What I Know For Sure After 40 Years of Marriage

Wedding couple in car decorated with plate JUST MARRIED and cansThis week, my husband Patrick and I celebrated our fortieth wedding anniversary. To mark the occasion, I booked a room for us at the rustic inn down the coast where we spent our wedding night.

Sitting at a small table by the fire at dinner, Patrick lifted his glass to toast to our many years together. “To us,” he said. “To us,” I replied and at that moment I could see us as newlyweds, at a far table by the window. There we were, young, bright-eyed, naive, in love. So much of life yet to be lived, so much to learn.

Looking at them, I knew they had no idea of the bumpy road ahead, the hard-fought lessons they would learn, the ways they were yet to grow, and the sweetness and depth of connection that their decades together would bring.

Now, at 40 years, here’s what know about marriage that I wish I’d known then:

1. Most people believe that marriage should be easier than it is. The truth is, marriage is hard. It isn’t just you.

2. The ways that you’re different will either make life interesting or drive you crazy. Which of these it is will depend on how open-minded and flexible you’re able to be.

3. Owning up to your own shortcomings becomes easier the more that you practice it.

4. Don’t think having challenges means you’re doing something wrong. All couples struggle. It’s the way that we grow.

5. Every couple writes their own rule book. Who does what. What you can talk about. What can’t be discussed. If you don’t like the rules, make up some new ones.

6. The conflicts you have make sense. They also tell a lot about your strengths and your weaknesses. The sooner you figure out what you’re really fighting about the sooner you’ll actually know what to resolve.

7. Generosity may be the key to a happy marriage. I’m not talking about over-giving or saying yes when you mean no, just to keep peace. I’m talking about saying yes as often as possible because you have plenty to give.

8. No matter how long you’ve been married, no matter how much work you’ve done, you may still find yourself in an idiotic argument about absolutely nothing.

9. More idiotic the argument, the less time you should spend on it.

10. Believing that asking for what you want means you will get it will bring you great suffering. Most things are a negotiation. While it’s important to ask, it’s also important to accept that your partner is not obligated to give you what you want.

11. When saying no, keep in mind point number 7 about the value of generosity.

12. The following words are totally subjective: clean, finished, enough.

13. The chewing noises…knuckle cracking…yawning…sighing…that annoyed you early on are likely to continue to annoy you. Oh well.

Displeasure, Irritation, Dislike, Loathing, Disgust And Annoyanc

14. Learning how to keep your cool when you’re being misunderstood is an essential skill.

15. Never bring your telephone to the dinner table. Same goes for time spent in the car together, watching TV, and snuggling in bed.

16. Blame is a lot easier than being accountable for your role in your difficulties, but I don’t recommend it.

17. Give up on 50-50 and things being fair. Sometimes one person is going to do more of something or not enough of something.

18. Every couple is mismatched in some way. Messy or neat. Early-riser or night owl. Piler or filer. Don’t think for a minute there wouldn’t be some issue with somebody else.

19. Your spouse is not your mother, father, child, or maid.

20. Everything will change over time. Your energy. Your body. Your interests. A long marriage is an exercise in adaptability.

21. A half-assed apology will only make things worse.

22. Forgiveness is important since you’ll both make plenty of mistakes.

23. Any two people can work out pretty much anything if they want to.

24. It’s not sexy to pout or be angry when you’re turned down for sex.

25. What you’re doing now and going to do in the future is as important— or more important— than what you did in the past.

Black And White Portrait Of African American Husband Wife26. If you’ve gotten too busy to kiss hello and goodbye, slow down.

27. Some of your partner’s complaints about you are valid. Some are not. It’s your job to figure out which is which.

28. Saying I love you never gets old.

29. Being told that you’re loved doesn’t get old either.

30. Don’t think for minute that the satisfaction of winning will offset what you lose.

31. In the midst of a heated conversation, surprising things will happen if at the end of every sentence you speak you ask, “What do you think?”

32. When you do this, it’s really important to listen to his or her answer.

33. There’s a big difference between interrupting and “participating” in the conversation. The trouble is it can be hard for some of us to tell the difference.

34. Which way you hang the toilet paper is not a hill to die on. Nor is being the only person who replaces the empty roll.

35. Don’t freak out if now and again you feel hate instead of love.

36. If you hear yourself think, “I have no choice…” think again. The choice you’re facing may be perilous, but resentful compliance is, too.

37. When it comes to making things better in your marriage, don’t be afraid to take the lead. The alternative is saying stuck forever, waiting for the other to go first.

38. Most of us don’t function well under pressure. In all circumstances there’s a really dumb thing to do and really wise thing to do. If we’re able to calm ourselves down, we’re more likely to choose the wise one.

39. There are 101 ways to say “I love you” without saying a word.

40. Forty years will pass in the blink of an eye. The less time you waste on things that don’t matter, the happier you’ll be.

