Over the years, you’ve probably picked up a book or two, or read a handful of articles dishing up advice for: How to Have a a Happy Marriage. They come in many titles: 20 Sure-Fire Tips… Ten Minutes to a Spectacular Marriage, and so on.
The first thing I always do is check the writer’s credentials. There’s not a lot of sense in buying a book on how to be a world class golfer…if the writer isn’t a world class golfer. Same with marriage experts. Have they been divorced? Have they actually been married? If so….how long? But the real hook, the kicker to gauging a good marriage is: Do you still like each other? love each other? Those are biggies.
David Brooks (NYT) had an article this morning in which he analyses a book, 15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years (Lydia Netzer). It was a good article, and Pam and I were happy to see that some of the conclusions the gal had come to agreed with our own private conclusions, though sometimes for the wrong reasons. As a matter of record, Pamela and I have been together for 46 years, a bit more than three times the time that is paraded in the book. Do we still like each other? Hell, yes! Do we love each other? Hell, yes! But some of the advice they give you in marriage books is…questionable…stuff that sounds really good, but might not be good in the long haul.
Misconception: Don’t Go to Bed Mad. Here’s one you’ve probably heard a dozen times: I suppose in an ideal world where you really didn’t need sleep you might be able to get away with this…maybe. But I don’t recommend it… In her book, Lydia Netzer agrees, but I think for the wrong reasons. And here’s where having 46 years under our belts, I’m going to give you a really good tip. Here it is: When you’ve had a fight and you wake up the next morning, there’s a tiny window of grogginess, where your brain is at rest (non combative, no wounded egos). At that moment, if you can wiggle over a little closer to your mate, hold their hand, brush the hair from their face, pat their ass and whisper the fact that you love them, there’s a really good chance that they’ll want to make up as much as you do. Funny thing is, once that bubble of aggression bursts, things can go back to normal pretty quickly.
Bragging vs. Complaining: I can’t count the number of times we’ve gone out to dinner with a couple or couples and after a few drinks the dirty laundry starts getting laundered. It’s painful to hear, even when it’s said with a smile, and I’m sure that afterward, there are many trips home driven in stony silence. Pamela and I have a pact. We never-ever-ever give an insult in public. It’s never appropriate and it makes everyone uncomfortable.
Another Big Tip: Bursting the Bubble with humor: This one works…if the reason for the fight isn’t catastrophic. Pamela and I don’t really argue much over the big stuff because…it’s too big. The small stuff, however, is always game. And even a tiny infraction can be blown out of proportion if you’re cranky or overworked. This is one that Pamela uses on me…to great effect. She knows that if she can get me to laugh, the fight is over sooo….she’ll come up behind me at my desk, swivel the chair around slowly and then come up nose-to-nose with me. I’ll usually try to turn away, but she either moves with me or holds my head in her hands…at which point she begins making really stupid faces, stupid sounds, crosses her eyes, anything dumb that’ll make me chuckle. Once that happens, the fight or tiff or whatever you want to call it is over.
“We Never Fight”: That sounds like a marriage made in heaven…and 99.99999% of the time, “we never fight” translates to: One or the other…sometimes both are swallowing down their anger, their frustration, or their anguish. Do that long enough and eventually it all comes back up. Or, one day without so much as a shot fired, you get a note or a letter in the mail from an attorney. Marriages are in some ways like boilers or pressure cookers. The pressure builds and there has to be a safety valve, a clearing of the air.
Friends: If any part of this article is going to raise an eyebrow, it will be this one. Volumes have been written about the importance of friends, of having a support group during difficult times. Very rarely, however, does anyone address the potential downside to…certain types of friendship. Over the four and a half decades that Pamela and I have been together, we’ve had many, many friends, shared inner feelings, swapped stories, griped and bitched with the best of them.
Where trouble can enter the scene, however, is when your friend or the group of friends you hang out with become your first loyalty rather than your second. Typically, it falls into a gender-based distinction. The gals get together for bridge or backgammon, but a big component of the get together is to vent and it’s usually against the spouse. The problem is, most friends assume their role is to be supportive…right or wrong. Sometimes in creating an alliance like that, it simultaneously creates an invisible wall between you and your mate and that’s bad. If you’re a guy and you walk in on your wife with her friends and they all adopt a tight-jawed rictus grin and chuckle at your arrival, it’s time to be concerned.
