36 Things I Know After 36 Years of Marriage

P & W Yosemite 2014IMG_0086 copyNext week, my husband and I will celebrate our 36th anniversary.

Some years we’ve gotten dressed-up and gone out to dinner. Other years we’ve simply marked the day with a kiss.

Once, we were both sick with the flu and I vaguely remember clinking our glasses of orange juice together and then sleeping right through the day.

Then there was the year when we were so embroiled in struggle that we let the day pass without even a word.

That’s what marriage is: richer, poorer, good times and bad. Each year with its surprises and challenges, its hard fought lessons, its moments of sweetness.

To honor our many years together, here are 36 lessons I’ve found most valuable:

1. If you think marriage would have been much easier with somebody else, you’re probably wrong.

2. Most marital problems are fixable. Really. Even the tough ones.

3. The D word (divorce) is a dangerous weapon. I suggest the F word instead: frustrated. Nobody’s heart will be broken if you say, “I’m so FRUSTRATED I could scream!”

4. The term wedded bliss should be stricken from every couple’s vocabulary. Marriage is wonderful in many ways, but expecting bliss makes the inevitable rough times seem like a problem when they’re simply part of the deal.

5. That bit about how your partner won’t change: Wrong. My husband and I met in our early twenties. If we’d both stayed just as we were, we’d still be two naïve kids, stubbornly insisting we have to have things our way, thinking marriage shouldn’t be as challenging as it is.

6. Marriage doesn’t get good or stay good all on its own.

7. Every one of us is, in our own way, difficult to live with. Beginning to work on even one of your own problem behaviors will make a big difference in the quality of your marriage. Added bonus: your spouse will greatly appreciate it!

8. People who are unhappily married sometimes think marriage is the problem — that marriage is unnatural or outdated or impossible to do well. There’s not a third entity called marriage. Everything that goes on between you is your creation. Each of you playing your part. Why not create something worthwhile?

9. Marriage is a “learn on the job” proposition. None of us comes into it with all the skills we need for success. When the going gets rough it’s most often a sign that we need some new skills — not a sign that we need a new spouse.

congratulations-defying-marriage-anniversary-ecard-someecards10. Struggle in marriage is not only inevitable, it’s necessary. None of us can grow a strong and healthy relationship without having to face and resolve difficult issues.

11. Even the best marriage can’t make up for the difficulties we faced growing up. We all come with childhood injuries. Thinking your spouse can make you feel safe and secure when you’re wobbly inside is too much to ask. The sooner (and more effectively) you deal with your “stuff,” the healthier and more satisfying your marriage will be.

12. Love grows as much from the challenges we face and surmount together as from the delights that we share.

13. Marriage is a long negotiation about how two people are going to run things. Money. Intimacy. Parenting. Chores. You can battle, or you can collaborate. Collaboration is a lot more rewarding.

14. Even the most stubborn among us can learn how to yield. Trust me on this one.

15. Most of your spouse’s upsets and frustrations aren’t about you — but some are. The sooner you figure out which is which, the better off you’ll be.

16. During hard times, commitment may be your saving grace. The fact that, way back when, you said “’till death do us part” may be the only reason you keep two feet in long enough to fix what’s not going well. And that’s reason enough.

17. Marriage can make you a better person or a worse person. It’s your choice.

18. Complaints and criticisms aren’t the same thing as requests for change.

19. Discouragement is one of the greatest threats to marriage. I’ve seen struggling couples give up on marriages that could quite likely be saved had they been given the proper guidance and encouragement to hang in there and fix things.

20. Thinking you have a 50-50 chance of ending up divorced makes it seem like a coin toss. It’s not. There are some behaviors that nearly guarantee failure. We all know what they are. It’s a good idea to not do them.

21. Being nice helps.

22. Saying thank-you does, too.

23. The happier I am about my own life, the less irritated I am about my husband’s irritating behaviors.

24. A good marriage will have its share of conflict, frustration, boredom, unresolvable arguments, slammed doors and nights where one person sleeps on the couch. The key is to have enough good things to balance them out.

