Mary Beth Writes

Years ago, a friend revealed to me how unhappy she was about her life. Being the marvelously insightful and sensible person that I was back then (note the irony of middle age currently speaking), I advised her how to correct the direction of her life. She was so pleased with my wisdom that she never talked to me again.

I learned my lesson. Large subjects are best left to licensed professionals and bartenders. The rest of us should keep our noses out.

Which is why I rarely write about marriage. (At least not head on.) And I wouldn't be delving today except for one thing. One of my most favorite cousins and his wife are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary this weekend. In honor of this auspicious occasion, I decided to wade around in the murky waters of old marriages.

I like old marriages. I'd even venture to say that old marriages, like American Express, are a part of a lot of interesting lives. (Whatever that ad campaign was suppose to mean.)

This is not something I understood when I was young. When I looked at old marriages back then, the best I could see were what were called "content marriages". These too often featured spouse sets who tended to look like bulldog twins, and whose social life revolved around things one could do while sitting on upholstered furniture. It seemed like a grim future.

Now that I'm in my own old, content and heavily upholstered marriage, the view seems different. I don't see "content" as passive anymore. These days I see "content" as rich, fertile, ready to grow something besides babies, able to be creative, full of laughter, interested in life. These aren't qualities only married people have, single folks have them in spades. But they are among the best secrets of well-aged marriages.

So I'd like to salute some of the other secrets of content old marriages.

One of the things I have noticed is that people in these marriages have good manners. Oh, not necessarily manners like which side of the plate the fork goes on or who should answer the thank you notes (the person who got the gift should). I mean the heartfelt manners that come from respect and empathy.

When you live with a person, you learn their strengths and weaknesses, ups and downs. It's acceptable to comment wittily on the "bedhead" of a spouse who doesn't really care that much about hair anyway (did a badger climb in the window in the night and fall asleep on your head?). On the other hand, it's deadly to constantly pick at and criticize each other. At the heart of their lives, each one believes the other one is trying the best they can. They will not assault that foundation.

In the good old marriages, people touch each other. The level of the touching varies, some people are Mr. and Mrs. Casanova, others rely on picking the lint off each other's business suits, but they touch. Fondly or passionately, with or without the Viagra, they know the temperature of each other's skin and it becomes part of the weather of each other's worlds.

Most expert advice about relationships mentions that successfully married people use humor in their relationships. Humor is a non-assaultive way to state one's point of view. It's a way for each partner to declare that as long as they feel heard and respected they don't need to win every argument. Humor is an excellent tool to take with you into casual husband and wife discussions about topics such as why the checkbook hasn't balanced in this decade and whose fault that is. Or whose in-laws you are going to for the holidays. Or who forgot to get the car's oil changed 27,000 miles ago. Or why the 17 year old for whom you saved enough money to go to Harvard now wants to study cosmetology in Aruba.
Humor is about getting air to breathe, room to maneuver, space to think. With humor, the question is not "Whose fault is this?" but "How can we get through this one with our spirits intact?"

I think maybe the richest treasure of content marriages is the Taj Mahal of memories they have built together through the years. Who else shares the vivid memories of the goofy magic of your particular courtship? Who else is going to laugh with you until the tears roll down your cheeks about that time you were so sleepy you forgot to put a diaper under the baby's sleeper? And you then proudly handed her to your spouse's grandfather?

Your spouse remembers what it was like when your dad died. Your spouse and you remember the perky parade of bean and tuna casseroles you figured out when one of you got laid-off. Or the struggle it was to raise one of your kids, the joy it was to raise the other, and the fierceness with which you have always loved them both.

I guess good old marriages are like a lot of life's best riches. You have to give it all you have. You have to work hard, stay honest, act with kindness, savor every joy. And then maybe, just maybe, you'll be among the lucky folks who get blessed with a good old marriage.

Here's to real love in the real world. Happy Anniversary, Nancy and Brent.

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