Brand building through storytelling

How we stayed married for 39 years

Scene: three couples lolling on overstuffed couches amid the amiable clutter of a perfect Sunday afternoon–half-sipped glasses of sauvignon blanc, the remains of a satisfying lunch, every arm rest draped with a section of the New York Times. My husband, gazing out the picture window at our friends’ snowy field glinting in the sunlight, broke the silence with one of those offhand remarks that can suddenly loom like a boulder in the landscape of a marriage. “You know, dear,” he began, “I’ve been thinking it’s for the best that you decided not to go to law school. You wouldn’t have made a very good lawyer.”

“Oh, really?” I demanded in my frostiest tone, created for an irksome kid sister, since refined with stonewalling service personnel of the “not my job” persuasion. “And just where are you saying I’d fall short? Are you faulting my analytical powers? Do you think I’d be incapable of writing a brief? Or arguing a case in court?”

At the time I was editing a magazine with 3 million readers. I hadn’t even thought about law school since the day I pitched the enrolment form after getting a surprise offer for my first job in publishing. An underpaid part-time position at an academic journal, it filled my head with fantasies of spinning golden words from the straw of professorial verbiage, proving what should have been clear all along: I had no passion for law.

Even so, I waited for my husband to assure me that of course I would shine at lawyerly matters. Our friends were waiting, too, their faces frozen in sympathetic dismay. At last my husband framed his recovery: “I can’t see you rewriting boilerplate for the hundred- and-forty-seventh time. But you’d have made a very good…prosecutor.”

He recounted this marital drama at my 60th birthday party for the collective amusement of more than 40 guests, nearly all of whom had been married at least once and between them had a wealth of memories when it comes to spousal quirks. Fittingly, my birthday is also our wedding anniversary. We didn’t plan it that way—plans of any kind were not our style in 1970–but the first date offered by the folks at City Hall just happened to be my twenty-first birthday. We had vaguely thought of getting married barefoot in a field, but it would have taken hours of planning just to locate the field, let alone weave daisy wreaths and compose vows riffing on famous poem. So off we went to City Hall. Thirty-nine years later, here we are, neither of us quite what the other was expecting yet both of us more proud of this joint project known as a marriage than of anything else in our lives.

I know a number of people who’ve edited magazines, even more who’ve published books. I’ve met precious few who’ve been married longer than we have, and they’re mostly old enough to be our parents. The exception, a delightful pair encountered at a recent dinner, have passed the 40-year mark despite the sort of fundamental difference in world view that’s often said to doom a marriage. She’s her own kind of Catholic, a searcher who believes in communicating with the dead; he’s an atheist with no truck for  “the other side.” Yet there they were, smiling at each other’s gentle jibes.

I’d love to ask them for their secret but I’ve already got a good notion. What passes for harmony in marriage, two hearts and minds in lockstep, is my notion of a snooze. Let’s hear it for the allure of difference!

You know the old saw “Never go to bed angry?” Don’t believe it. I learned in the first few years that there’s just no hurrying a truce when we both need some breathing room. For my husband (and maybe yours as well) that means the solace of watching a game on TV. For me it’s a book, quickly followed by bed and a mind-clearing dream or two.

Our marriage thrives on separate spaces, both emotional (a few special friends we seldom share with each other) and physical (we’ve each got a personal bathroom). We don’t go as far as one couple we know, who seldom travel together because she likes photography vacations while he favours music festivals. But I’m not about to knock their approach. It’s easier to compromise with your spouse on big issues when you can be queen of the small stuff—and the bathroom vanity works just fine.

Here’s a more recent discovery: just because he’s in a foul mood doesn’t mean I’m to blame. As Daniel Goleman writes in Social Intelligence, the smartest pop psych book I’ve read in eons, “women’s instinct for caregiving means they take more personal responsibility for the fate of those they care about, making them more prone than men to getting distressed at loved ones’ troubles.” Consequently, “wives spend far more time than their husbands ruminating about upsetting encounters, and they review them in their minds in vivid detail.”

I could swear that Daniel Goleman has been perched inside my head taking notes; in fact he’s been perusing the research and observing any number of marriages. Which just goes to show that after 39 years, I still have a thing or two to work on for the next few decades.

For more tales from the marital trenches, click here and here


Posted by Rona

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