25. It’s not always easy to keep your heart open.

26. Love matters. While love doesn’t heal all, even (especially) during hard times, love is a touchstone, a reminder of why you got together in the first place.

27. Marriage is not an antidote for loneliness. While marriage provides companionship, closeness and connection are not a constant. Sometimes we’re in sync. Sometimes we’re not. It’s important to be able to soothe and comfort yourself when need be.

28. It’s easy to get into a rut when you’re with the same person, year after year. Sex. Vacations. Dinner. How you spend Saturday night. Change things. Add some spice.

29. Most good marriages have one person who plays the role of the relationship “guardian”: The person who brings up difficult subjects. The person who stays hopeful in hard times. The person who acts as a steadying influence when one or both of you are getting worked-up. In an ideal world, that role would be shared. In the real world it only takes one.

30. One of the best things to do in the midst of a fight is to stop fighting. Take a break. Cool down. Come back to it later. Hotheads are terrible problem solvers.

31. Some conflicts cannot be resolved by compromise. (We can’t have half a child or buy half a vacation home). When there’s no such thing as “meeting halfway,” the solution becomes a matter of generosity, where one person says “yes” to their second choice and the other acknowledges that as a gift.

32. Fights are never about content. Where we store the dish soap, whether it’s quicker to take the frontage road or the freeway, whether it’s horribly rude not to answer a text — none of these are worth getting ourselves all in a twist. Our upsets are about the larger meaning we make of that unanswered text, that resistance to influence, that refusal to take seriously the things we request. It’s really helpful to accurately name what’s setting you off.

33. There’s a big difference between being happily married and living happily ever after. None of us are happy 24/7. Thank goodness we don’t need to be.

34. When you think to yourself, I really shouldn’t say this, you’re probably right.

35. Learning how to make up is essential since you’ll never, ever, get to a point where neither one of you screws up.

36. One of you has to go first. Apologize first. Be vulnerable first. Yield first. Forgive first. Why not let that person be you?


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51 thoughts on “36 Things I Know After 36 Years of Marriage

  1. As a person who just split from my husband, this list really sort of breaks my heart. But it’s so true what you say. I realize that so many things that caused the breakdown in my marriage were fixable. It’s so painful to realize, but life must go on. I was spoiled in my expectations, and now I see it plain as day.


  2. Congratulations Winifred! I will get to see Patrick in a couple of weeks, so will share my congrats with him too. So glad the two of you have had such a long beautiful time together. I like seeing that there are successful marriages, when you mostly hear about the others. Wishing you many more wonderful years together.

    Warmly, Donna

    *********************** Donna Fowler MindWalk Consulting LLC An Affiliate of Ecstasis Consulting LLC


    donna@mindwalk.net <http://www.mindwalk.net&gt;


  3. Winifred, I don’t usually comment on websites, blogs, and the like, but I felt compelled to share. I separated from my husband last fall; we had been married for 10 years and had a 4 year old son. We were both miserable and thought there was no way out; we couldn’t see through the chaos (even with the help of several rounds with a marriage counselor). During the separation, I did a lot of reading: I read about divorce, but I also read about marriage (including several of your posts). Like your first commenter, Jami, I figured out that a lot of our issues were fixable and things became so clear to me. I feel extremely fortunate that we have now been back together for several months, and while things are certainly not ‘perfect,’ I am grateful every single day that we were both in a place to open our hearts and our minds to one another. We celebrated our 11th anniversary last month and we have honestly never been happier. Thank you, Winifred, for doing what you do.


    • Thank you so much for your comment. You’ve made my day.
      The main reason I blog, and the reason I’m writing a book, is to offer hope and encouragement in a world of nay-sayers.
      Turning a marriage around isn’t easy, as you know. And many of us have done it.