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7 Short and Sweet Ways to Connect With Your Spouse

Holding HandsYou’ve heard the advice a million times: Have a regular date night. Spend quality time. Don’t let your relationship fall to the bottom of your to-do list.

And it’s true. Without making time to connect, we end up living like roommates, or business partners, rather than lovers.

But for many of us, time is in short supply. Our days are so packed that by the time the dishes are done or the kids are (finally) in bed, or we’ve answered that one last pressing email, or made that one last call, all we want to do is veg out on the couch.

Here’s the good news: You don’t need four course candle lit dinners or long weekends away to rekindle the sweet, loving parts of being a couple:

1. When time is short, the last thing you need is to be multitasking when you’ve finally got time together. Never mind Facebook while you’re watching a movie. Turn off your phone during dinner and when you’re out running errands together, and, most important of all, when you’ve climbed into bed.

2. Too tired to talk? Put your hand on his arm. Take hold of her hand. And not just for a second.

3. Back when we had young kids, I initiated something called the “five minute date.” The theory behind this was to get the good stuff we got from a night out together— no talk about work, or logistics, or the leak in the sink—without hiring a babysitter or leaving the house. No couple is too frazzled to sit for a few minutes on the back steps together with a cup of tea or a shared piece of pie, watching for shooting stars or just saying hi.

soap and towels11841860_s4. Yes, mornings are busy, but we all need to shower. Why not surprise your spouse and make it a shower for two?

5. Story time isn’t only for kids. Rather than reading in bed side-by-side—one of my favorite pastimes—pick something you both like, and read to each other. Or, for a change, download a book from Audible and let someone else do the reading. Don’t be surprised if you drift off to sleep.

6. Remember that song you picked for your first dance? Put it on after dinner and ask, “May I have this dance?” Set it on repeat. The dishes can wait.

7. Instead of that air kiss you give on the way out the door, kiss your sweetie goodbye the way you did when you were dating. Even more challenging, stick with it for ten seconds. One caveat: You might not want to leave.
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This post first appeared on Tips on Life and Love, from Simon & Schuster

It Takes One to Tango. It Doesn’t Take Two.

Back in the early, struggle-filled years of my marriage, the self-help books that I read emphasized love and togetherness. But at the time, my husband and I didn’t feel all that loving, and sometimes I wondered whether staying together was even an option.3D

Many books made it seem like marital strife could be easily corrected. Dozens suggested five or ten or one hundred “simple” things couples can do to be happily married, many of which looked like great ideas for people who were already happy, and utterly useless for couples like us who were in serious distress.

Other books were deeply discouraging, making it seem as if struggling couples were simply mismatched. Marital struggle, it seemed, was an indicator of something having gone terribly wrong: an exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself.

Was everyone else effortlessly using I-statements? I wondered. Were they all being respectful and tolerant, embracing their partner’s uniqueness? Why, then, was the divorce rate so high?

Obviously, lots of people struggle in their marriage. And some forty percent of them give up. Yet nothing I found explained why.

Where was the book called, How to Keep From from Killing Your Partner While You Figure Out Why He Drives You Nuts? I needed that one.

But no such book existed. So I decided to write it myself. Only I’ve called it IT TAKES ONE TO TANGO: How I Rescued My Marriage With (Almost) No Help From My Spouse—and How You Can, Too.

DesignThe party line about marriage is that it takes two. It’s what most people believe and many therapists espouse: Marriage is a two-way street, a fifty-fifty proposition.

We’re told that change in a marriage requires a shared commitment to growth, and that for good things to happen both partners must be willing to put both feet into the process.

But if it really takes two people to fix things, what happens when one partner is deeply discouraged, or has one foot out the door? What if you’re desperately longing for change and your spouse digs in his heels?

Does that mean you should just call it quits?

Conventional wisdom would say that it does.

That’s the problem with the “it takes two” approach. It limits our options. It leaves us powerless, waiting for our partner to meet us halfway, do their fair share, put in an effort that’s equal to ours.

The message in my book is simple and empowering: you only need one partner to create far-reaching positive change in your marriage. No matter how frustrated you are. No matter how long you’ve been stuck.

I know from experience that when one partner takes that first step, behaves in a new way, challenges the status quo, the other will usually follow. Sometimes slowly, not always cheerfully, and often not in the way we imagined. But eventually, both partners become stronger and healthier, and so does the marriage.

One person must take the first step. Why not let that person be you?

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My book is now on sale! As my way of saying thank you for being such loyal and enthusiastic readers, I’ll be giving away autographed copies to three people who answer the following question: As a Speaking of Marriage reader, what’s the most useful piece of marriage advice you’ve gotten from my blog? Tell us a bit about what change it inspired in you or your relationship.

Have a friend who might be helped by my book? Please share!

