I gave my boyfriend a fridge magnet that reads “Marriage is having someone who will die for you. . . If you don’t kill them first.”
The famous Henny Youngman one-liner in the title, like all great jokes, is funny because it is true. So many couples drown in mutual resentment. To paraphrase either Henry Rollins or Chuck Palahniuk (the quote is lodged in my mind but its source proves elusive), they are “killing each other with the mundanities of daily life.”
We are not married, it is true, even after nearly ten years together; I am probably the more reticent one, having already given it an abysmal attempt once before. . . But my reluctance is largely financial, since it cost me almost twenty grand to get out of the last one.
I do believe in marriage, though, even if I have no parental model and my own first was a failure. Not necessarily the religious or paperwork sort, but at least the idea of finding someone you don’t mind spending forever with. Strike “don’t mind”: WANT to.
I grew up with several incredible examples in my extended family of cousins-once-removed and family friends. Emily Esfafani Smith’s Atlantic article Masters of Love ( http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/ ) discusses a longitudinal study of what observable traits make a difference in the “three in ten” of those who have wed who “remain in happy, healthy marriages.”
Unsurprisingly, an undercurrent of mutual support seems to be key, but I had not thought about the body language aspect: That couples who do not last often do not physically turn toward one another when communicating. (A simplification of an excellent study and a fascinating examination, to be sure. . . It is worthwhile reading!)
Anecdotally rather than scientifically speaking, the loving, lasting marriages I know of seem to be what I think we all hope for: Best friends forever. A clever division of labor never hurts, either. My aunt has made all of the (delicious and precisely, impeccably planned) meals and my uncle has done all of the dishes for some thirty-nine amicable years.
My boyfriend’s grandmother’s near last words to us were “take care of each other. Love each other.” Which, naturally, sent both of us into sobbing fit. Then we remembered that she had previously told us that the secret to a happy marriage is just finding “someone whose bullshit you can put up with.” Which helped us to smile through our tears.
My favorite boat captain and his lovely wife will tell you, more specifically, the secret is DATE NIGHT. Raising their son while living and working in the most isolated of places for many years, they made it a point to schedule some special time away from their usual routine every single week, without fail. It seems to be like exercise. . . Keep up the habit and it is easy to get moving. Slack for a while and suddenly re-starting seems insurmountable. Thirty-plus years in, she still smiles at him like she knows a secret, and he still looks at her like she is the prom queen he can’t believe he has scored.
Something else I have noticed: Each of the individuals in the good marriages I am thinking of is creatively or professionally fulfilled. More so than most of us who have settled for careers quite far from our passions! I wonder whether it is partly that they are happier overall because they are pursuing meaningful work and have encouraged each other’s artistic or otherwise satisfying activities (despite the potential economic consequences)?
My uncle insists that his wife (she of the perfect dinners) “solved most of my problems by marrying me,” and their incredible unity through the most adverse of experiences makes me suspect he may be the one person for whom Rebecca Webber’s Psychology Today article “Are You With the Right Mate ( https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201112/are-you-the-right-mate ) might ring hollow. For the rest of us, she points out, there is almost certainly no one person who will magically not annoy us or make us question if we have made the right decision. We can fantasize about a mate with different habits or characteristics or someone who just wouldn’t be so. . .
. . .But that person does not exist. If not that idiosyncracy, then some other. A bugaboo you haven’t even conceived of.
My man and I have our share of issues and miscommunications (someday I will write all about the Headless Chinese Porn Affair; quite a hoot, in retrospect) but goddammit, he’s smart enough and nice enough and I like him! (And for many other reasons which don’t fit neatly into an SNL reference).
I hope we will be one of those forever couples: that we continue to teach each other and (rather eerily) share tangential thoughts, that we find a way to divide chores mutually satisfactorily, face adversity sharing our strength as well as our grief, cherish each other, communicate openly, and support one another in becoming who we each hope to be.