Tag Archives: marriage

Seven things learned from seven years of marriage

Mickey and Minnie pancakes

A week ago I celebrated my seventh anniversary of life as a married man.  Truthfully, if you’d approached me around the time George W. Bush was accepting his re-nomination for a second term and said that ten years hence I’d be happily settled with a wife and a teenage son, I’d have inquired, pointedly, as to the quality of the copious reams of narcotics you were obviously inhaling.  Yet here we are in 2014 with seven years of the formalized partnership at our backs and by all indications prospects for many decades more – in an age where divorce is increasingly common and societally accepted, tipping from “end of the world, what will the neighbors think” into “no big deal, plenty of fish out there.”

What makes a marriage work?  Hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest have been whacked to print books and articles by experts, both credentialed and self-proclaimed, identifying specific strategies by which every marriage should endeavor to function – in effect, taking the complex, evolving narrative that is the relationship of one human being to another and putting it in the more digestible language of business; boiling it down to key messages primed for PowerPoints and pie charts.  “Do these five things every day and your marriage will always be happy,” and the like.  Rather than rehash the bromides of Cosmo articles past, like “communication is the most important thing” or “make time for intimacy,” instead I’m going to share what I’ve observed these past seven annums, and you, dear reader, may take or leave as you will.  Nor will I dare to suggest that I get these right all the time, or try to hold myself up as exemplar of the ideal husband.  As always, they’re just my thoughts for your consideration, and maybe somewhere amid the flotsam and jetsam of our mutual experiences we’ll locate the truth of things.

1.  There is no such thing as a successful marriage.  Why?  Because “success” implies something you’ve finished.  The goal of a marriage should be like that of the U.S. Constitution:  forming a more perfect union – but – you need to know from moment one that you’ll never actually get to “perfect.”  And why would you want to?  There would be nothing left to do; nothing left to learn from one another, nothing left to share.  You’d be ready to move on to the next one.  Accepting that you’ll never achieve “success” is not an excuse to throw up your hands and stop trying, it’s a reminder to get up each day and keep working on it, keep thinking of ways you could improve your relationship, keep doing the little things that make yours a true partnership.  Marriage is not a destination where once arrived you can kick up your feet, crack open a brewski and watch the game.  It’s more like acquiring the world’s most awesome traveling companion for the road ahead, and she knows all the best places to see along the way.

2.  Write things down.  When you’re first with someone you document everything; souvenirs from every restaurant or movie or concert or stroll along the beach you experience together, chronological photo albums with the story of your courtship captured to the very minute.  The longer you go on, the more settled you become, you find it less necessary to take the camera when you pop out for a drink after work on a warm summer night, and she looks amazing, and you share a belly-aching laugh over something trivial, both little realizing that in a month, that precious slice of life will be lost in the background noise of daily drudgery.  You will come to regret not being able to remember so much of what reminds you how much you love her.  I know exactly where we went for dinner on our first anniversary:  TAO Nightclub in Las Vegas.  I ordered grilled ahi tuna.  But I’m pained to recall what we did for our second, third, fourth.  I know we didn’t sit around doing nothing, but because I didn’t write it down, I have no trigger with which to activate those memories.  There’s a balance to be found before you start needing terabyte-capacity external hard drives to store all your selfies, but even a few spare details jotted in an easily accessible notebook will be enough to activate your recall and let conversation provide the rest.

3.  Always get out of bed first on weekends.  It’s the smallest gesture, but it shows that you respect your partner’s time, are aware of what needs to be done around the marital residence and are taking initiative on getting to it instead of giving in to the temptation to be lazy.  We all love curling up underneath the covers as the sun pours in on a Saturday morning, especially after a long, cold work week, but getting up first is giving the gift of rest to another and proving that you’re taking charge of the day and not expecting to be waited on.  It’s simple math, really – an extra half hour of sleep or a happier spouse for the whole day?

