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Good Marriages Need Laughter and Patience More than Magic

Forget tin, iron, gold. Strong marriages need work, joy, and self-knowledge.

Key points

  • A good marriage depends on developing a clear picture of our own lives, a difficult and painful process for many of us.
  • Not everyone married the person they loved, and not everyone still loves the person they married. But often they do, because it's a tough ride.
  • Marriage is work, but there are great benefits. Expect to to put in overtime, be an expert, know how to do everybody's job, and stay cheerful.
  • A real marriage takes guts and honesty and patience and having tough conversations ALL. THE. TIME. 

In 1991, before getting married for the second time, I asked myself "Why, when a woman has a room of her own in a perfectly good rent-stabilized apartment of her own, with her own name on her own lease obliging her to pay rent with money of her own— which, by the way, she makes at a satisfying job of her own— does she still want a husband of her own? What role can a husband possibly play in such a life?"

I was considering marriage for the thousandth time, if you count all those names written on napkins in junior high when I still thought I'd get to be somebody else when I crossed the threshold, or for the second time if you count only those relationships I have formalized with the state.

Since my first marriage did not "work out," as my friends gingerly reminded me, why bother? Why not just keep a nice lover and companion safe from overuse, the way my aunts used plastic slip covers to keep the good furniture in the living room safe from what they referred to vaguely as "wear and tear"? If I believed in advice from scores of remarkable women, not least among them Mary Wollstonecraft and Katherine Hepburn, I would live out the maxim that men and women should live near one another and visit occasionally.

But then, I am not a remarkable woman. In early childhood, I used to con my mother into buying me "Brides" coloring books over and over again, even after she pointed out that all the outfits were white or black and there was very little to color except the bouquets and the bridesmaid dresses (from which arises the tradition of dictating lurid colors for all bridesmaid dresses; after all, you had to use the “aqua marine” and “magenta” crayons at some point).

I dressed as a bride every Halloween, and so did half the other girls in the neighborhood, which probably should have tipped me off to the demographics that would follow those of us born in the late '50s, '60s, and early ‘70s into our adult years: there were hundreds of little brides out there, but there were very few little grooms.

The only little boys dressed in tuxedo outfits on Halloween were the ones dressed, not as grooms but as bums, wearing oversized jackets with torn elbows. Many of the women I know continue to see the world as divided into brides and bums even though they have long abandoned the idea of trick-or-treat.

But sometime in high school I began believing that a woman could make an impact on the world, and I started cultivating ambitions other than matrimony. By the mid-'70s, I was in college and telling the men I dated that I would probably never marry. At that point in my life I decided to be an amalgam of heroines, a cross between the main character from the film My Brilliant Career, Emma Peel from the television program The Avengers, and Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch.

At eighteen, I firmly believed that I would rewrite all of life’s rules and undermine all of its conventions, beginning with my rejection of the idea of marriage. Marriage had been presented to me as one of life’s inevitabilities, which made me determined to avoid it. What I wasn’t expecting as a sideline to my own decision was the overwhelmingly positive response from the young men I met. They loved this idea of the determinedly single-minded woman. I was annoyingly pleased with myself for discovering this.

So I dated, and dated, and dated, and then I fell in love, then was left by the boy I loved, then I married, then that brief early marriage didn't work despite our good intentions, then I was single.

Then I thought, "Well, that part of life is over." And then...

Falling in love in my thirties was very different from my earlier experiences, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I was wary. I knew I didn't want to get divorced again, and I wasn't convinced that the only way to prevent that was by not marrying again.

I knew, you see, from the past that no one else could guarantee safety or happiness, and that the best to hope for was a partner who would represent life’s possibilities instead of its limitations.

Instead of seeing marriage as a version of home base from a children’s game where you couldn’t get caught “out” no matter what, I saw marriage as the whole field of play. It would allow us to claim fully whatever victories or defeats we could achieve together; it would provide us a defined but wide arena for our lives. Victorian novelist George Eliot has declared that “Nothing is as good as it seems beforehand,” but I’ve come to believe that it all depends on what you expect beforehand. I thought hard about the idea of marriage, and the wedding took place in October of 1991.

For 30 years, I have found myself, most days and for most long stretches, delighted to be married to a man I respect, admire, and love. It has not, however, been easy. Marriage is work. There are good benefits, however, as long as you are willing to do more than is required of you.

One of the reasons this marriage has lasted for more than 30 years is because I learned that being single is better than remaining in an unhappy marriage— even a quietly unhappy one. And I discovered that an authentically good marriage is both possible and enormously valuable.

But I have also come to see that, in part, a good marriage depends on developing a clear picture of our own lives, a difficult and painful process for many of us.

A real marriage takes guts and honesty and patience and having tough conversations ALL. THE. TIME.

There are no perfect endings, but there are good, reasonable chances to make marriages work—as I said, the two words go together—because they don't depend on magic, or inspiration, or outside forces. Strong relationships depend on a shared sense of responsibility, a shared sense of joy, a shared sense of what's important to both of you—and to each of you. These might well be different.

You also need enough figurative (and sometimes literal) room to allow each of you to remain separate enough to offer love to one another. Two-in-one-flesh can be really suffocating if you spend thirty years in anything other than a potato sack race.

Good marriages are not about shutting out the world but enjoying it with an intimate partner.

You take a deep breath and then head for deep water, together, your destinies intertwined. You'll get in over your heads but you'll help each other rise up. Breathe, laugh, and, acknowledge the distance you've come, then head out even further.