July 7, 2011 in Washington Voices

Front Porch: Successful marriage takes time

By Correspondent

My husband and I are celebrating our 44th wedding anniversary this week.

When this time of year rolls around, we always joke and say – drawing out the “o” in “long” – that we’ve surely been married a long, long, long time. That presentation, of course, makes it sound like it has been a dreary campaign, which it most decidedly hasn’t been, but it gives us a chuckle.

I’ve been asked a few times how we’ve managed to get this far together. That’s really a complicated question, and I usually toss it off with a light remark – like Bruce’s warranty isn’t up yet or I’ve just gotten him broken in and comfortable now – because anything else sounds too much like a Hallmark card, and way too smarmy.

I see celebrities interviewed in the media about the key to their successful marriages, and they talk about how their mates make them laugh, how he brings her flowers for no reason at all or how she always surprises him in thoughtful ways, like when she did a recording of “their” song. Blech.

Is that sound-bite pap or what? As if there were a simple key to what makes a relationship tick. Whatever is the glue that holds the thing together for any of us has an awful lot to do with good luck and timing. And it sure isn’t the thoughtfulness of singing a song. If Bruce and I even had a special song, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t, I’d rather he focus his thoughtfulness today on cleaning out the rain gutters unprompted. But that’s just me.

Still, it’s an interesting question – what makes for a long (and good) marriage? OK, with no professional training whatsoever, I’ll take a run at it. According to unlicensed me, it really has everything to do with decisions you make before you say I do. Let your brain join the party, along with your heart and other body parts, as you find a partner.

First, recognize that the first thing that attracts you to the other person is not the reason you should marry. That first thing has a lot to do with heat and superficiality. You’ve got to let that simmer and mature. When I first met Bruce I was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Florida, where all the guys were wearing button-down shirts, slacks and loafers. And up he rode on his Harley wearing jeans and cowboy boots. That definitely caught my attention but was in no way the basis for a long-term relationship.

Second, take care of your own business first. I wanted to earn my bachelor’s degree and have the ability to be able to support myself, and I am certain that if I had allowed myself to get derailed, I would have always regretted it. A corollary to that is to be sure that the other person has your goals in mind as well as his or her own. Bruce would have been disappointed if I abandoned college when it was so clearly what I needed for myself, and he encouraged me throughout – even when he got drafted and Uncle Sam snatched him up out of Florida before I graduated. A corollary to the corollary: Be sure you can support the other person’s dreams and goals, as well.

Third, be sure the person can and will get up again when knocked down because, as sure as there is sunrise, knock-downs are coming.

Fourth, don’t take him on with remodeling in mind. Remember, today’s cute little idiosyncrasies will be tomorrow’s bad habits and flaws, and they’re not going anywhere.

Fifth, don’t get caught up in the romance of the thing. It’s not about the wedding; it’s about the marriage. It’s not about Prince Charming or having the hottest babe hanging from your arm; it’s about making connections that have the capacity to get better with time. Pay attention to the important stuff – like being sure that he or she is basically kind, treats his parents with respect, is honest, has a good work ethic and fights fair. Go into it understanding that everything evolves, from life in the boardroom to life in the bedroom.

As to how to keep the marriage itself healthy, I am reminded of a wonderful statement Alan Alda makes in the 1981 film “The Four Seasons” to his wife, played by Carol Burnett, in which he talks about the seasons of their long marriage, seasons which go from great to good to not-so-good to awful to better again. He tells her that when it gets awful, he holds on to the great and the good because he knows the two of them will cycle around again if they just hang in there, talk to each other and work on it.

Of course you have to really want to hang in there – and the wanting of the marriage, the valuing of this person who has done the for-better-or-worse walk with you – well, that makes all the difference.

Did I get it right? I don’t know, but I do know how fortunate I am to be jumping into old age holding hands with the one I still love – even after many long, long, long years.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@comcast. net.

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