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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.