      I wish you and your husband continued success.


      PS- I’m glad you mentioned being separated. I’ve seen separation be very helpful to struggling couples. It isn’t always the first step toward divorce.


  4. Pingback: Awen Therapy » What Others Had to Say This Week…

  5. If my wife truly understood and followed 5,13,14,21,23,26,31,35,36 i think our marriage would be much easier. I feel those are the most important points in this article.


  6. Just came across your blog for the first time a few days ago. Love this post! My husband and I have been married for more than 41 years and we both found so much truth in it. Congratulations on your anniversary and thanks for your commitment to boldly share your wisdom and experiences with others.


  7. Coming up on our 15th anniversary ourselves my wife sent this to me and it was wonderful to see she was thinking of this. When I get home from Germany I’m going to print this out and place it in a frame for us to see and review so that we will always strive to make our relationship better and better. Looking back myself much of what you have shared is so true. One thing I have also learned is that a true sincere heart felt sorry, with accompanying effort to fix the problem goes a long way to see that you were truly sorry for your behavior. Thanks so Much. Roger G


    • Thanks, Roger.
      Yes, knowing how (and being willing) to give a sincere apology is so important. As I was choosing my 36, I realized that I could write 50! Apology would be on that list. 🙂
      Congratulations on your upcoming anniversary.


      • I couldn’t agree more, however my wife doesn’t believe in saying sorry. She and her mother, who lives with us, believe sorry should only be said when you are sure you will never make that same mistake again for the rest of your life. I completely disagree. Nonetheless, I have never heard the word sorry in our two and a half years of marriage.


  8. “She and her mother, who lives with us, believe sorry should only be said when you are sure you will never make that same mistake again for the rest of your life.” Ha!
    Lots of people have a hard time apologizing. My post about how to give a world-class apology was my least popular of all, ever!
    Is there some other way your wife expresses her regret? A nod, a shrug, a pat on your arm?


  9. I found this via a Huffington Post facebook share today. This is a mindful, well-written, excellent & inspiring list of advice. This should be required reading for all married couples. My husband & I also will celebrate 36 years of marriage this Spring. Thank you for sharing this wisdom and Happy Anniversary.
    PS: My personal favorite is #16


  10. Pingback: 36 Things I Know After 36 Years of Marriage | The Fragrance of Marriage!

  11. my 36th anniversary is coming up this month. All 36 well said and I 100% agreed in every words. My husband always tell me that “D” should not be said every time husband and wife going thru some struggle.


    • Hi Julie,
      Congratulations on your 36 years.
      Yes, people shout “divorce” when they need to be saying “here we are again in our trouble spot. I sure wish we were better at dealing with this!”

      Thanks for writing. 🙂


  12. i just read your blog. I am in a very difficult time of my marriage. We have been married 29 years and together almost 35 , I just turned 50, so most of our lives were together. i cannot see past the hurt and the damages. i dont want to go on , he does not want to give up . There are not 3rd parties attached (with the 2 of us is more than enough trouble!! =) ) He want to attend couples therapy, how do I choose one , what should I consider in my choices? Thanks for your response


    • Just to be sure I understand your question- if you’re wondering how to choose a couples therapist, I address that very question at length on my professional website: winifredreilly.com.

      Only thing I would add to that is if you’re trying to figure out if you even want to stay married, make sure the therapist you choose will help you answer that question first.

      Two additional posts you might find helpful:

      When One Partner is Out and The Other is In
      9 Crucial Questions to Ask Before Calling a Divorce Attorney

      Hope this helps,


  13. This is how I feel tonight. 36 yrs and we had a kiss and and glass of wine. Love him so much but didn’t feel this yr. Many things in the air. I will always be by his side
    Thank you


  14. Pingback: A Couple’s Therapist Celebrates 40 Years of Marriage and Shares Simple Truths All Newlyweds Need To Know | Zepp Facts

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