For info regarding my talks and appearances, as well as news and inspiring cool stuff about relationships, follow me on twitter: @winifredmreilly and Facebook: WinifredMReilly

10 Wishes I Have For My Son and His Future Wife

original_marry-me-christmas-proposal-card edited Wedding experts say that the three-month stretch between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day is prime time for proposals. With the sparkle of Christmas and the promise of the new year lending an air of romance, nearly forty percent of couples choose this time to get engaged. To my delight, this year, my son and his fiancée are among them.

While the coming months will be taken up with writing guest lists and weighing the pros and cons of a winter wedding (with its possibility of ice storms) or a wedding in June (with its guarantee of mosquitoes) I’m keeping in mind the many years that will follow.

Continue reading

How to Turn an Okay Marriage Into a Great One

Image 7-12-15 at 1.49 PM (1)How many people do you know who would wholeheartedly say that their marriage is great?

How many would say that they’re happier now than when they first got together, that their marriage is one of the most satisfying parts of their life?

Five? Ten? None? Continue reading

How to be Happily Married in a World of Naysayers

imageWe’ve all heard the jokes: The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret.

I married Ms. Right. I just didn’t know that her first name was Always.

Marriage is talked about as if it’s a jail sentence, a ball and chain, the mistake of a lifetime.

Some have said that marriage is irrelevant and outdated. Others have called it a failed experiment.

Failed? Really?

I’ll be the first to admit that marriage can be difficult. Marriage asks us to grow and to stretch; it calls for flexibility and fortitude and a capacity to love — even (and especially) during really hard times. And anyone who’s been married for more than a month knows that hard times do come.

But there are also sweet times and easy times, times of deep love and affection, times when we’re glad that we’re married to the wonderful, annoying person we picked.

The “marriage is broken” folks seem to be saying that because some marriages are truly miserable, and because, even under the best of circumstances, marriage can be hard, we need to change the rules.

They say we need to stop expecting marriage to last a lifetime, to meet our needs for intimacy, to bring satisfaction and joy.

The trouble with the naysayers is that they talk about marriage as if it’s an entity — as if marriage is some sort of troublemaker; as if there’s something inherent in marriage that sets us up to fail.

To further bolster their argument, they trot out the inaccurate, “bad news” statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce.

Here’s the good news: when it comes to first marriages, 60-70% of them will be marriages that last. And yes, a lasting marriage isn’t necessarily a happy one, but the happiness part — that’s in our hands.

Senior couple kiss situation in white isolated background

If you’re looking to prove the naysayers wrong:

1. Accept that marriage takes effort if we want to do it well. Many things in life are difficult, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. Why should marriage be any different?

2.  Relationships don’t just happen. They don’t succeed by magic and they don’t fail on their own. Marriage is something we build from the ground up. It requires care and attention. The more creative and committed we are, the better our marriage will be.

3. The best marriages are based on generosity. No, I’m not talking about over-giving and sacrifice. True generosity is a wholehearted desire to offer the best of what we have. Love, affection, not believing we need to have everything our way in order to be happy.

4. Some of the worst marriages I’ve seen have gotten as bad as they are because neither partner is willing to risk: to apologize, to reach out, to be vulnerable, to name what needs to be addressed. Remember, you have to step out of your comfort zone if you want your marriage to grow.

5. Pay less attention to what your partner is doing that gets in the way of having a satisfying relationship, and pay more attention to what you’re doing, which is the only thing you can control anyway.

6. Accept that sometimes you’re going to be disappointed by your partner, just as your partner will, at times, be disappointed by you. Disappointment is not a sign that something’s gone wrong. It’s simply a challenging fact of life that we, as partners, must learn to handle as gracefully as possible. Freaking out about your inevitable disappointments will make you unnecessarily unhappy, or discouraged, or both.

image7. Don’t expect  your spouse to be a mindreader. If something is important to you, it’s your job to speak up.

8. Accept that your partner won’t be thrilled about everything you do. Relationships are about being a twosome and about being two separate people who want different things. I don’t advocate behaving in ways that are harmful or inconsiderate, but there are times when we have to act alone — to confront something difficult, to make a bold move, to challenge the rules.

9. Don’t underestimate the importance of quality time. Show up. Make eye contact. Open your heart. And, for goodness sake, turn off your phone.

10. Never believe you’ve tried everything. Most of us do the same ineffective things over and over, and think we’ve given it our all. Yes, some relationship problems are complex and overwhelming, and we have no idea what to do to solve them. But before you think you’re out of options, ask yourself this: What one thing can I do that would make a significant, positive difference in my relationship? Before you give up, go ahead. Go all out.

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For news and inspiring cool stuff about relationships, follow me on twitter: @winifredmreilly.

The Ultimate Garage Cleaner’s Guide to Marriage Repair

A few years ago a client gave me a refrigerator magnet that reads:

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Yep. I agree.

Especially when one of the chores involves the word garage. That’s how our garage ended up looking like a scene from the reality show where they bring in five guys in hazmat suits while a team of kind social workers comforts the hoarder. Continue reading