Mark Sherman, married (to the same woman!) for more than 43 years, shares some straightforward ways he and his wife avoid common marital problems.
We celebrate wedding anniversaries—and the bigger the number, the more we celebrate—because we recognize that staying married, even to someone you love very much, is not easy.
I have been married twice. My first marriage did not even last four years, though our brief partnership brought forth a boy who has become a fine young man. After my divorce, at the age of 24, there was no way I could even begin to suggest I knew anything at all about staying married, let alone happily so. But today, after getting a Ph.D. in psychology, teaching that subject for more than 25 years, and, most important, being married to the same woman for more than 43 years, I feel I do have something to say on the subject. My wife and I have a good marriage, and I can truthfully say I love her even more today than I did the day we wed.
This is not to say that it’s all been roses. Like many long-term partnerships, ours has had its rough patches, for which I will accept most, if not all, of the blame. But while I would never be smug about marital permanence—mine or anyone else’s—I feel today that we have a really good marriage, one that I hope lasts as long as we do.
There’s an old hit song by Captain and Tenille called “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Great song, but as a guideline for a lasting marriage, I’m afraid it doesn’t cut it. Love will get you together, and it will surely help keep you together, but enjoying a marriage that lasts for decades requires something else. In a word, I’d call it thoughtfulness. Of course, a song titled “Thoughtfulness Will Keep Us Together” probably wouldn’t have made it to the charts.
Thoughtfulness is a big and kind of vague term. My background is in behavioral psychology, so I’d like to translate it into some rules that my wife and I have learned – and that I’d recommend to any other couple.
1. Choose wisely
The first one is probably the most important, but it is only for people who haven’t yet committed to each other.
I know that sex and love, and more sex—great sex—can really get you feeling This is the one! But can you talk easily? Are you really comfortable with this person? Do you make each other laugh? Are you in general agreement about some basic issues around work, children, and money?
Or is there some nagging doubt? Nagging doubts are truly something to pay attention to.
2. Periodically, see a good couples counselor
I would strongly recommend not waiting until your marriage is falling apart before you see one. Rather, see a counselor even when things are pretty good. My wife and I refer to this as our “tune up.” I hope none of you care more about your car than you do about your marriage (if you do, you’ve definitely got a problem), and you know that if you ignore auto maintenance, your car is not going to last.
So shouldn’t you do at least as much for your marriage? We first sought the help of a counselor when we were having some significant difficulties more than 25 years ago. To our delight, she said our marriage was strong; but she looked at me and said, “You, however, have some problems.”
So I started seeing a therapist on my own, someone who got me to see that the way I was living my life was not helping me or my marriage at all, and I began very hard work on myself.
Our marriage quickly strengthened and became what I would definitely call a good one. But every once in a while we may have a problem which, on our own, we can’t seem to solve. These are typically not big ones; we sometimes just reach an impasse. So we go to that same couples counselor, and she is very helpful. I’d say over the last 10 years, we’ve seen her on the average once, or perhaps sometimes twice, a year.
What should you do when you and your partner simply can’t solve something on your own? Why not talk to a third person, who is educated, experienced, and objective (and who may be married and experiencing similar things). The counselor might give you helpful suggestions that you can keep on using.
Sometimes when my wife and I are having a difficulty, one of us will say, “What would (name of our counselor) say?”
3. Use the “two-reaction” rule
This one can be tough to stick with, but it is really helpful in preventing marital fights. My wife and I came up with this after we did have a fight, which could easily have been avoided, if we had used the two-reaction rule.
We were having Sunday breakfast at a local diner, and relaxing, when my wife said, “Let’s start planning what we’re going to be doing over the next few weeks – like when we’ll see the kids, see our friends, etc.”
For me, the relaxing was now over.
“Come on,” I said, my voice instantly louder than it had been. “I just wanted to relax. Couldn’t you have picked another time to discuss this stuff?!” (This is Reaction #1.)
My wife, not expecting my reaction, had an immediate reaction of her own. “Hey,” she said. “Don’t jump on me! I didn’t know this would get you angry. Yeah, sure, we can discuss it another time.” (This is Reaction #2.)
Now comes the critical point. I was still upset. And it would have been very easy to keep it going, and change our heretofore relaxing breakfast into a major fracas. In fact, we probably did do just that. But we realized later that if she had let me have my reaction and I had let her have hers, and then we dropped the discussion until another time, we’d be fine.
We have learned to do this. Not always, but much of the time. And it works.
To summarize: You say something to your partner. He or she may react in a way that you didn’t expect and that upsets you. This is understandable. Now you react, not so happily, to his or her response. Also understandable. So both of you, stop right there. You each are entitled to your reactions. Now, cool it until a quiet time when one of you can gently bring the matter up again.
4. Use the expression “Point of information” when asking a genuinely innocent question.
Here’s another one that, as I recall, my wife and I thought up on our own. It’s based on the fact that in a marriage, almost any question can be perceived by one’s partner as a “loaded question.” And, of course, that’s because many, if not most, are. For example, if you see that the ketchup bottle is not in its usual spot, and you say, “Honey, why is this here?” your partner knows that what you really mean is, “Hey, I like the ketchup bottle where it usually is! I don’t like the fact that you moved it.”
Is it any surprise that this can be the beginning of a marital squabble, if not an outright fight?
The problem here is that even the truly innocent query may also be interpreted as one with an edge. So what my wife and I now do is to preface the genuinely innocent question (that is, you are simply curious) with the words “Point of information”. This is an old parliamentary term, which means you are simply requesting information.
For example, you and your spouse are planning to go out to eat, but you have no particular preference for a restaurant. You’re perfectly happy for your partner to decide. Try this: “Point of information, honey…What restaurant do you prefer for tonight?”
The key to successfully using “point of information” is to be honest. Do not use it for any question where you really have even vaguely strong feelings. My wife and I now use this expression a lot, to the point where we abbreviate it with “P.O.I.”
Try it. It really works.
5. Try the 11:30 rule (or whatever time works for you).
My wife and I have decided (I can’t remember who thought of this) that from 11:30 at night until we go to sleep, which isn’t much later than that, neither of us can bring up some complaint or anything that might stir the pot. Why is it 11:30 for us? Because we watch the Daily Show, which ends at 11:30. It’s so easy after the show ends for one of us to bring up some little complaint (or as Jewish people say, kvetch). And that will not let either of us go to sleep easily.
Do we both always remember it? No, so if one of starts to say, “You know I really wish I didn’t have to bring the car in tomorrow,” the other will quietly say, “It’s 11:30.” And that’s usually enough to get the kvetcher to stop.
If you go to sleep at 10 pm, hey, just make it the 9:30 rule.
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Lead photo: Flickr/Darrell Jesonis
Bottom photo by Robby Schultze.