I sat next to a charming man named Richard tonight at dinner, at a symposium on greening historic communities. He’s in his mid seventies or thereabouts, has been married for around forty years, and has four sons, all of whom are successful, in completely diverse careers, and love each other, and their parents, whom as adults, they treat as friends. I asked him somewhat awkwardly what has made his marriage work after all these years. I really had to know. Being in a young marriage, and for the second time, I have concerns. I worry, will it work this time? It’s hard, everyone knows that in theory, but you don’t get much from canned psychology and friends, who won’t admit to anything because you’re too close.
Getting advice on love from strangers always seems best. So I asked him this question after the conversation had revealed that we’re both of a liberal persuasion, have similar world views and both think that Michele Bachmann is a disingenuous, frightening megalomaniac with designs on being Vice President to Mitt Romney. He got my jokes, and patted me on the shoulder. He said a few very useful things, but started with, “you know what happened? when we first met, we lived together. After about five years, my wife said she wanted to get married. I wasn’t ready. She said she wanted the commitment. So when I wouldn’t commit, she left. I was terribly disappointed. Knowing she could just leave at any time made me really pay attention to her, what she was saying, and really listen. It made me an attentive husband.”
The subtlety that is so hard to portray after the fact is that he wasn’t cowed in some way or threatened, he wasn’t attentive out of insecurity, but out of the pleasure of doing it. He realized this woman knew what she wanted and meant business. If he was a part of her life, he’d be able to be a party to her greatness. “She left and went and bought a house.” By herself. In 1972. She is an attorney, and after some years of marriage, went back to graduate school to become a clinical psychologist, and she’s a novelist. He couldn’t let her go. A woman that strong was worth committing to. He was intrigued by her , and maintains that that foundation of individuality is what made it work. He went on; I could see tears forming. I had to steel myself; it was touching how much this man loves his wife.
You don’t hear much about that these days. You hear about jackasses, mostly, politicians and celebrities, (polebrities?) who really don’t deserve to be married. I would have more hope if I knew that Richard was more common. That he’s a type, and that I will over time see that I married that type. I think I will. I think I already do, but he’s also got forty years of retrospective, it’s happened over time, the goodness, the will power. The deliberateness of loving someone for a very, very long time.
Other things that make marriage work in the long term according to Richard’s experience are a common aesthetic and a sense of adventure about it, and communication without fear. “not the brutal brutal truth, but the un-doctored truth, with some gesture toward each other’s feelings.” Tell me the whole truth, but do it in a nice, gentle, respectful way that fosters trust. That’s not easy. That’s what makes marriage hard. It also, I’d like to believe, makes it worthwhile.