37 Years! What Do You Know?

I wrote this two years ago for my husband’s and my 35th anniversary.  I still like it:

“You want me to tell you the secret of a good marriage?” the minister asked us.

He smiled across the desk at us.  I can only imagine how we must have looked to him: Two would-be hippies dressed in clothes from Goodwill that scandalized our parents.  My hair was a little longer than my husband’s-to-be, but not by much.  We were young, naïve, partially formed.

No, we didn’t really want to hear his advice.  After all, he was part of the Establishment we so strenuously objected to: Hadn’t he and his kind already ruined the world with Vietnam and Richard Nixon?  What kind of wisdom could you possibly get from somebody as old as he was (probably in his thirties, we estimated)?

But we were also middle-class and polite.  So yes, we nodded our heads.

The minister brightened at this encouragement.  “I’ll tell you what my wife and I do,” he said.  “Every year, we sit down and make a list of what we like about each other.  Then, year after year, we compare those lists and see how much we’ve grown.”

My boyfriend and I barely made it out of his office before we collapsed in laughter.  We would never, we swore to ourselves, ever make annual lists about our marriage.  Wasn’t that the most ridiculous thing we’d ever heard of?  We died laughing again.

Thirty-five years later, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, Vietnam to Iraq, partially formed to about as fully formed as we’ll ever get – I still wonder about that question.  What’s the secret of a good marriage?

I can’t ask our minister, that sweet, earnest, curly-haired guy with the thick West Texas accent.  A few years after he married us, he was convicted of embezzling church funds to support a girlfriend in the congregation.

Even Tolstoy, who was married forever, falls short for once.  I’ve never agreed with his judgment that every happy family is alike.  To me, happy families are as variable, unpredictable and mysterious as their less-fortunate counterparts.

“I don’t understand long marriages,” a frequently married friend once said to me.  Well, neither do I.  I can’t explain my own marriage, except to say we’ve been lucky, we’ve been stubborn, we’ve laughed a lot, we’ve persevered and we’ve almost killed each other on a couple of occasions.  (That’s my one ironclad view of marriage: If you haven’t wanted to strangle each other a few times, you haven’t really been married.)

More than anything, I don’t think there’s anything seamless about a long marriage or a long relationship.  We’ve had our starter-marriage era, with no money and no kids.  Our years with children, our years of frantic career-building, when we went for months without being able to complete a sentence, much less a conversation.  Years with a potentially fatal disease and its aftermath.  Years of a slowly emptying nest.

And now this – an age I can’t quite define.  No longer young, not quite old, occasionally creaky.  But it’s a time in life and in our relationship that has great contentment and pleasure and peace.  So we fall asleep on the couch at an embarrassingly early hour and our parties fold when they used to be catching a second wind?  So we have some days when it takes the two of us – working together – to complete a coherent thought with matching subject and verb?  So we’re currently tied in our race to resemble a shar pei?

Two weeks ago, I watched an elderly couple across the aisle from me on an airline flight.  They worked a crossword puzzle together, pausing occasionally to exchange a kiss.  He hovered over her as he stood up to stretch.  She looked up at him, smiling; she had dyed hair and a too-enthusiastically madeup face and when she moved, waves of Fendi wafted through the air.  He sat down again and they continued their crossword puzzle, peering through their reading glasses, chuckling and whispering.

It’s so funny the things, like this scene, you come to wish for and value as the years pass.  The long-haired would-be hippie girl would never have understood.  She was too busy planning a future, too blinded with fresh love and the easy certainty of youth.  Maybe she even thought there was a secret to marriage she would learn over the years – instead of the continuing mystery it turned out to be.

Lists never did anything for me.  But a good mystery keeps me turning the pages, wondering what comes next.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about imperfect relationships

12 comments… add one
  • Mei Link

    Love this post!

  • Cindy A Link

    Happy Anniversary and Happy New Year, Ruth!

  • Winston Link

    The Real Scenes From a Marriage
    In a giddy, rarefied moment, Ruth and hubby, wed many years, decide to emulate that loving, older couple they once saw sharing a crossword puzzle. They’re  soon snug on the couch, puzzle folded across dual laps in a droll origami of tiles.  But how to begin?  Both realize neither can find a pair of reading glasses.  How quaint!  At first, amid playful tweaks, each begins pitching suggestions where the other might seek said accoutrements.  Alas, memory fails.  The specks have been lost many times.  The mood steadily becomes acrid.  Recriminations sear the air like sweet-nothings gone kamikaze.  Suddenly, the puzzle page is rent asunder!  Sharpee Markers are drawn and cocked….
    Later, the couple is seen sprawled face-down together on their frayed hearth rug, hands entwined, blissfully asleep.  Their bodies are ribboned with ink slashings.
    Eat your heart out Ingmar Bergman.

  • Robin Link

    Loved this.  I think marriage is like an ongoing experiment.  Sometimes its fun, sometimes its messy, sometimes the results are better than others, but a good one does keep you interested in what develops next.  The gift of growing old together is priceless, as long as you can still laugh with/at and enjoy each other.  Congratulations on another year, Ruth & Jamie.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Thanks, Mei, Cindy and Robin.  Winston, you’re a dream commentator.

  • As one long-married wife to another, thank you for this lovely post and Happy New Year to you both.

  • I once read that the key to a long marriage was to realize that people always change and to stay married, you have to change together.

  • I think your essay is terrific, but unless I missed it, you didn’t mention friendship.  Although the young, hot-blooded can’t-wait-to-be-paired-off couple aren’t thinking about it, if  that person of the opposite sex is not your best friend, you’re going to be in trouble. Maybe that’s why we always say that long marriages depend on luck? Because we don’t know enough to look for the important things when we are young, and if we get them it is just blind luck.
    My husband and I are about to celebrate our 50th anniversary (Whoops! gave away my age, there)

  • It sounds like your minister could have used some relationship advice from you. Laughter would make it to the top of my list of marriage savers. Thanks for the thoughtful, fun post.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Vera, great question, which I think you went on to answer yourself: The younger you are, the more questionable your judgment about who you’ll still have fun with and want to talk to decades later.  You just have to be lucky.

  • It’s wonderful that your marriage has lasted so long. I hope one day to say the same of mine (we’re coming up on our 11th anniversary so we have a ways to go!!)

  • Sheryl Link

    Luck or foresight…or a combination? It’s HARD to stay married, isn’t it? Congratulations on a long successful marriage.
    PS. Why does the cynic in me think that the couple on the airplane were not each other’s original spouses? Shame, shame.

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