What 4 Decades of Marriage Taught a Grateful Husband

A wisdom-filled "letter-to-the-editor"
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My article "Is My Marriage That Different from My Grandparents Marriage?" solicited email from older, married readers willing to describe the institution as they see it. What follows is one of several responses I'd like to share. Send your own to the email address at the bottom of the page.

George Peabody writes:

What goes into sustaining a marriage?

Here's what's worked for me, useful or not. At this not very advanced age (nearly 60), I'm just out on point, a scout far enough ahead to declare that the view ahead is good and experienced enough to want to share some field craft. I'm thinking about this as a man, but this is really about being a partner.   

It's Not About You 

If your life is only about you, if what you seek is always for your benefit, if relationships are a means to some personal end, marriage isn't for you. While it can provide some of the pleasures and satisfactions you're after, it can't provide them all or survive a self-centered participant. Marriage is another experience altogether with its own satisfactions, its own achievements, that come through giving, not receiving. Your giving becomes the gift. If you're willing, you'll want it when it's ready.

Start with Fire 

Beyond lust, the most accessible of twenty-something motivations, there has to be fire, that combustion of infatuation, challenge, exploration, surprise, fit, ease, fun, humor, and burn. I still feel the bite of when, in a nod to tradition and parental pressure, my not-yet-wife broke it off.  For the ten days it took me to make that insanity temporary, my DNA ached and shrieked over not what we'd had but what was to come that had been denied. A few months later, when she forced me to laugh at myself, I knew I'd found a teacher, too, and lifetime of study was ahead.  Start there.

Freedom in Commitment 

Most successful art or invention is born inside constraint.  What is beautiful or functional is shaped by boundaries. They say "here, but not there." Commitment is a sorting hat that crisply defines what belongs and what doesn't. Those edges are a source of freedom: they declare that you don't have to worry or consider what's outside of them. Once we were married, and it took until then, I relaxed. I no longer had to wonder every day if I'd done all of the right things to court and retain. That probably explains the ten pounds I gained within a year of our wedding, too, but it also signaled we were creating something very different, where the marriage itself became the main entity.

We were less than the halves of it.  

Change is Constant

I always heard that but didn't get it. Change can just be slow or we are just slow to notice. But I am a very different man than I was thirty years ago. My wife is a different person, too. Each of us have shifted in and out of very different careers, not the least of which was active parenting. Don't expect the quo to remain status. You'll be disappointed. Plan for change.

Be Lovers 

Never give up on sex. I don't mean constant sexual availability; it's fine to say "not now." Just never say "no." Intimacy is a balm, a connector, a place of surprise. It's self-care, with help.  The redirection of tension into pleasure. A heater. If you're broke, it's homemade entertainment. There is even sex that is just maintenance, necessary for those times when every other connection in a relationship is frayed, forgotten or simply unattended. Two kids under two will do that. It's no big deal if the planet shifts for one of you and there's barely a buzz for the other. In those moments when we merge bodies, we give and receive the human fundamental of touch and warmth and trust.  Sometimes, especially in the tunnel that is caring for young children, work, or managing a career, that has to be enough.  

By the way, it gets better when the kids leave the house and there's no possibility of having children. I cried when, after dropping off our last one at college, I walked back into the now emptier house. 

Boo hoo. 

An hour later, I was feeling pretty good.

Be Partners 

Where else is the safe place to grow, stretch, and struggle?  From what other place can two people stretch their individual selves? Use that partnership for your own growth, for your common good, for your shared future. It's a muscle that gets better with use.  

Be Champions for Each Other

This is a corollary to the constancy of change. Who we are and what we need changes.  Champion your spouse's evolution. Sometimes that involves patience and sacrifice, two parts of the partnership muscle group.      

Be Grateful

My wife and I are into our fourth decade of marriage. As I think of the ages of my life and how our marriage has moved within each, I have been blessed with the time to learn that the love between two people is sustained by the multiple roles of lover, partner, friend, and champion.  Through all that, I've learned a great deal about myself. And for all of that, even the smaller pieces of it, I am grateful. I would not be who I am today. I would not feel the strength and capacity I feel now, and I would not have the lovely prospect of dancing through the next age with my darling wife. 

I am grateful and I say so to her.  Express gratitude often.  

A Few No-Brainers 

If you crap off the paper, apologize (and mean it) until forgiven. Flowers, simple ones, work.  Take out the trash. Shut up and listen. And fix that damn light-bulb in the foyer.

After six decades I've moved through a series of separate arcs. I am, as a result of those swings through time, a different man. The journey with my dear companion has brought me here. I've metamorphosed igneous youthful certainty into something far more useful. Tilted, layered, and uplifted, the man I've become, stronger and resilient (rock either bends under pressure or it shatters), is due to a promise I made, a commitment I chose, and a passion that glows with color and nuance. Marriage is the force that has annealed all the loose bits.  But for my marriage, there go I.

I couldn't do more than wish the same for every man and his beloved.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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