My husband and I just celebrated a milestone anniversary–our 40th.
We married when we were 21 and 22, respectively, after meeting five years before in summer camp. In my senior year of high school, even while dating other people, I knew I wanted to marry him. I didn’t have a “list” or set of criteria like so many women seem to have now. I didn’t analyze, intellectualize, or speculate on his earning potential or what kind of father he would be. I just jumped, taking a leap of faith that remarkably, astonishingly, and awesomely paid off.
Over the decades I have learned a lot about marriage, from my own experience and from observing other people. These are some of my conclusions; some things I think people should know before they get married:
1. Know that you will not always be happy.
2. Don’t expect your spouse to fulfill all your needs. Women, especially, should make sure to keep their friends.
3. Trite but true: pick your battles. The raised toilet seat, dirty socks on the lamp, the incessant humming just may be with you forever. Corollary: You will have to keep your mouth shut A LOT.
4. Yelling and screaming is a really, really bad way to confront a problem. Find another way with your spouse (and your kids). It’s OK (and healthy) for your kids to see their parents disagree, but keep the volume down and the tone respectful.
5. Never be disrespectful to each other, especially around other people. Part of your job is to build each other up and believe in each other. If your spouse denigrates you and is emotionally withholding (not to mention physically or emotionally abusive), well, that’s one good reason to think seriously about leaving.
6. It’s an old saying, but also true: Don’t go to bed angry. And don’t walk out the door angry, either. An older woman I knew told me that when her husband left for work one day, it was the last time she ever saw him. He was hit, and killed, by a car as he crossed the street.
7. You don’t need to have the same interests as your spouse. It’s OK not to do everything together. In fact it may be healthier not to.
8. Give your spouse permission and space to pursue his/her own interests, and let him/her reciprocate.
9. You will need to negotiate your parenting patterns and present a common front. You will need to work through your own childhood traumas so you don’t re-enact them with your kids. Help each other be the best parent you can be with careful deliberation, honest observation and frequent discussion.
10. There is probably no way for a married man or woman to have a really close relationship with someone of the opposite sex. If you want someone to stay in your life, become “couple friends.”
11. DON’T have an affair. No matter what. No matter how you’re feeling, no matter what you’re going through. Just DON’T. It will affect you, your spouse, your kids, and whoever knows about it in a very destructive way. If you have to, first break up the marriage and then go sleep with whoever floats your boat.
12. You are probably not missing much on the “outside.” Except for unusual circumstances (abuse, affair, etc.) there is probably nothing and no one “better out there.” Being single when you’re older, when you have children, is not easy. Try everything you can, including individual and couples therapy, to stay together. It may not work, the marriage may not be salvageable, but give it your best shot, over and over, until you’re sure it’s dead.
13. Sex changes. At some point, you will probably lose the feelings you had when you first met. The steamy feelings will, one day, be hot flashes. You will see changes, especially after childbirth and as you age. Everyone seems to pretend otherwise, but it comes with the territory. You will find lots of ways to show love and to be close physically. And those books which advise you to try something new–well, after a couple of decades together, you can probably write those books. Don’t catastrophize the changes.
14. At some point(s), you will feel very much alone. And when you do, you will feel more alone than you could ever imagine feeling. You may even fall out of love. But, in my opinion, if you stick it out, remember why you fell in love in the first place, concentrate on the investment you have made with your spouse, the years together, the children you’ve raised, the life you created, you may fall back in love and re-commit to going forward.
My bottom line: you can feel disconnected, you can get to the point where you dislike each other, you can fall out of love. But, if you still have respect for each other and can laugh together, you can get through the rough times. And then you’ll continue to re-invent your marriage, again and again.