4.  Don’t take the day for granted.  It is far too easy to get lulled into the repetition and sameness that can plague domestic married life.  Get up, go to work, come home, eat a dull dinner, pay bills, clean bathroom, watch a few hours of TV, go to bed.  Repeat ad nauseum.  And yet you should still pull yourself out of the complacency for a few moments each day and remind yourself of the fortune that has favored you with health, stability, security, and an irreplaceable partner.  Because on the morrow something may happen that will upend everything and you’ll find yourself longing for the predictability of routine.  Even a boring day is a day that you are alive and safe and free to choose.  And it’s one more day spent in the company of the greatest person you’ve ever met.  Not bad at all, really.

5.  You don’t have to have the same taste.  When my wife and I are having trouble figuring out a movie to watch, I find myself envying those couples who have found each other through a shared love of geek culture, particular sports franchises, Mesopotamian basket weaving, what have you.  There are times, in fact, when it seems like we have very little, if anything, in terms of common interests.  But in many ways it’s been a blessing, as it’s given us the chance to discover the other’s passions, and find commonality we might not otherwise have noticed had we just stuck with the same interests we brought to the relationship.  I spoke a bit back in my A-to-Z series about how meeting my wife deepened a love of jazz and the Great American Songbook – would I have had this were she just a Beatles and U2 fan like myself?  Though on much of the cultural zeitgeist we still do not agree (after nine years together she remains unconvinced of the merits of the Lord of the Rings franchise and spectacularly indifferent toward James Bond) our connection remains solid and strong.  Common interests answer the question of what to do on a Saturday night, but they’ll never be the foundation of a lifelong relationship.  A genuine caring and admiration for each other is what’s needed.

6.  Spontaneous musical numbers are always in fashion.  We aren’t the first to joke that the world would be a much happier place if people on the street and in the malls would break out in impromptu singing and dancing more often.  Short of the arrival of that demon from that Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode a few years back, I’m afraid it’s left to us to bring the Sondheim, and most folks would rather guest lecture on macroeconomic theory at Yale in their birthday suits instead.  It’s truly a shame that this potent arrow in the human mirthmaking quiver doesn’t get strung and loosed more often, as few moments of melancholy can’t be improved by even an off-key rendition of the perfect chorus.  Whether it’s in the proscenium of the kitchen as the pasta boils or the grander scale of the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, pull your sweetie in for a rumba or a cha-cha whenever you get the chance.  And if you can throw in a few half-recalled verses of a Tony-award winner or even Weird Al’s latest – onwards, musical soldier.

7.  Never underestimate your spouse’s ability to surprise you.  As I mentioned earlier, routine and complacency are two of the greatest adversaries of marriage, inasmuch as they dampen the spark that is needed to maintain a human being’s interest in anything over a long period of time.  But if you’re with the right person, those nemeses won’t even get to step onto the field.  There have been many moments when I’ve found my spirit beaten down by the unfairness of things, by reversals of fortune and bleak prospects for progressive change (both in my own life and in the world at large), and my wife will go and do something utterly unexpected, reminding me of the innate wonder and capacity for good that lies at the heart of humanity.  It doesn’t even have to be anything particularly grandiose – it can be as little as a smile found amidst heartbreak.  There is one moment in particular that I will share.  One cold January night I found myself, after a brutal phone call, jobless, rudderless and not sure how to get through the next hour, let alone commence the next phase of my life.  My wife offered some words of comfort, but I wasn’t in the mood to have it, brushing her aside with a half-hearted “yeah.”  I stepped outside for a few minutes to take the trash to the curb.  When I turned back to our front door, she was standing in our foyer looking out at me.

Dressed as Minnie Mouse.

