The Art of Marriage


In a good partnership each is supposed to save the other from his worst instincts. ~~ E. L. Doctorow

Today I’m celebrating 30 years with my husband, Nathan Meyers, which means our marriage has lasted half my life.  I confess I never had those childhood dreams that most girls have of the big wedding and the happily-ever-after marriage.  I never actually wanted to be married.  But I somehow managed to do it twice, and I’ve spent two-thirds of my life with a wedding ring on my finger.  So, this seems an appropriate time to share some of the things I’ve learned.

1) There is no script

Marriage is an extended improvisation involving two people – sometimes with an audience, occasionally even entertaining.  But as the term improvisation implies, no two performances are alike.  Not only that, as your partnership evolves, so will the material.  Even if you’ve been married before, or lived together for years, your program will change the moment you say “I do.”  Everyone brings to their relationships unique expectations, needs, and – dare I say it? – baggage.  Like the best improvisers, you have to stay on your toes and embrace whatever challenges your partner tosses your way.

2) You will marry your opposite

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the universe has a sense of humor.  Are you a neat-nik?  I guarantee you’ll fall in love someone who fails to understand your passion for order.  A night person?  You’re sure to end up with a cheery morning person.  Like to keep to a schedule?  Your partner will most certainly be spontaneous and random.

This is a good thing.  We choose our mates because they complete us: their traits fill in our gaps.  Sure, it’s maddening at times, but it’s nothing you can’t work with.  And since most of us dislike the very traits in others that we dislike in ourselves, if everyone married their twin, we’d depopulate the planet in fairly short order.

3) Focus on the big issues and the small ones will (mostly) take care of themselves

The three issues that sink most marriages are: money, sex, and family.  If you can come to terms with these – hopefully before you tie the knot – you’ll go a long way toward creating marital happiness, if not bliss.  When the big issues are handled, or at least renegotiated on a regular basis, the little ones (see #2) don’t have to be deal-breakers.

4) Talk it out

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your mate wants the same things you want.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t expect your partner to read your mind.  Your partner may be surprised to learn that something they thought was no big deal is a huge deal to you.

But you have to choose your moment: wait until you and your partner are calm and relaxed; try not to pounce the moment they walk in the door.  Then, when you have their full attention, say what’s on your mind, simply and without accusing or blaming.  Because they’ll never know if you don’t tell them, and you’ll never know if you don’t ask.

5) Listen (and don’t be afraid of silence)

When your partner has something to say, whatever it is, give them your complete attention.  Stop what you’re doing, and listen.  The greatest gift you can give your mate is to hear and understand them.  Put aside your own issues for a moment, and focus on your partner.  Your turn will come.

And don’t be afraid of silence.  There’s a lot you can hear just by being with another person in the absence of chatter.

6) Give your partner what they want – but don’t forget to ask for what you want

Before you think I’ve gone all Total Woman on you, let me first say that each person in a marriage is responsible for their own happiness.  But it’s also important to know what makes your partner happy, and to do your level best to provide it.

Green Dragon Tavern

For instance, Nathan and I both need a lot of personal space and alone time.  We’ve figured out over the years that our together time is much more satisfying if we can go off and do our thing without worrying that the other person is okay.  But it took us a while to find the right balance — it didn’t happen magically, and it didn’t happen overnight.  We each had to state our needs and ask for what we wanted.  But once we did, an entire source of relational stress vanished.  Poof!

7) Play to your strengths

Nathan is a terrific strategist: he sees the big picture, and is great at making long-range plans.  My specialty is logistics and details: I can take almost any problem and break it down into manageable steps.  But it’s not set in stone: it helps to stay flexible.  It also helps that we happen to be good at different things in complimentary ways.

Of course, he could get ticked off at me for not seeing the forest for the trees, and I could get on his case for missing all those trees.  But why bother, when it makes more sense to help each other out by playing to our strengths?

8) Have your own interests and your own friends

Don’t rely on your spouse to provide you with a social life, and don’t make them your world.  Yes, it’s important to have shared interests – otherwise it’s hard to maintain a connection – but it’s vital to have your own.  Right now Nathan’s personal obsession is ice skating – a hobby I’m happy to have no part in.  Mine is a literary book group.  Of course, we’ve made friends in our separate endeavors who are now friends of both of us, but we weren’t waiting around to be entertained, either.

As important as learning who you are in the marriage, is learning who you are outside of it.  Strong, independent partners, who are engaged with the world, build strong marriages.

9) Laugh together

When I first met my future father-in-law, Nathan made some kooky remark which made me laugh, and his dad leaned in and said to me, “Don’t encourage him.”

Oh, but I do.  I’m lucky to be married to someone who shares my quirky sense of humor, and who, like me, sees the ridiculous in practically everything.  I love that we’re forever cracking each other up.

Don’t be afraid to laugh in the face of this absurd dance we call Life.  Find a partner who can do the steps with you, then laugh – early and often – as you twirl together to the music.

10) Cheer each other on

Marriage is a cooperative enterprise, and competitiveness has no place in it.  If you’re competing with your partner, you’re undermining the foundation of mutual respect that a good marriage is built on.

During the 20 years I was teaching, Nathan willingly came to every student recital and manned the video camera; he often worked the lighting or sound board when I was performing (if he wasn’t onstage himself because I’d dragged him to auditions); these days he cheers me on when my writing path gets thorny.  It’s now my turn to do the same for him with his skating.

Become each other’s biggest fans.  It’s a tough, critical world out there – be there to cheer your partner on.

11) If you’ve brought childhood issues to your marriage, seek professional help

Your partner is not your therapist.  It is not your partner’s job to undo or make up for any damage done to you in your past.  Your partner is not your mommy, or your daddy, and they can’t make it all right for you.  Only you – with the help of an experienced, knowledgeable therapist – can do that.

So please, if your marriage is sinking under unresolved past issues, find help.  If you can’t afford individual therapy, there are clinics that offer group sessions, or will work with you on a sliding fee scale.  At the very least, find a 12-Step group, which is free.  But don’t look to your partner to fix you.  Don’t put that kind of pressure on your marriage.  All your partner can and should do is listen, support you, and hold you when you cry.

12) Be kind to each other

If you don’t remember anything else from this post, remember this: be kind.  I can’t stress this enough – kindness is the currency of a good marriage.  Give up needing to be right.  Stop trying to control or dominate.  Mutual kindness requires letting go of all that.  You don’t have to give voice to every thought, especially if it’s hurtful to your partner.  When you find yourself arguing just to prove a point, stop and ask yourself it’s worth sacrificing your marriage to be right.  Because that’s what lack of kindness does – it erodes the good will in a relationship.

Being kind doesn’t mean bringing flowers (though it never hurts).  It’s about playing fair, and treating your partner as an equal.  It’s about getting your ego out of the way, and admitting when you’re wrong.  Being kind is humbling, but it’s also empowering – for you and for your partner.  A little honest praise, a compliment, or even simple a thank-you can work wonders.

13) Keep it interesting

One of the great things about being married to Nathan is that he constantly surprises me.  Just when I think there’s nothing more to know about him, he does or says something completely out-of-the-box.

A marriage is a living thing, and it has to be fed new experiences or it will stagnate.  So, try a new restaurant, visit a new place, meet new people, but break up the routine.  Even a small change of scenery can bring a fresh perspective, and up the excitement level – which will hopefully remind you why you fell in love with your partner in the first place.

So, please join me as I raise a glass to my best friend, my partner-in-crime, and my comic relief – and let’s drink a toast to the words of author Mark Helprin: Marriage is, among other things, having someone deeply and unreasonably on your side.

Here’s to the next 30 years.