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I’ve lived long enough to see many of my divorced friends find new mates. It’s quite a relief actually – not because I think everybody needs to be a couple, but because their divorces have left scars that I’m happy to see healing.

ball_and_chain_wedding_topperIn many cases my friendship with these people began with deep discussions about their marital relationships, and their hopes and concerns for their families. In some cases, I learned that everyone’s good intentions had somehow been lost to an ego-driven selfishness. That selfishness could be justified by phrases like, “Well, she doesn’t care about me.” or “Nothing pleases her.” In some cases, this inability to be pleased, by either a husband or a wife, would lead to a deliberate desire not to please – and everything would go downhill from there.

Sometimes the couples were just incompatible. Years of therapy couldn’t help unravel the knots that had been tied. No one was willing to surrender their hurt in the name of healing, or if they did it was to no avail. So divorce ensued.

For some, the post-divorce period led to great introspection. “Was it me? Was I the problem? Why couldn’t I make it work?” Those who chose to heap blame on themselves continued to do so, until they were able to recognize that compatibility with another person depends a lot on the other person.

Then, not surprisingly, some of them found other people, and in almost every case they said things like, “She appreciates me.” and “He’s so grateful when I let him know where I’ll be.”

REGJEGFeetAnnivLiteAs I look at the ties that bind me to my wife of thirty-seven years, I have to admit that appreciation has always been one of the keys. We’ve always done things for each other, often with little expectation of payback. We’ve accepted that our marriage is not a 50/50 thing. It’s a 90/90 thing, and at any given point one of us may be working harder than the other. I make our bed (fluffy pillows and all), not because my parents hounded me about it, but because I know it makes her happy.

I used to tell people that the person who won the arguments in our relationship was the one with the most passion for the result. Our issues generally fell along traditional lines. I cared more about teaching our sons not to quit when they were having a tough time on the baseball team, and she cared more about who their upcoming teacher might be. I wanted them to learn to work with their hands, and she wanted them to dress adorably. In each case, we yielded to each other and accepted the other’s leadership. If either of us felt really strongly about something, we articulated our argument as best we could and hoped the other would see the light — even if it took a day, or week, or month. In the end, the truth would float.

Which brings us back to the divorced friends.

In each of the cases I’ve seen, their new relationships thrived because the individuals are grateful to have someone who appreciates them just for being around. Maybe it’s something one learns from being alone, or unappreciated, but it’s definitely an essential ingredient in a successful connection.

CasualFamilyI’m writing to remind us all that a little appreciation goes a very long way. So whether you’re grateful that your mate keeps the house stocked with toilet paper or spent the whole day dealing with your mother, take the time to say thanks and add another stitch to the ties that bind you together.

For an added bonus, teach your children to do this too.

In honor of the fact that JoAnn and I are celebrating our thirty-seventh wedding anniversary this week, I thought I’d reflect a little on what I think has allowed our relationship to survive.

WateringCan2People express their understandings of a marriage in many different ways, but my friends Andrew and Claudia put it like this:

Each person takes turns being either a watering can or a flower.  Sometimes we need to be watered, and sometimes we need to do the watering.

I know. It’s a simple metaphor, but it works. Sure, sometimes I don’t feel like doing the watering, or I feel as though I’m completely out of water. I’m sure there are times when JoAnn feels the same way. But after thirty seven years, I’ve learned it’s worth finding the emotional resources necessary to nurture my mate – even if it means having to change my own focus or ignoring something that has irked me. In the end, making that effort comes back to me as a peaceful life, a calm environment, and a mate who digs deep for me when I need her.
Being generous to someone I love seems a small price to pay.

I’ve known from the start that individual egos are the biggest enemy of a good relationship. Once someone begins to take umbrage, there’s a problem. Once the resentment begins to pile up, and both people become unwilling to water, the flower begins to wither. The key is making a conscious decision to break the cycle – essentially deciding that peace is more valuable than whatever is hanging up the conversation. I think JoAnn and I have done this (subconsciously) by creating an “ego” for our relationship, and considering how things feel (for each of us) before blowing into the china shop.