She was wearing the ears with the red and white bow, waving with the oversized white gloves and doing a better than average impression of Minnie’s giggle.  I don’t know how she’d managed to gather those up and don them so quickly, but in an instant the storm within me broke, I laughed, and I knew that things would be okay, because she was with me.  It’s a gift I’ve never forgotten; a memory that I can dig out of the box and hold whenever I need it.  And tomorrow she’ll come up with something even more spectacular.  It’s who she is.  An inexhaustible reservoir of strength, kindness and generosity, with a heart as big as the moon, a singing voice to shatter the stoniest facade, and a positively contagious laugh that makes the corners of my mouth inch up even to think about it in passing.

There you have it, for whatever it’s worth.  Nothing earth-shattering or life-changing, just a few simple truths that help me find my way on the long road.  Above all else, seven years of marriage have taught me to be excited about what I’ll learn over the next seventy years, and to be grateful for the journey I chose to take and for the amazing woman who agreed to come with me.

With a Song in My Heart: S is for…

“Somebody Like You” – Keith Urban, 2002.

If you’ve been with me since April 1st (or longer) you’ve probably gotten the sense that I take music just a leeetle bit seriously.  Maybe that’s not the right word; it implies a certain lack of humor about things, and some of the songs I’ve selected for this blogging odyssey reflect a lighter sensibility.  What surprises me is meeting people who are far more cavalier about it – not, I should add, that there’s anything wrong with that – to the point where music, to them, is a bit meaningless.  This is crystallized for me in the songs that couples select for their first dance at their wedding.  Granted, you can’t speak to why a particular song means one thing to one person and something else to another, but often, you’re left scratching your head and wondering, did you even listen to the lyrics?

Three of the most popular choices are “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston and Celine Dion’s infamous Titanic anthem “My Heart Will Go On.”  If you pay attention to the lyrics, the first is about a woman treating a man like garbage, the second is a farewell to a relationship that has ended, and the third is about a lover who’s died.  Hardly the greatest sentiments with which to start a new life together.

When my then-fiancee and I were planning our ceremony and reception, we wanted to avoid the typical hug-and-shuffle-to-a-cheesy-ballad that besides being tired didn’t express who we were.  The initial selection was Barbra Streisand and Bryan Adams’ duet “I Finally Found Someone” from The Mirror Has Two Faces.  We were taking ballroom classes at the time and thought a choreographed routine might be a fun twist.  Our dance studio was amenable (for a modest fee, naturally) and we began a series of hours learning the sways and steps of a rumba.  A few weeks in, though, despite the best efforts of our patient teacher, the sense was that it wasn’t working; too slow, not enough energy.  I’d never paid much notice of country music, but my better half put forth this Keith Urban number as a suggested alternative.  Hardly rumba material – this meant cha cha.

It might be worth pointing out at this juncture that my dancing has always been average at best, veering between extremes of “hopeless white guy” and “spastic goofball.”

Not wanting to disappoint, I accepted the challenge, and we moved immediately from gentle sashays to bold struts and turns and twists.  One of my less endearing traits is my lack of patience with myself when I can’t nail something, and the complicated series of steps and movements we’d assigned ourselves were a recipe for frayed nerves and easily blown fuses.  Outside the weekly classes we’d find any chance we could to move the living room furniture out of the way and run through the routine, and my attitude during more than one of these chances was substantially less than game; to my regret, it was often downright curmudgeonly.  Some sessions ended in curses and angry exits from the room, followed by apologies and pleas to try one more time.  At one point I may have mused that I was more concerned about this dance than any other aspect of the wedding, which did not go over very well to say the very least.  The days ticked down, the practices continued.  Finally we got it to a state where we were as confident as we were going to be.  All that remained was performing it for someone other than our cat – just sixty-four family and friends.  No pressure.

Married now, wine and dinner and dessert in our bellies, an emotional set of speeches given, and now the DJ is set to go and it’s time.  Keith Urban’s guitar starts up, my new wife and I bow to each other, and we are off.  As soon as we move into hold and start shaking our hips, our guests go crazy.  They are completely surprised, mainly by the fact that I haven’t tripped over myself, and every new step brings cheers and applause.  Sure, I mess up a couple of times, but by the time I spin my bride into my embrace, dip her and plant a kiss on her like the most seasoned swinger, the joy of the moment has long surpassed any remaining performance anxiety.  I get more than a few astonished congratulations afterwards, but more than any external accolade I’m proudest that I’ve done well for my lady.

