It's tough to listen to your elders when you are young and in love, or in lust, and about to be married. But the collective wisdom from the 200 long-married women I interviewed for my new book The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes To Stay Married can help you navigate the toughest journey of all: living with one partner, under one roof, until death do you part.
While all have been married from 15 to 70 years, their voices come from diverse backgrounds and experiences -- they are rich and poor, and originate from many cultures and religions. Yet their shared ability to build enduring marriages boils down to some common and unifying traits. Here is the distillation of their secrets and strategies, including mine from 23 years as a wife, on what it really takes to make a marriage last.
1. Know That Happily-Ever-After Is A Myth:
Lower your expectations; it's dangerous fantasy to think marriage really means you get to be happy forever. Expecting perfection in a marriage or a mate is a fast ticket to divorce. Listen to the longtime wives on this point: The happiest women have a clear sense of purpose and passion outside of their relationships. We realize that a marriage that runs on multiple tracks makes for a more satisfied spouse who gets to have it both ways -- a committed marriage and personal adventures in uncharted territory. Marital bliss is possible if each partner is blissful without the other.
2. Don't compare your marriage to anyone else's:
It's your relationship, not your sister's, not your mother's, and there is no gold standard marriage. Everyone has issues, problems, and most importantly, their own secrets. Your girlfriend who is always calling her husband "sweetie" and sits with her legs twined with his may be flinging dishes at him when no one is around. So don't worry that your marriage isn't measuring up. Because no one knows what's really going on in a marriage except the two people in it. That gives each of us the freedom to write our own rules. One wife of 20 years I spoke to who is married to a devastatingly handsome man turned out to only be having sex once every six months. Her survival secret is the lipstick-sized vibrator she keeps stashed in her purse. Another wife of 37 years exchanges periodic stolen kisses with her college boyfriend that she claims "can go a long way to sustain a long marriage." This isn't a marriage that you or I may want, but, hey, it's her secret, not ours. Who are we to judge?
3. Hang out with outrageous girlfriends and boyfriends -- with boundaries:
The wives with the highest marital satisfaction have a tight circle of wild women friends with whom to drink, travel and vent. Close friendships provide the escape hatch from the inevitable storms that come with living with somebody year-to-year in the grind of ordinary life. Aside from a warm girl circle, platonic friendships are a sexy pick-me-up without the complications of adultery. Women who love the company of men shouldn't have to eliminate men friends from their lives. These extra-marital males who always think we're beautiful and smart (because they don't live with us) definitely make for a perkier wife. So marry someone who is confident and flexible, a man who knows that the more people, male and female, who bolster your self-esteem means there's less work for him!
4. Take Separate Vacations: You like to camp and your husband likes to golf? Spend a month of the summer in the Adirondacks while he goes with his buddies to Scottsdale or better yet, Scotland. Obviously this works better once empty nest hits. After some weeks apart from each other, removed from clashing over bills and in-laws, marriage seems way hotter than the tepid state in which you left each other. Make sure you have the fundamental quality of trust going into a marriage. Trust allows couples to liberate each other to explore their own passions independently. And partners who keep growing as individuals during each phase of a marriage are the ones with the best chance of growing together and staying together.
5. Remember to talk to each other, and to have sex:
In between wifely gallivants and self-exploration, remember to love the guy you're with -- kiss him hello and goodbye, and make time for conversation, no matter how crammed your two-career schedules are. Don't forget to have sex -- sex is really relaxing and fun and can make all your woes go away, at least for eleven minutes or so! Express gratitude to this guy who is giving you something huge: This is the person who can help you build a safe harbor in a world of chaos and uncertainly. He can give you children. After years of having to Spanx every body part in order to impress your dates, your husband is the prince who gave you the freedom to soften at the belly, and to finally relax. The biggest surprise secret I found is how many wives are still enjoying sex after 75 with their mates of 50-plus years!
6. Don't try to win every fight:
Surrender once in a while instead of always having to be right. Couples who stomp off with unresolved conflicts end up holding onto vintage rage, and antique blame that forms toxic wedges over time. Even if you can't forgive and forget, at least let go and move on when snarly brawls and/or plate-throwing erupts behind your own closed doors. Say "I'm sorry", even if you're not sorry one bit. Showing compassion definitely makes spouses behave better. And the ability to bounce back from strife is the real secret that makes marriages last forever.
Iris Krasnow is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University. Connect with her on www.iriskrasnow.com