How Do People Stay Married for Fifty Years?
I often see an older couple walking hand in hand up and down the strip near my house. They saunter slowly next to one another, side-by-side, window shopping and chatting. Every time I see them I feel all warm and cozy inside. Two people committed to one another, happy and old. Lovely.
It is the idyllic vision of what a long marriage looks like, isn’t it? But I have been trained and bred to see this as a ‘happy ending’, the ‘way things should be’, especially after spending my teenage years watching The Princess Bride. But what I can’t help but think, after that nice fuzzy feeling exits and the credits roll, is how the hell did they get there? If things are actually what they seem, how did time not suck the love right out of them?
Statistically, only 5% of couples make it to their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Just a little over half of marriages make it to their fifteenth year together. The number of currently divorced adults quadrupled from 1970 (4.3 mill) to 1994 (17.4 mill) (Census Bureau), which gives our parent’s generation every right to say, “People are divorcing nowadays more than ever.”
So, why get married? Well, there is something innate in most of us to want to have a family unit in place. Even our ancestors, although they shared partners and raised their babies as a group, lived together to help one another in a village—their family unit was just a little less ‘conventional’ than ours. We’ve only really been trying to be monogamous for ten thousand years. In terms of the time humans have been on this earth, this is nothing.
I remember chatting with an old boss of mine and in his thick Long Island accent, he told me that men were not made to be monogamous. “It’s a part of ‘our nature’,” he’d said. I called him a pig and told him that it was just a sorry excuse for men to cheat on their wives. He laughed at my apparent naïveté and called me a romantic. Like being romantic was simply staying faithful and content with your current partner. Fast-forward a few years and a couple of them dating in Manhattan, I sit here married and fully aware of how romantic contentment really is.
I also look back and accept that what he said that day was not far off the mark, except for one thing. Both men and women cheat.
As much as we all feel hopeful and full of love on the day we marry our spouse, it’s a long life full of change and dare I say, opportunity. Even though we all say ‘forever’, it is the most overused, under-proven word on the planet. How can one ever really know what happens forever?
I once met a couple who had been married for over forty years and I asked them what the secret to a successful marriage was. This slim old lady leaned over and placed her soft palm on my shoulder. “One word: respect,” she’d said, patting me like she had just given me life’s secret to happiness. I nodded my head, contemplating this elusive word and what it would mean to my future husband, whom I hadn’t yet met.
This is a good idea, respect. I like it. But you see, life gets in the way. Thoughts and reactions do too. Passions, desires and innate patterns kick aside the intentions of everyday respect. It’s sad, but true. We all carry around with us past annoyances and pain and who better to activate the very core of each and every one of them than our partners.
Day-to-day life, mundane crap, kids yelling and hardly ever really being alone with our partners all lead to a tricky place in which we either unconsciously or consciously stop respecting our partners over the years.
I see it all the time with couples that I know, men and women squabbling on the street—I guess in my own house too. There is a tone of voice used, a quip. It is what comes out of familiarity, evolving as time together increases.
My husband recently told me that it wasn’t about what I said; it was about how I said it. My immediate response was to want to call him sensitive—that he was taking it all too personally. I’m not harsh or spicy; I’m just a passionate person with a voice that gets a few notches louder when I’m really feeling something.
But I realized that it didn’t matter what I thought in that moment. People don’t pull hurt out of nowhere, especially men. If he thinks I’m saying something with an edge, then regardless of what I intended, it’s the way I’m making him feel that is creating the issue.
And if you’re the type of person who while in the middle of a fight can take a moment and think:
“Oh, he has good intentions here. He is not trying to win or be right. He’s hurt and he’s trying to tell me that. I should take a moment to respect that….”
Then well, you’re awesome and I don’t know how you do it.
The fact is: no two people were created the same way, never mind different upbringings, cultural backdrops and different psyches engrained with centuries of patterns and emotion. There has to be some level of compromise within a partnership.
Okay okay, so I may sound like a hopeless realist, but trust me, I think that marriage is a wonderful thing. I’m a huge romantic. I mean big. When I was 16 years old, my boyfriend and I got fake married (we were the only ones there) standing in a city fountain in our bare feet. I always wanted the big love, the great story, and I got it. It’s just that there are so many moments after the ‘ending’ (which is really just the beginning) that I didn’t anticipate. And I don’t mean just the challenging ones; there have been amazing, bone-crushingly meaningful moments that I could never have imagined as well.
Marriage provokes the very essence of who we are and the way we relate to one another. It tests us, pushes us and demands selflessness at times. I am reminded of my own gifts and faults every single day, and as much as that can be hard at times, I know it is a part of my evolution as a person. I guess you could say my husband is good for my soul.
So I think of that contented elderly couple, quiet and peaceful, and I wonder just how many exercises of tolerance took place over those many decades together. And just as Facebook status updates, for the most part, shine a light on the happy and blissful moments of singledom, family life, travel and beyond, we don’t see the moments in between, the stuff in the cracks.
I don’t share on Facebook that my husband didn’t seem interested in my story today or that I was annoyed by his behaviour. People don’t see the inner workings of our relationship in a picture that shows us smiling, holding a margarita on the beach. There are these other laborious moments that deepen our relationship to the point where the smiles on the beach are genuine and meaningful.
Looking at this little old couple is no different. It’s much like seeing a pretty Instagram picture. It is one frame, captured by perfect lighting and setting and through the lens of my own idealistic expectation of what a happy ending looks like. There are a million moments between this shot and the day they said ‘I do’. I hate to use the word ‘work’ when talking about love, but I’m sure they didn’t make it fifty years together by co-existing idly and watching each other grow from afar. They did it together.
What gets us all the way there, I reckon (and something to remind ourselves of daily), will be the same thing that brought us to signing that binding contract in the first place: the feeling of not wanting to be with anyone else on the planet.