One of the biggest adjustments you make in moving from bachelorhood to marriage is recognizing that you’re not living only for yourself anymore.  The transition to selfless living is not an easy one to make and the habit of clinging to vestiges of the single life can linger for years afterwards.  Wanting to love somebody can sometimes too be seen as a selfish need, looking outward to fill a void, without necessarily thinking whether or not that person particularly wants to fill your void at all.  What helps us move beyond the fear of losing oneself is the euphoria that can result from putting another’s needs before our own – the filling of a void we didn’t even know we had.  Though we are not always (or even often) successful in living this way, we need to stop and remember the moments when we did and work tirelessly to recreate them.  Keith Urban sings that “sometimes it’s hard for me to understand that you’re teaching me to be a better man.”  Truthfully, we don’t often get it.  But each time we do something for our partner without thought of what it means to us, we’re getting better.  Sharpening our steps.  Perfecting our soul.  And that is what wanting to love somebody can mean – wanting to make ourselves better by doing better by another.

With a Song in My Heart: A is for…

“All You Need is Love,” The Beatles, 1967.

So we begin this 30-day, 26-song collection with what might seem a fairly obvious choice; indeed, an immensely popular, zeitgeist-entrenched piece of music that means pretty much the same thing to millions of people all over the world.  But rather than attempt some lurching, musical-snob faux-hipster, high-falutin’ rationale of why “All You Need is Love” is more significant to me than it is to the rest of you posers who only got into the Beatles after they became popular, I can merely set the scene and leave the judgment to my dear readers.

What is the meaning of “All You Need Is Love”?  Is it a tremendous oversimplification, cynical pablum for the forlorn masses, or is it a justifiable mantra, a truth keyed into by four Scouse musicians and shared, prophet-like, in the Our World broadcast of 1967 – in a performance where author John Lennon can be seen nonchalantly chewing gum, conveying perhaps his true opinion of its significance (or maybe just trying to soothe a dry mouth)?  No matter; once the sound flies from the amplifiers it no longer belongs to its creators, but to the world.  We puzzle over the strains of “La Marseillaise” leading into that undanceable 7/4 time introduction, and Lennon’s litany of pronouncements.  “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.”  Reminds us a little of the opening of Waiting for Godot:  “Nothing to be done.”  But what’s he really saying?  That there are no horizons left to conquer, or that there is nothing beyond accomplishment?  Does it matter?  It’s still a killer tune no matter how you interpret it.

But there’s one line that gets me.  “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.”  It’s not the easiest of ideas to hear, let alone believe, particularly in the moments when the excrement is weighing us down to the point we can barely lift our legs to take the next step.  You have to come to accept the notion that the worst of experiences are essentially mid-terms for the soul.  However, the news isn’t all bad, because where you’re meant to be applies equally to the best of times.  On a warm summer day, roundabouts five in the afternoon, sandwiched between a bocce tournament and a family picnic, beneath blue sky and upon green grass I looked out over the faces of sixty-four treasured family and friends, clutched the gentle hand of the woman I’d just pledged myself to and heard this song play.  The first song I heard as a married man.  The first song for the next step.

And it was exactly where I was meant to be.

I can’t worry about gay marriage; I’m too focused on my own

There is a first-season episode of The West Wing in which a pollster played by John de Lancie advises President Bartlet that he can sew up re-election by supporting a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, as the numbers indicate that a vast majority of Americans are in favour of such an amendment.  Faced with the prospect of a gut-wrenching policy flip-flop to the dark side, the news is dispiriting to Bartlet’s staff, until another number-cruncher (Marlee Matlin) gives them her figures on how little the issue is of importance to the average voter, and that the total number of people whose vote would actually be swayed on flag-burning alone is insignificant.