When you’re married, the first loyalty should be to your mate and then your children. If your first loyalty is to your buddies or your girlfriends, it’s an indicator that you need to reanalyze your priorities. The problem lies in the fact that those walls of trust and distrust get higher and higher. The same thing goes with families. Pamela and I made a pact when we were first married that we would never fall back on family to fight our battles for us. It’s not good…and it’s not fair. You should never call up dear old Mom or Dad to gripe about your mate.
Sex: Depending on how old you are and how long you’ve been married, sex can either be THE answer, or pretty close to the answer. And it can also be part of the problem. It’s a difficult target. You’re either not getting enough…or you’re getting too much. Very few people say, “It’s just exactly right.” In the marital books, entire chapters are devoted to alternative sex positions. When you get a little older, some of these positions look…well…pretty funny, because at a certain age they become pretty impossible. And there are little round pills that can technically do the job. Technically…mechanically. What they don’t give you is passion, or even necessarily pleasure. Because, depending on your upbringing, the topic is still a bit taboo, no one really dwells on oral sex. Maybe they should. I’m trying to keep this in the abstract, but it should be fairly obvious that it’s about as intimate as you can get, works at any age, is probably the most effective “tool” in your arsenal…(those diagrams of trapeze bars and, and positions that look like they came out of a Yoga manual can be a little daunting). You don’t need a prescription for little blue pills and the success rate is stellar. Embarrassing to talk about? Well, sure. Effective? Highly.
Good Fights and Bad Fights:
Using the Nukes: The short answer consists of three words: Never Use Nukes. For those of you who are of the “Yeah…but… persuasion” let me explain. Once you use the big nukes, going personal… saying something that can never be taken back, realize that this is baggage that’s going to sit there in your spouse’s emotional closet…forever. Even if your next course of action is to begin interviewing divorce attorneys, it’s still a stupid thing to do. For your thirty seconds of hurting, you will pay forever, both in emotional energy and possibly in dollars when you’re in court. Just don’t do it. What is a nuke? There are no perfect people on this planet. We all have faults, both physical, intellectual, and social. If your spouse gained weight, do you really think they are unaware of it? Pointing out the obvious is hurtful. Did your spouse come from a different social or economic background? They already know it. Did they screw up big time X number of years ago…and pay the price at the time? That’s not fair game. If you’re still thinking, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right…BUT…in my particular case” well…you were warned.
A Good Fight: About five years ago Pamela and I had a bitchin’ argument…big fight! I have no idea what it was about, which is the case for 99% of our fights. I stormed out of the house, slammed the hell out of the door. Opened it up and slammed it again. Pamela came out and to make a point, she slammed it, too. We live in deep forest and I knew I was too angry to take the car out on the road…never a good idea. So…instead, I hopped into our Isuzu Trooper and turned the key. (Pam and I have a deal about not going out on the road.) She yelled at me, “Where the hell are you going?” I yelled back, “None of your business!”…..at which point, Pamela jumped up on the hood and peered at me through the outside of the windshield. I yelled, “Get off!!!” She yelled “No!!!” and there we were. We’d had a deal. And so, I began driving slowly out into the woods at about a quarter-mile an hour so she couldn’t get hurt. That lasted about two hundred yards until I quickly got boxed in with trees. There we sat, glaring at each other through the windshield… I didn’t know what to do and so I…turned on the windshield wipers. I looked at her. She looked at me and suddenly went into hilarious laughter. Three micro seconds later, I did, too. Fight over. Humor is the best solution…realizing in the big scheme of things how stupid things can get.
P.S. Pamela and I have another agreement: Never ever use the “D” word. In 46 years it’s never been used though….a couple times I’ve looked at the plate of mushrooms Pam’s picked from woods and asked, “Are these the poison ones?” to which she replies, “You’ll see.” The photo to the left was Christmas at Officer Training. Pam flew down to San Antonio. That was about 45 years ago.