not in the category of sacrifices. Expecting the other person to sacrifice does not mean asking the other person to go through hell. Don’t let it take too many years to figure out who should be the one to sacrifice something when the alternative is that the other will go through hell.
4. Be uncritical (even pleasant) about unintended slights and errors (see Rule #1). This may take a few years to operationalize. But don’t stop waiting for it.
1. Don’t overthink it. Consider what it means to the relationship that you frequently spend significant time mulling over a disagreement (whether ardently argued or simmering beneath the surface). After a while of this, it’s worth considering comparing the priority of the subject of disagreement to the many foibles we carry about us, seemingly with no concerns for the effects on others. If it’s a habit, overthinking could turn into a corrosive underlying rut that could say more about you than about your spouse. And, of course, this subject, as with all others, should be taken as guideline, not mantra.
2. Don’t think of it as work. Aristotle noted that “all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” I would suggest questioning the whole concept of the most essential relationships as work. It’s so American to think in these terms, a derivative of the culture of entitlement. Work is friggin’ work. Relationships demand (unpaid) time.
3. Be prepared to make sacrifices. See 2 above. ”Our parents and grandparents… :” what she said. However, I am mindful of the relationships in which one of the spouses came to the realization of being in a trap. I feel bad about them, and wish the taboo had not been so unforgiving.
4. Be uncritical…. See 1 above.
After reading the above, I got to thinking how very differently different generations define what it means to have a healthy marriage. All my grandparents are dead, but I’m confident they would answer my question differently than my parents did, and than I do (my bubby would no doubt list “Food” as the #1 necessity for any decent marriage, whereas I might say “Sex”). For all I know, people in the suburbs see it differently than those in the city, men differently than women, Swedes differently than Nigerians. Or am I just overthinking it, breaking my parents’ most important rule? What do you think it takes?