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What It Really Takes to Stay Happily Married

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How do you make your love last? Let Amy Bloom count the ways.

Divorce doesn't break my heart. It comes awfully close when there are children involved and parents forget that people matter more than furniture, money, or power. But divorce itself—I don't much care. I don't see in it an epidemic of selfishness or silliness or the end of civilization as we know it (for that, please see illiterate teachers, Bermuda shorts at the opera, and teenage girls getting breast implants as high school graduation presents—from their parents). In general, it seems to me that the people who get truly worked up about "Divorce, the Concept" are themselves pretty unhappy. I don't think I've ever seen a contented bachelor or a happy spouse burst into tears over someone else's divorce; I don't think anyone who is happy with his or her own life gets agitated when someone else's marriage is ending. Saddened, yes. Compassionate, I surely hope so. But those friends and acquaintances clutching their pearls and shrieking "Oh, no!" have something else going on. People who are happy believe in happiness. They believe that after people recover from a divorce, they can go on to happy lives. People who are unhappy believe in unhappiness. (And people who are deeply unhappy tend to believe both in blame and in punishment—no doubt wishing that what so fills their own lives will fill others'.)

I see divorce, often, as the result of our improved standard of living. Lots of people are just lousy to be married to (how many people do you meet about whom you've said not "Gosh, I'd love to go home with him for one night" but "Gosh, what a joy it would be to share a life and the flu and sunburn with that guy"?). When we were out in the fields or giving birth and raising the five kids (after three died in childbirth), we didn't have to spend much time with our spouses. For women, chances were pretty good that death would carry us off before our marriage reached its silver anniversary, and often before we reached tin. People did not sit around from Friday night to Monday morning looking for their spouse to fill the weekend with fun, intimacy, and sex. Rich people had numerous choices for all three, and poor people, as always, were just trying to keep the wolf from the door, which is a great wet blanket for fun, intimacy, and sex.

Despite all the slightly strange nationwide mourning for the innocence of the fifties (and you nine people who actually had the Ozzie and Harriet family and loved it, you go stand over there; the other 218 million, you go on reading), those years were the last gasp of widespread, middle-class, unambivalent segregation between the sexes. I know you don't see many fathers on the playgrounds on weekdays, but you do see some. And you see plenty of women catching the morning commuter train (they may have baby spit on their lapels and look insane, while their male counterparts are in spitless suits, reading the Times, but still...) and plenty of guys at their daughters' and girlfriends' soccer and rugby games on through college. The division of his turf/her turf that was so crystal clear (and so inimical to human development) has softened somewhat, which is mostly good news, but that blurring has taken away yet another way of having a good, if not happy, marriage; and without the cultural sealant of happy housewife and 9-to-5 warrior, it's become painfully easy to perceive the gaps and dissatisfactions and incompatibility.

It is the long but not happy marriage that breaks my heart: People who have slept in the same bed (or at least the same house) for 30 or 40 or 50 years and are, at best, decent roommates and considerate companions or, at worst, locked in a Strindbergian horror show, picking, bickering, and loathing each other, handcuffed to a life sentence, serving their time with a loneliness that transcends solitude.

A couple were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. Their domestic tranquillity had long been the talk of the town. A reporter asked about the secret of their long and happy marriage. The wife beamed and the husband explained: "It dates back to our honeymoon to the Grand Canyon. We took a trip down to the bottom of the canyon by pack mule. We hadn't gone too far when my wife's mule stumbled. My wife quietly said, 'That's once.' We proceeded a little farther and the mule stumbled again. Once more my wife quietly said, 'That's twice.' We hadn't gone a half-mile when the mule stumbled the third time. My wife quietly removed a revolver from her pocket and shot the mule dead. I started to scold her about her treatment of the mule. She looked at me and quietly said, 'That's once.'"

I know it's not a great joke. And I do think the wife's having the gun makes it funnier than if it were the husband, because that's unexpected and because nothing about men with guns and women without makes me laugh. But this not very good joke is in the service of understanding two important pieces of the long and happy marriage: the worst of what you saw early on, you'll see a lot more of (and that's true for everything from hair-trigger temper to sloppiness to drooling booty-watching to tight apron strings), and it's better to tell the truth about who you are (that your wit conceals despair; that your tiny waist requires constant watching, of which you are beginning to tire; that financial security is more important to you than monogamy, if it is; and that, you may as well confess before the wedding, you don't much care for fly-fishing). So many people, men and women, approach potential mates as if they were prizes and the point was winning, not knowing and being known.

