Twenty Tips after Forty Years of Marriage: A Mini-Memoir

Marriage does not come with an instruction manual. Wise couples get some kind of counseling, often from the minister who marries them. They hear about marriage being complex and sometimes challenging – and listen without believing– in the same way that people in good health receive stories about dying.

If ever a two people qualified for the descriptor “starry-eyed” in 1969, we were that couple. Today we are both a little “starry” and a little “scar-ry.” We’ve loved long and have forgiven and been forgiven often.

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We’ve been asked to share our thoughts about what makes marriage last. We thought we would start with 20 “tips”–thoughts from our 40 years of marriage—and ask readers for more.

  • Find the right person. (Your spouse is probably not the only person you could have fallen in love with, but s/he should be someone who generates heart flutter and makes you want to be your best self.) You should find this person physically attractive, but you also want a spouse who complements your strengths (is not your carbon copy) and holds similar values and at least some similar interests.
  • When the time is right, take the plunge, make the commitment, and expect to stay married until death do us part.
  • Make your promises publically before God, your family, and your friends and stay connected to a community who is invested in the strength of your marriage. Marriage is a spiritual bond made stronger when you ask God to bind you together. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” – Ecclesiastes 4:12
  • If you have gone through the three steps above, you might not need more tips, but we offer the next ideas as little lifesavers that you can adapt to your own situation. Some are based on things we discovered on our own, some are based on things we learned later in life and wish we had learned earlier, and some come from a few marriage/relationship seminars and research.
  • Laugh a lot. At each other’s jokes, at comedies, and at old family stories. When the occasion calls for self-deprecation, we tell each other we “should ‘a knowed.” That one goes back at least two generations and was originally a serious statement. Other times we ask if whether a comment is “truth or poetry?” a question an uncle asked once about a dubious statement of fact.
  • A related joke that has often come in handy actually has a very serious application. When tempted to dispute a statement the other has made, remember the three most important words in marriage – “you’re probably right.” When we use these words, we don’t dig in to a position, and we don’t completely grant the other dominance. “Probably” is the key word. It can be said many different ways and allows both parties to save face if they are wrong. It is another way to say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” And it can even be a reminder that if one of you is right, you are both right, since you are now one in marriage.
  • Which reminds us of another joke – and a warning implicit in it. In weddings, two people become one – and then they spend the next 10 years deciding which one it will be. A related joke is this one: “We agreed that I will make all the major decisions, and the other will make all the minor decisions. However, no major decisions have come up yet.”
  • Try not to say “I told you so” when you were right. Sometimes you may not be able to resist; it is a selfish pleasure than serves no purpose in a relationship. If you were right, your partner will love you for sparing him or her a second embarrassment. If you were wrong, don’t be afraid to laugh and admit it: “You were not only probably right – you were right! How lucky I am to be married to such a towering intellectual!”
  • If both of you think you are giving 60 percent, you have it about right. That mote in the eye can get in the way of accuracy and has to be accounted for in the estimate.
  • No marriage is perfect. When you wrong the other, be quick to say, “I’m sorry. How could I have been so thoughtless and insensitive? Will you forgive me? What can we do, moving forward, to avoid this pain in the future?”
  • Marriages evolve. You can continually improve your marriage by periodically taking advantage of resources that are readily available. Resources include consulting with highly trusted friends, participating in retreats and seminars, reading books and watching videos, and engaging professional counselors.
  • Don’t fall asleep without a kiss, the words “I love you,” and other terms and touches of endearment. Resolve any disagreements and address hurt feelings the same day they happen. Try the 24-3-7 rule: 24 hours is the best time for resolution of conflict. Three days is next.  If you haven’t forgotten it after a week, speak up! Don’t bury hurts.
  • Don’t leave or return to the house without a good-bye or welcome home kiss. Count to six as you kiss so that it does not become an absent-minded peck. This suggestion comes from Dr. John Gottmann, creator of the Love Lab at the University of Washington.
  • Ongoing respect for the other is the key attitude for maintaining a strong marriage. Even an initially strong partnership will eventually be destroyed by negative comments, cynicism and disdain.  Dr. Gottmann calls contempt one of the “four horses of the apocalypse.” The others are criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
  • When you hug, count to three and squeeze, breathing in and out, reminding yourself and your partner of your togetherness. Do the same with your children and with other close friends and family. This reminds you to be grateful for all the love you have in your life and not take it for granted.
  • Enjoy sex and help each other learn the other’s pleasure language. Talk about what you need and want, keep experimenting.
  • Dance! We didn’t learn how to dance in our homes and communities of origin, but we took some lessons and now enjoy dancing on special occasions. It’s not important to be an accomplished dancer, but if your partner loves dancing, be willing to enjoy the music and the fun of being together with others on the dance floor.
  • Alcoholic beverages enhance a romantic dinner, but in excess, alcohol wrecks careers, marriage, and even lives. Respect its power for harm as well as charm.
  • We have been saved from many a battle because we agree so much of the time about money.  All of ours is shared no matter who generates the income. Talk openly about money and agree on your values. Don’t keep secrets or make major purchases without consulting your partner.
  • Give. Give to each other. Give to others who have less and to causes that have touched your hearts. Give when you are poor and you will find it a lot easier to give when you have more. We starting tithing in our thirties and have never regretted it.

We haven’t even talked about children, birth control, housework, and friendships with others! That’s so others can add to this list. What have YOU learned about marriage?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Personal Reflections and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Twenty Tips after Forty Years of Marriage: A Mini-Memoir

  1. Chelsea says:

    Thanks for this. There's so much Anthony and I can learn from in here! I'm going to share it with my parents and Nina, too.

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks for asking for our advice, Chelsea. We enjoyed the opportunity you gave us to reflect. I wonder what you will be writing in 40 years? I know it will be wise and loving.

  3. sannayoder says:

    WOW! I met both of you during your first 15 years and your collaborative, affectionate, infinitely interesting partnership inspired me in so many ways. I don't think it would be a stretch to say that it was one of the major influences as I made my choice in life partners not long after. And now look at the rich fodder you have given Rick and me for OUR next 20 years!One of my favorite marriage tips came from my beloved mother-in-law (another side benefit of a great marriage): “Just remember that there will be times when all you have is your commitment to the commitment.” That has gotten us through some rough spots. That and an uncontrollable need to laugh sometimes when we find ourselves standing across the kitchen island together replaying yet again the same old conflict script we've played throughout the last 16 years. Congratulations to two amazing people who make an amazing “marital unit.”

  4. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Sanna, for these kind words and for sharing your own bit of family wisdom. If you can laugh about your conflict scripts, you can laugh about anything. And laughter truly is the best medicine. Wishing you and Rick at least 20 more years–good ones–and many more besides.

  5. shirleyhs says:

    From FB comments: Marilyn Stein LeFeber Very wise and thoughtful..loved the tips. I”ve only been in my marriage for 22.5 years and still learn something new about making it work every day. My advice to add to your thoughts: encourage each other to have a passion for something not related to your marriage (horses and fishing, in our case), but something that there is space for the other person to share if the motivation/opportunity arises. Marriage may be a 24/7 proposition, but we all need space at times…especially those of us who didn't get married til much later in life!Chin Pheng Oh We've been married for 10 years and have lots to catch up to your milestone! 🙂 Thanks for the tips. I'll add to it by saying, “don't sweat the small stuff” and “pick your battles”. You may be joined in life as ONE but you also have to respect each other's individuality.

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