This exchange was at the forefront of my mind as I read about President Obama’s announcement of his support for same-sex marriage yesterday.  The people who are so tyrannically obsessed with this issue that their vote hinges on it (the Santorums of the world) were never going to support the president anyway, even if he announced he was cutting taxes on the rich to 0%, declaring Planned Parenthood enemy combatants and appointing Pat Robertson Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  In strictly political terms, the president has lost nothing, energized the liberal base that first elected him, and forced his presumptive opponent into defending bigotry.

All in simply doing the right thing.

I can’t pretend to understand the fervour that drives certain elements of the conservative religious population to spend so much time, energy and money in attacking the LGBT community; I haven’t been to a regular church service since I was nine, and even then it wasn’t exactly one of these old-time fire-and-brimstone parishes either.  Like the lily-livered liberal latte-sipping literati atheist that I am, I believe in treating others as I would like to be treated, and that the consensual relationships of two adults, straight or gay, are none of my damn business.  Frankly, even if I were of the abhorrent mindset to want to dictate to other human beings how they should be permitted to love each other, I don’t know where I’d find a spare moment.  I’m busy working on my own relationship.  I’d say my plain old man-woman marriage is generally a happy one, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t constant effort.  I simply don’t have the time to worry about anyone else’s.

When we think about the complexity of love, its many twists and turns and ups and downs, and its perpetual evolution and change as two people try for decades on end to figure out how to share their lives with each other, it is a difficult enough road without having elements of society, even family, castigating you at every turn – looking askance at the two of you as you walk down the street holding hands, or whispering sarcasm out of earshot as you share a kiss in a tender moment in the park on a sunny afternoon, or smirking smugly after you’ve had a fight.  Love is a journey to be explored, a discovery awaiting each of us as we wind our way through life, and each of us deserves the chance to find and experience the love that we long for.  Who we love forms our identity, and asking our LGBT brothers and sisters to turn away from their natural feelings is like asking them to disconnect part of their soul – condemning them to a slow death of the spirit.  No one deserves that, and I cannot believe it’s what any truly loving god or goddess would desire for their creation.  Nor does the evidence indicate that a broad societal acceptance of same-sex marriage will bring forth any of the apocalyptic visions foretold by the dubious media soothsayers who adore citing nonsensical “slippery slope” arguments such as the forthcoming rise of man-dog, woman-horse, boy-tractor and girl-Cayman Islands holding corporation marriage.

A friend posted on her Facebook status yesterday that she was disappointed in the dearth of common courtesy these days, in the almost complete absence of “please” and “thank you” in our daily interactions.  Whether it’s the economy, sunspots, Mayan prophecies or too much Fox News, the world of 2012 seems stalked, like Winnie the Pooh, by a persistent little thundercloud.  Gloom and a general unpleasantness are humanity’s dominant tone.  I can’t help but wonder if we are obsessing too much over other people’s lives and failing to attend to our own, to the root causes of why we are so unhappy, why our own relationships are struggling.  A man who spews homophobic invective is clearly not smiles and sunshine deep inside, and rather than blaming the same-sex marriage boogeyman for his woes, he needs to take a good, long look at what is lacking in his own soul, at why, instead of trying to make a positive contribution to the world, he simply be hatin’.  What is so wrong with his own marriage, his own life, that he turns that loathing outwards instead of confronting it.  For hatred will not heal self-neglect.

We only make our marriages better by never taking them for granted, and by ensuring that our marriage, and ours alone, is our singular passion.  Our LGBT friends should be able to enjoy the same challenge, the rewards and even the pitfalls that may come with it.  That, I think, is how one preserves the sacred institution of marriage – by making our own an example of the best that it can be, not fretting fruitlessly over whether other people can or can’t get married to the person they love.  It would seem, based on his announcement, that President Obama feels the same way.