Think about your friends. Think about their unhappy childhoods, their unresolved issues about money, power, sex, and...their mothers. Then imagine them spending 50 years—the last 15 in declining health and activity—with a partner who has an equal amount of psychological baggage (and if they marry men, an equal amount of baggage and slightly less facility with the language of feelings). The surprise is not that many marriages end before the 50 years, or even that only one in 20 does reach the golden anniversary. What is astonishing, even miraculous, is that there are people who truly love, like, and trust each other, for good reason, after 50 years of disagreements and disappointments, money troubles, misunderstandings, and hogging the blankets.

The good news and the bad is that long and happy marriages require magic, luck, and predisposition. And more luck. It's good news because nothing stops us from being lucky, and it's bad because luck is very different from the generally agreed-upon commandments of happy marriage: mutual respect, commitment, hard work, and communication. It's not that any of these are wrong, or even unnecessary: They are the bedrock of good marriages, which is the best that a lot of us can hope for—good meaning safe, fond, and not unhappy. But these commandments are not sufficient for happiness, and we all know it.

Mutual respect is possible only if you had the good sense to marry a decent human being and to marry based on your own decency and not greed, insecurity, or desperation. This is part of the marital mantra: "Don't just find a good mate, be a good mate." In other words, as the Scottish proverb goes: Never marry for money; it's cheaper to borrow. On the other hand, do find a good mate. That fabulous creature raining kisses on your lower back and refusing to cook, pick up after himself, or arrive on time may not be ideal husband material. Do not marry him and expect him to be that. Do not marry him. Sleep with him, for as long as you need to.

You'd think commitment was pretty clear, and people certainly talk as if it is. But on closer inspection, it turns out that every married person has his or her own code, and a lot of times the true code has never been discussed with the spouse. I know of couples where her code is: "You can look but you can't touch, and I wouldn't let another man so much as pat my fanny" (although she might, with a couple of glasses of wine, allow a tiny bit more than that), and his is very simply, and without any wine at all: "If it happened out of town, it didn't happen." I know another couple in which she believes their marital motto is "Don't ask, don't tell" and he believes they are the last monogamous couple on earth. I think a happy marriage in which knowing the truth would break your heart is a tricky kind of happiness.

Hard work is tricky, too. Of course marriage is hard work, like all psychological growth, but hard work is not the same as masochism or slavery, and somehow it is always those poor souls who have yoked themselves to "Marriage or Bust" who can't tell the difference. A reasonable amount of hard work is learning to bite one's tongue; appreciating effort, even if the outcome is unfortunate; expressing affection even on bad days; focusing on the positive. An unreasonable amount of hard work is displayed by all women married to alcoholics, junkies, compulsive gamblers, sex fiends, horrible dullards, and bullies, including those who use the checkbook and threats but never their fists. Hard work in a happy marriage yields results; in a bad marriage, you just get a lifetime case of housemaid's knee.

Communication is hard to argue with. But what so many students of marriage have discovered (including the interesting research of psychologist John Gottman, who is pretty sure that people who communicate contempt to their spouses more than any other affect will wind up divorced) is that it's not the act of talking that matters most, nor strictly the content; it's the emotional meaning of the communication. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about golf, gold, or God; it matters that the way you talk makes me feel that you really like talking to me and you really like having me listen. Everything else is irrelevant, and polite small talk is not an improvement over sincere and silent hand-holding.

"Love is...no assignment for cowards."

—Ovid

After spending most of my life married, divorced, and remarried, I have come to believe that great sex—or at least mutual, unquenchable desire (sometimes the body is not so cooperative)—and a completely irrational and even unfathomable affection for one's spouse (even, and especially, for those odd habits my family likes to refer to simply as eccentricities) are the necessary pieces of a long and happy marriage, and they are as unfakable and unteachable as they are essential. I know that married life can be difficult and filled with struggle, but thinking that those self-help books or any ten simple steps or pretending not to feel what you feel or need what you need (which lots of those books recommend) will hand you a happy marriage guarantees that no such thing will be coming your way. Nothing guarantees a long and happy marriage except two people willing to throw themselves, headlong, into the uncertainty, the inevitable pain and disappointment, the absolutely guaranteed failures and essential bravery, of intimacy. It does take two—and that's a shame, because so many not–too-bad marriages have one person who is willing to make that leap and one who is, at heart, not—but if you have two people who are willing to make themselves better, more vulnerable, more honest than they were the year before, you, you lucky few, you have a shot at the long and happy.
 

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