How do you stay married – happily – for 20 years?
I’ve been thinking on that recently, as my husband Ben and I celebrated our 20th anniversary. We found ourselves sharing the breakfast table at an awesome B&B with newlywed couples – people just like us when we started out.
The time between being the newlyweds – asking the long-married couples around us “how did you do it?” – and being the older couple offering advice, has flown by. While my husband and I celebrated our second honeymoon in the rainforest of Puerto Rico, I got word that Jeff Moore recently married (congratulations, Jeff and Danieta!). Jeff being Jeff, the first question he had for me was “how did you do it?”
Well, my friend, here’s how:
How To Have a Happy Marriage That Lasts More Than 20 Years
1.) Have faith you will meet that person.
At 22, I was holiday shopping with my mom when she found a rack of Hanes briefs for men. “Oh,” she said, “stop here for a minute with me – your Dad needs new underwear, I’ll get him some for Christmas.”
She shopped so casually, so lovingly, for the man who’d been in her life for decades. Watching her, I felt a kind of longing. I’d just emerged from the latest of my short-term relationships; I was lonely and worried about the future.
“Mom… what if I never get to buy underwear for somebody?” I asked her, my voice low and sad in the high-pitched holiday fervor of Jordan Marsh in the 90s.
Mom stopped, put down her stack of skivvies for Dad, and took my hand. “It’ll happen for you.”
“But, how do you know?”
“I just do. Enjoy your single time. It won’t last long.” Mom gave my hand a quick squeeze and, businesslike, resumed shopping.
My mom never lies; something in her look communicated safety and faith in the future.
So I did. I relaxed and enjoyed my single time.
One day, in the midst of pursuing that enjoyment, I found myself at the weekend-long, lakeside graduation party of a dear friend, feeling the earth move as I shook hands with the man who would become my husband.
At that point, I was 24, and my relatives were starting to get worried that I’d be an old maid forever! But not Mom. In her mind, the timing was probably just about perfect.
2.) When you get married, understand you move into a glass house.
While performing in my high school production of Godspell, I first paid attention to and understood the line “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” But evidently, the message didn’t sink in.
Once I got married, I began delivering lectures on compelling issues like those dirty dishes that never made it into the dishwasher, feeling really virtuous about how great I always am because I put my dishes straight in.
Until, that is, Ben pointed out that while I’m great at that, I’m always leaving junk mail all over the dining room table…or impulsively planting invasive species into the garden…or sticking a load of laundry in the washing machine and forgetting about it. I looked around and noticed that I kind of have a lot of small foibles like that.
It’s these little things that get in the way, that create friction, and make it difficult to feel that you have a happy marriage everyday. Remembering that I have my pain-in-the-ass things, just as Ben does, makes me mindful of hurting feelings. If I’m going to live in the glass house of marriage, I need to be careful about stone-throwing.
3.) Smile in line at the grocery store.
One day early on, Ben and I waited to pay for our groceries. We stood in a long line, at the end of a long day for both of us, and I was cranky. I scowled, I complained, I whined, “how long are we going to have to stand here?!” The lines were so long…my feet were tired…you know the drill.
Weary of my tirade, Ben asked me: “would you mind smiling instead of complaining? I’m looking around here at all these unhappy people, and I don’t know what their problems are. But I know that, when you smile, I feel better – so could you please maybe do that?”
Ben’s question changed not just our marriage, but how I interact with the world. I have a choice in what I communicate to others: I can be grumpy, or I can be pleasant – and what I choose makes a difference to those around me.
To this day, I smile in line at the grocery store. I speak cheerfully to my kids, to the cashier, to the person bagging my groceries. When people smile back, there’s a small connection that takes us all out of the daily grind for a moment.
4.) Get a book light.
Between Ben and I, one of us goes to bed to sleep – and one goes to bed to read before sleeping. This created real problems when we started sharing the same bed. Which is why, at my bridal shower, my mom gave me this newfangled thing: a Book Light.
You cannot imagine the arguments this has saved us! Each night, I read until it’s insanely late, and Ben sleeps. A marriage saved!
5.) Everyone fights. HOW you do it is important.
It was summer, and the kids (at eight and four years old) are spending a week – a whole week – at “Camp Grandma.” We’ve never had so much time to ourselves!
As we were sitting across from each other at dinner on the first night of this excessive freedom, with lit candles, cloth napkins, and romantic music, we got into the most epic fight about – of all things – merit pay for teachers.
We were so angry with each other that we stomped away from the table, each heading to our chief home domains: Ben to the garage, and I to the kitchen. Hot tears slid down my face. At first the tears of righteous indignation – how could he be so stupid?
But soon, they changed to tears of shame. I mean, who gives a crap about merit pay for teachers? Is this issue more important than a happy marriage – more important than my Ben?
Just as I was heading down the stairs to take back my angry words, he was heading up the stairs to do the same thing. We met and hugged each other on the landing, each apologizing and assuring the other: you are WAY more important than merit pay for teachers.
6.) Recognize how danged lucky you are.
I tried on the perfect engagement ring long before we even thought about marriage.
The July I was 25, in an antique store in New Hampshire, my mother, my sister-in-law, and Ben, stood around as I slipped on this beautiful ring. It fit perfectly, symbolizing the easy and wonderful marriage I could have with this gentle, kind, handsome man. The universe waved to me, shouting: “Hey! Now’s the time!”
I gazed at my intended, my eyes shining with the joy of the moment – to see the color drained from Ben’s face. He staggered outside, sinking down on a bench, obviously overcome at the idea of marrying me.
I realized it just wasn’t going to happen. My boyfriend’s taciturnity during the rest of that trip confirmed this. Also, he was never away from me long enough to possibly have a chance to go back and get that ring.
Or, so I thought. When Ben proposed the following December – during the first snowfall of the winter, on one knee, in the woods – to complete the fairytale vibe, he placed that same ring into my hand. Each time I look at it sparkling on my finger, as I’ve done countless times over these 20 years, I again feel how lucky I am.
Sometimes, I still get goosebumps thinking about his proposal. I get goosebumps also, remembering the feeling of shaking his hand for the first time.
Looking back over 20 years of a happy marriage, I cannot escape the feeling of extreme gratitude to a universe that placed me in Ben’s path on the day we met, so long ago.