(part of the Valentine’s Day series)
I work in a world of mostly young people, with a few of us older types salted in to maintain some level of sanity. A very low level. Actually an undetectable level. Relationships (as in dating, going steady, marrying, not bothering to marry) have changed since I was a student. For starters, marriage proposals are not what they once were. The quiet dinner or date which ended with the production of a ring has been replaced by a quiet dinner or date which ends with an entire theatrical production, of which the ring is merely one tiny element, and a finale that frequently features both extended families lurking somewhere close by and jumping out to yell “Surprise!” or “FBI!” or “Zombies!” “or “NOOOOOOooooooo!”. I do not claim to understand this practice, as sitting down for a visit with my grandmother and my weird cousin Deanne was the last thing on my mind the night I proposed to Laura.
People are waiting longer to get married. Since 1990, the average age of first marriage has jumped from 23 to 27 for women and from 26 to 29 for men. While this may seem late to some, the data on this trend is quite positive: marrying a little later makes you less likely to divorce and results in fewer, less intense arguments (maybe by waiting you have already had those arguments?). I won’t go into the science that says men’s brains are not fully developed until age 25 (in some cases much later) but that is probably part of this too. But don’t wait too long: people who marry before 30 report more sex and less drunkenness, both of which seem like pluses.
Aside from deciding not to get married when you are 18, which is a really smart idea, most of us marry whenever we find the right person and once we convince ourselves this is not the worst idea we have ever had. And then it’s done, and if you’re reading this you are either married or you are not, so about the best you can do at this point is to continue making it the best it can be.
Mark Manson got married in January, and like many of us he asked some happily married people how they do it. But unlike most of us he asked several thousand people (he’s clearly an over-achiever), and more than 1500 responded, some with pages and pages of insights. Manson spent two weeks trying to dig through the mountain of responses, and probably regretting his request, in the same way you sometimes regret asking someone, “How was your day?” and 45 minutes later limping quietly away and vowing never to do that again. Or maybe that’s just me.
Manson concluded that most of his respondents were either cheating and reading each other’s answers, or they had come to similar conclusions on their own, meaning that across very diverse situations there are actually a small number of factors that go along with successful marriagers. Here are just a few:
- Realistic expectations set the stage for a happy marriage. You need to recognize that this person is, to put it bluntly, a mess, which goes with being human and is probably why she is willing to marry you. Also if you have been married for thirty years and your spouse still throws his clothes on the floor, you have probably just accepted this and promised yourself you will do better when you are reincarnated as a unicorn and marry again.
- People who are in the first decade of marriage, or who have divorced, focus on the importance of communication, which is important. But people who are decades into a good marriage stress the importance of respect. Never, ever, EVER talk badly about your partner. Allow him to be an individual, and make sure that you are focused on what is good for the team, not just for you. Read it with me in Aretha Franklin’s amazing voice: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
- You will change and your partner will change, and your relationship will evolve accordingly. Actively work to make it a success as it changes. Even if your spouse still throws his clothes on the floor. Or believes in unicorns. Most of us (I celebrate 28 years in May) find that the marriage is different, but in most generally better as we travel along.
- Fight well. You will disagree, sometimes vigorously (what church folks sometimes call “having intense fellowship”), and how you do this is key. Successful spouses settle issues without attacking each other personally, showing contempt, or just walking away and ignoring it. For reference see R-E-S-P-E-C-T above.
- Forgive. Marriages that succeed generally have unresolved issues, the kind of things you see whenever two individuals try to live a life together. Partners in these marriages find ways to allow each other to be who they are, imperfections and all. Lying to yourself can help, but only if it’s the right lie.
- The little things matter. The steady drip, drip, drip of kind words, a pat on the shoulder, a genuine compliment or a simple smile help to flush away the detritus of daily living. You know, the kinds of things you did automatically back when you were hormonally over-engaged and less busy with life.
- Recognize the seasons of life. Changes in the weather impact how you dress, how you spend your time, and how you feel about life in general, but the seasons happen to you, despite you, and you have to learn to adapt and go with the changes. Same with marriage. There will be good seasons and not-so-good seasons and you have to roll with them because they are all part of the deal.
On our campus is a small stone marker which, ironically, looks very much like a gravestone. It notes that on that very spot, sometime in the ancient past (the 1960’s), a man proposed marriage to his girlfriend and she accepted. It concludes with this advice: “It’s still a good spot.” A lot has changed about proposals and weddings and traditions, but in the end the keys to marriage success remain about about the same. I hope you enjoy Valentine’s Day with someone special, and that you take a moment to share a pat on the shoulder or a hug or just a random “I love you” with that person.
More on happy relationships next time. Aretha Franklin announced last week that she is retiring this year, so get your day rolling right with this blast from 1967. Made me smile.
A little respect (sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me)
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