BlogLite21When we started out, we were just kids – seriously, we were twenty-four years old. In fact, now three of our four kids are older than we were when we got married. For whatever reason, on that day and for many days before it, we had a sense that we were right for each other.

For me, marriage wasn’t an emotional deal. I knew I “loved” JoAnn, but as I try to do with most things, I applied a little logic to my situation. My marriage theory was based on this thought: although I could probably approach any woman at a bar, introduce myself, have a fun conversation and end up having a “successful” evening, the fact is that I never approach that woman and I probably never would. Also, I knew that as a world-class procrastinator who never wrote a paper until the day before it was due, I figured marriage would create a series of deadlines to help me achieve my goals in life.

Both of those theories held true.

RGnJGGI also entered marriage with open eyes. When I told my father that I intended to marry JoAnn he said, “Son, you are going to meet three or four more women in your life whom you might find really attractive.” I sad, “What? Are you telling me you don’t like JoAnn?” And he replied, “No, I love JoAnn, I’m just telling you what’s what.”

There will always be opportunities that we believe might make us happier, but trying to catch every ball may cause us to drop the one that is most appropriate for us. By letting me know that there would be understandable and common temptation, my father was trying to prepare me to acknowledge those possibilities and move on. Like an addict, I resolved to live my marriage “one day at a time” so that a lifetime of fidelity wouldn’t seem so daunting – and when the temptation to consider others arose, I made it through those days. On Wednesday I’m getting my thirty seven year chip.

REGJEGFeetAnnivLite

Photo by Emily Greenberg

The hallmark of our marriage is that we’re kind to each other. We don’t yell. We don’t call each other names. We don’t keep score. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get angry, or leave each other space when one is feeling tapped out. It means that our kindness is defined by the swallowing of pride, of understanding and generosity. One of us will do the dishes when neither of us feels like it, because the dishes aren’t going to wash themselves. We take care of each other, and consider each other’s needs as equal to our own. It’s our agreement, and we both know we’re better for it.

People will object, “That’s easy for you to say, you married the right person.” But, the fact is we’ve spent years training each other. No one comes out of the box designed to cohabitate perfectly. We’ve learned to pick our battles. We’ve learned what isn’t going to change – and we’ve managed to get over it. We all have our nuances, things that can drive others crazy… or not. Our choice is to see those things as part of the process and move beyond them. Learning to trust and communicate about them, rather than suffering in silence, is one of the keys to moving forward.REGJEGLaguna

There’s an old expression – “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” I like being both, and my wife knows it – so she humors me (until I admit that I was wrong).

Marriage is not fifty fifty – it’s ninety ninety. Give more than half and it’ll make thirty-seven years go by in the wink of an eye.

The Blue Pink Thing is a simple term for the obvious (and not so obvious) differences between the genders.  If you’re raising both boys and girls, I’m sure you are already aware of the Blue Pink Thing.  As John Gray put it, “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus,” and those differences manifest at a very early age.

BKGCopFixLittle boys turn pencils into guns.  Little girls like to dress up and practice twirling.  As toddlers, our boys could spend five to ten minutes doing a puzzle and then it was on to the next thing.  Our daughter, on the other hand, could sit with a puzzle for forty minutes.  She clearly exhibited much better focus at a far earlier point than the boys.  Our sons plowed their way through high school meeting their obligations and having a single, unchanging set of buddies.  Our daughter’s peer group changed like fashion… one day you were in, the next day you were out.  Once the boys went away to college, where they had to co-habit with people their age, things began clicking into place – like the need to wash clothes, dishes, and sheets.

Our daughter, Emily, has been sensitive and on-the-lookout since she was about seven years old.  She was keenly aware of her shifting friends.  Even in middle school she was providing therapy for those with less fortitude.  She saw it as her job to know where everyone in the family was and how they were feeling at any time.  To this day, she communicates with each of her brothers from college at least once a day.

