Just a Few Words of Advice:
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On the eve of her marriage, Ruth Bader Ginsburg got a piece of advice from her future mother-in-law that resonated through 56 years of what she described as “a marital partnership nonpareil”:
“In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.”
She applied that wisdom not only to her relationship with her husband Marty but also to her working relationships, noting that “When a thoughtless or unkind remark is spoken, just tune these out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”
Newlyweds and never-weds can learn a lot from the hard-won wisdom of the long-married. What are some other words of wisdom beyond selective deafness?
1. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Pick your battles. Is it really worth a martial confrontation to square off over how a partner squeezes the toothpaste tube or folds the laundry? Is it worth a skirmish every time a partner shows a bit of attitude or makes a grumpy comment? Not if you want to have a peaceful relationship. This doesn’t mean letting anger simmer. It means letting go of comments and slights that are, in the long run, inconsequential. This doesn’t mean ignoring patterns of verbal abuse, but letting the occasional snarky comment from a tired, temporarily grouchy, overwhelmed spouse go. Not everything warrants a confrontation. There are times when the best reply is silence. Or a warm touch or a gentle comment that he or she must have had a difficult day or be very tired can soothe a partner.
2. Don’t panic during times of distance. In every marriage, there are times of closeness and times of distance. As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve seen too many young couples panic at the first sign of distance. It’s important to pay attention to these and to reach out with love…instead of assuming that the relationship isn’t working anymore.
3. Express appreciation and love at every opportunity. Sometimes expressions of appreciation – for what a spouse said or did or remembered – is at least as valued as expressions of love. Bob, my husband of 43 years, says that he especially enjoys hearing words of appreciation “because it’s a way of letting your partner feel seen, heard, noticed for specific things. It’s important to feel loved, of course, but feeling appreciated is equally important for a happy relationship.”
My college friend Bruce is an expert at long marriages: his first, to my sophomore year roommate Lorraine, lasted for 22 years, until her untimely death at 42. His second marriage, to Mary Jo, has thrived for 32 years and counting. “The fact that Lorraine and I expressed our love for each other every day was a comfort when she died suddenly at 42,” he says. “I was distraught, but glad that we had left nothing unsaid. That sense of completeness made me able to grieve and go on to love Mary Jo with all my heart.”
Bruce contends that keeping a loving connection can be a key to resolving problems when they happen: “Try holding hands while having a serious discussion,” he says. “It’s a way to reminding each other that you’re in this together.”
4. Love means saying you’re sorry…a lot! That old “Love Story” slogan “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” makes those in long marriages shake their heads and laugh. You’re always saying you’re sorry…for not being perfect, for missing an opportunity to be supportive or kind or as you empathize with a spouse who has had a hard day.
5. Ask, don’t assume. It’s easy to get into trouble when you assume you know what your spouse wants, needs or meant to say. Clarify this before acting or reacting.
“I made way too many assumptions at first,” a client I’ll call Charisse told me not long ago. “I interpreted a sigh as resistance, a hesitation as rejection and my husband being a little late coming home as an ominous sign of possible cheating. A lot of this had to do with my family of origin. I had a father who did cheat and who tuned my mom out all the time. My mother said all men are alike. In my 26 years of marriage, I’ve found that’s not the case at all. My husband is a unique person with his own thoughts and opinions I respect – as he respects me. I try very hard never to assume I know what’s going on with him. When it isn’t clear to me, I ask in a gentle way. That has made all the difference for us.”
6. Make time for each other. Your relationship needs to be a priority no matter how busy you are with the kids or with your work. It can help to set a regular time to be alone together. Steve and Cecile, who have a blended family totaling six kids, have always scheduled an after dinner coffee together on the patio – no interruptions allowed. “When they were young and still living at home, the kids knew that this was our special time together, our half hour break before an evening of supervising homework, baths and bedtimes,” Cecile told me recently. “And they knew not to interrupt for anything short of a medical emergency or natural disaster. It worked so well for us, I see the kids, now grown and with families of their own, trying this in their own ways. They know how important it is for parents to carve out at least a little time every day just for each other.”
7. Treat each other as best friends. Think about the respect you show and the joy you share with a best friend – and make an effort to be there in the same way for your spouse. This should be a no-brainer, but many of us, over time, may take a partner for granted.
“We didn’t realize how thoughtlessly we treated each other until we saw a comedy sketch where a couple treated two dinner guests the same way family members all too often treat each other,” my friend Sally, married 48 years, told me recently. “The skit was hilarious — and painful. Right away, my husband and I made an effort to treat each other the way we felt about each other — as best friends for life! And what a difference that has made. Kindness and courtesy go a long way toward creating marital happiness and joy in being together!”