I had an anniversary a few weeks ago, and since then, I have had a number of requests for marital advice. While I’m flattered that some people feel that my being married for 11 years makes me somehow an authority on being married, I’m not sure I have much useful advice. If I did, though, these would be the sweet, powdery pellets of wisdom from my marital Pez dispenser, in no particular order:
Choose your battles. Some stuff is not worth fighting about. Some stuff is. Decide which the thing you feel like fighting about is, and deal with it accordingly.
Don’t marry a jerk. It seems obvious, but look around. I’m sure you have at least a few friends who are married to jerks. How does that happen? I suspect it’s because those people either forget Dave Barry’s Rule of Personal Character (someone who is nice to you, but not to the waiter, is not a nice person) and therefore don’t realize they’re marrying jerks until it’s too late; the jerks in question became jerks after marriage (very rare); or people married the jerks in question thinking they could change them. That never works.
Have a long engagement if you have the option. Man, do you find out a LOT about what you’re in for! With the stress of planning a long-range wedding, you get a terrific preview of the dynamics that will characterize your lives together. You see how well you both handle general pressure, pressure from your respective families, what those families get bent out of shape about and how they behave when they do, what everybody thinks about religion, kids, politics, control… It’s a good transitional adjustment period, and it’s also a very useful microcosm of the dynamics of the marriage to come. You’ll get a really good sense of what problems might come up and whether or not you can weather them for the rest of your lives. It’s like an audition for the Swiss Family Stresspuppy. This is also a great time to perfect your battle-choosing techniques that will serve you well forever.
Promising to be in love forever is bizarre. Seriously, how is it not like promising to be angry forever, or sad forever? The real trick is being able to fall in love with the same person again and again. It’s good to pick someone you can do that with.
Don’t marry someone who couldn’t be your best friend. If you’re going to spend the rest of your life with someone, shouldn’t he or she be someone you would actually like to hang out with? This is a newish expectation, only a couple of generations old, but I think it’s a keeper. When I look at what folks of my grandmother’s generation have to say about their spouses, it seems to me that men and women were rarely friends, didn’t know each other so well, and that there were whole chunks of spouses’ psyches that the other person didn’t even know about. Still, I think it’s an important innovation. You deserve to spend your life with someone who really gets you.
Make up your own traditions. I think it’s really good to have things you do together for certain events on a regular basis. As your life together changes, you have these consistent markers throughout. I think it’s a nice thing, and makes you feel closer in some ways. I dunno, it’s hard to explain. Try it and see what you think.
Sex and laughter make perfectly good bases for a happy marriage. Some people have really lofty ideas about what relationships should have as their bases: common goals, common experiences, similar taste in furniture, values, etc. I think, though, that if your attitudes toward sex and toward what is funny and why are pretty much the same, or at least complementary, you’ve got something pretty good — that other stuff sorts itself out. In some ways, I think that other stuff is an artificial way of achieving the things that happen organically when your relationship is based on great sex and laughter. Furthermore, that stuff we’re always hearing about how sex stops when you’ve been married for a while is pretty much crap, and it’s simple to avoid: don’t marry someone who doesn’t like sex, unless you don’t like it either.
Threats and ultimata are crappy ways to deal with conflict. Don’t threaten anything you’re not really prepared to do, because doing what you say you’re going to do should be a major plank of all your relationships.
People are not cafeterias. You don’t get to pick and choose what you want your partner to be like. He is what he is, and you’ll both be happier if you go on the assumption that you can’t possibly fix or alter him in any way. Decide whether that’s a dealbreaker or not and get on with your lives.
Pick your wedding date as an anniversary date. You’ll only get one wedding in this marriage, but with any luck, you’ll have lots and lots of anniversaries. What’s your favorite time of year, and what kinds of things do you want to do every year to celebrate? Better to pick a bunch of great anniversaries than one okay date.