EmilyFrillyShoesliteCropI suppose that hyper-connectivity can be attributed to our cell phones, texts, Instagram and emails, but, even in circumstances as simple as actual conversation, we have noticed differences.  The boys, when younger, weren’t interested in long conversations about their emotions.  But Emily could dissect every element of her feelings, and even invoke historical events we had long forgotten.  For example, “Benjy’s bedtime was nine o’clock when he was my age. Why is mine eight thirty?”  I couldn’t have remembered Benjy’s bedtime if I was pumped with truth serum and undergoing a polygraph test.

As many of you know, I believe our most important job as parents is to set an example, and Emily is a beneficiary JoAnn’s excellent relationship with her mother.  In fact, that relationship motivated us to go for “one more” when considering the hopeful addition of a female child to our family.

As JoAnn describes it, her mother was stern – but never shrill or out of control.  JoAnn’s mother was always encouraging and used “expectation” as her strongest ally.  “How could someone like you become involved in a situation like this?”  She’d say.  She had the highest possible expectation of JoAnn (as she did for herself), and somehow she and JoAnn made it through JoAnn’s teen years without all the familiar mother-teen daughter arguments.

EHGJGGBeachAs I watch JoAnn and Emily together, I see a similar bond has developed.  JoAnn and Emily are collaborators.  They discuss clothing, television, Emily’s friends, and, I’m sure, her brothers and me in loving confidence.  Many people tell us about their rebellious teenage children (especially daughters), who withhold information, sit quietly in the car, and go straight to their rooms when arriving home from school.  Although Emily is occasionally guilty of some of that behavior, I believe that, from the time she was young, she has always been able to confide in JoAnn who has always listened to, and respected, what Emily has had to say.

Additionally, JoAnn has never judged Emily for her thoughts or ideas.  That relationship hasn’t changed, only the subject matter.  Emily is not afraid to speak with us about her friends.  She knows we’re not going to call their parents (unless they’re doing something really destructive), and, if we were, she knows we would discuss it with her first.  She also knows that we’re not going to dive into her problems and intercede, so our discussions with her (and this is primarily JoAnn’s territory) are often consultations about the best way to handle her own situations.

The boys and I had our own unique relationship.  We washed cars, played catch, watched sports, told jokes and talked a lot about life.  My father had always been “instructional,” so I spent a lot of time just trying to teach them various skills and toughen them up …be brave, don’t cry, “walk it off.”   We were not immune to discussions of emotional issues, but those conversations were often intertwined with a task.  When they happened, they were quick discussions of problems and potential solutions – very male.

Throughout it all, JoAnn and I were always consulting with each other so that if an issue arose, we’d likely be on the same page.

GradKidsToday, our kids are still willing to discuss their issues with us.  Not because we did anything miraculous – but because we understood that they were growing, changing individuals and as such could not be expected to stay the same – whether that related to hair styles, friendships, or even doing things we thought were crazy (like parachuting out of airplanes).

I was about twenty when my mother questioned a specific decision that I had made.  I was pretty sure of the decision, so I said to her, “You taught me how to think.  I’m using the brain you programmed to make this decision.  I think you did a good job – now you have to believe in it.”

When the kids were young, JoAnn and I would discuss our “position” prior to our conversations with them.  We’d bounce the issues around, and usually determine an opinion or course of action together.  Then, depending on how it unfolded, the issue would be discussed with our offspring.

Through this process, they have learned to trust us, and see that we trust and respect each other.  We have high expectations of them, and they know that our expectations of ourselves, with regard to honesty, truth, and respect, are equally as high.  That formula allows them to seek and respect our opinions.

Shotguns4EmilyLite

It should be clear to any parent that raising boys and raising girls is often a different process.  The basics are the same, the rules should remain solid, but the day-to-day communication of objectives, and the application of opinion, guidance, and critique often need to be handled differently by gender (at least if you want your messages to be heard).  As a flexible, understanding parent, this won’t be anything that requires a special translator, or different family meetings, it’s just a heads up to you fellas out there that raising a girl requires more conversation and patience than putting your boy through his paces.  As you can see from the funny photo though – we’re still kind of old-fashioned.

In the end, teaching them all to be loving people is really what it’s about.  If you can do that… you’ve got it made.