Finding My Old Essay Revealed What Makes a Marriage Work
My colleagues' words of wisdom actually were pretty wise (and lasting)
Recently, on a futile search for the title to our car, I came across an essay I wrote 37 years ago. It was from June 1980, the month my wife and I got married. When I came back to work after tying the knot, I was bombarded with stories and advice from my coworkers, so I wrote it all down. But in the busy weeks after the wedding, I never got around to finding a home for the essay. So it ended up in the bottom of our file cabinet.
When I recently read it all these years later, I laughed out loud and a tear came to my eye. (Sorry for the humblebrag.) There are many studies and advice books about what makes a marriage last. But really, my coworkers had the best advice. I think of it as kind of a refresher course as my wife and I start our 38th year together.
Here's What I Wrote in 1980:
I got married on Sunday, took a honeymoon on Monday and was back at work on Tuesday.
Being fairly new on the job, I didn’t expect anyone to say much more than “Congratulations.” Besides, I thought that being a newlywed had lost the magic it once had, what with the rising rate of divorce and the growing number of couples who just live together.
To my surprise, I was wrong. When word got out that I had “taken the plunge” (as some people put it), I was swamped with words of wisdom, pointed jibes and charming anecdotes. People who’d hardly said “Boo” to me suddenly became intimate advisers. All in all, it made me feel really special, as if I’d joined a wonderful new club. And it also gave me many insights into what makes a marriage work — or not.
“I’ve been married nine years and I wouldn’t want to live my life any other way,” said Calvin, an easygoing man in his 30s. “I guess I like the settled life. I’m no bar man. That’s for sure. I come home after work and spend time with 'the wife' and our two girls. We go bowling once in a while, and we go to church twice a week. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.”
A number of people echoed similar pro-marriage sentiments. “I’ve been married two years and each day when I wake up, I’m still thrilled that I wake up next to someone,” Miriam declared, beaming, as I blushed slightly. “It’s so wonderful not to have to worry about lonely Saturday nights. We’re still celebrating!”
“You did something most people are afraid to do,” said crusty-but-with-a-heart-of-gold Ed. I wasn’t sure what he meant at first. “You got married,” he said to wipe the look of confusion off my face. He proceeded to quiz me: “What’s the most important word in marriage?” My look of confusion reappeared. I ventured a guess. “Commitment?”
No, Ed didn’t want that word. “Compromise!” he bellowed.
Pete, another veteran of matrimony, offered similar advice: “My wife and I never go to bed mad. If one of us is mad at the other, we might sit and stew a while, but we always make up before we turn in for the night. That keeps your marriage on a good course.”
Peter has a tattoo on his forearm that is a testament to the success of his marriage: “True Love.”
So, How Does It Feel to Be Married?
Lots of people asked me how it felt to be married. It didn’t feel any different than when we’d lived together before matrimony, to be honest. That’s what I told Lee-Ann, a coquettish woman who was on her second marriage. “After you’ve been shacking and you get married, it isn’t that different,” she agreed. Then she asked if I intended to be faithful to my wife. I told her I planned to. She sighed in disappointment and added, “It’s good to know that at least some people are faithful, but if you ever change your mind, we can have an affair.”
No-nonsense Beth had a different kind of reaction to my nuptials.
“Congratulations, you must be very happy,” she said brightly. Then, without missing a beat, continued: “But you know, the happiest day in my life was the day I got my divorce.”
Another individual happy to be unmarried was Jim, a jaunty man in his early 30s with a rakish mustache. “I’m a confirmed bachelor,” he said. “I can’t imagine spending 10, 20, 30 years with the same woman. There was only one time I nearly got hooked. I was stationed in Florida when I got engaged to this girl I was seeing. The next day, I went to my commander and asked him to transfer me as far away from Florida as possible. I wound up in Africa.”
I also got some teasing. People told me they would have talked me out of getting married if only they knew. And the supervisor of the accounting department told me quite seriously that I wouldn’t be getting my paycheck anymore. “Why?” I asked. “From now on,” he said with a trace of a grin, “It will be mailed directly to your wife.”
The most detailed exposition on marriage came from Ted, a burly man of about 40 who could switch from solemnity to zany exuberance in a flash. First he talked to me seriously. “I’ve been married 17 years,” he said. “Once you get married, it’s hard to keep the relationship fresh. You stop telling each other little things, you stop sending her flowers. You should always tell each other the little things, good and bad, that you’re feeling, or they’ll build up inside. Right now, I write my wife notes each day and leave them for her in different places around the house. Sometimes it’s just to tell her I love her.”
Ted paused to let his remarks sink in, then had one last bit of philosophy to share. In retrospect, I’ve come to regard it as the piece de resistance of all the post-nuptial commentary I heard.
“Living together is involvement, marriage is a commitment,” he said. “You know the difference between involvement and commitment? Take a dish of ham and eggs, for instance. The chicken was involved with it. But the pig made a commitment.”