Here's some advice from a midlife wife: If you're single and searching, don't be deterred by the quickie marriages of celebrities -- stars with perfect bodies and zillions of dollars -- who recite "I do" as if it's a line from one of their scripts. Many marriages do last a long time, like the ones that have endured up to 70 years in my book, The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes To Stay Married.
I have learned from my own 23-year marriage and the voices of these wives to liken the choice to get married to the choice to have children: It's a fundamental commitment to be present, to be patient, to be loyal, to be responsible. If you don't want to spend a lot of time and work raising a child, don't have one. If you don't want to work your hardest to nurture a marriage, through loving and loathing and boredom and economic upheaval, stay single. Because once you cross that threshold into parenthood or into matrimony, there should be no turning back.
"I do" doesn't mean "I may", it means "I will."
The difference, of course, is that once you bring a child into the world, even if you abandon your parental role, he or she is still your child. Once you say your wedding vows, that marriage, unfortunately, can still easily be disposed of -- within weeks.
Kim Kardashian, a smart woman who is inspiring as an entrepreneur, is dismal as a role model in how to conduct your life, as are many of her Hollywood pals who have no idea that "til death do us part" doesn't mean "'til something hotter comes along." Shopping for a husband is not like shopping for shoes. He is something that you keep.
After all, really, that's all that marriage is: It's a promise, and when we look back at our childhoods, isn't that one of the most important lessons our parents taught us? We were told to be kind, to play fair and to do what we say we are going to do. "Commitment" was one of the first big words I ever learned. Husbands and wives who accrue multiple spouses because they are craving younger partners and/or new sex, never get to reap the real rewards of sustained love, that is, a life that is richly layered with kids and grandchildren and shared experiences.
I am painfully aware that staying married isn't easy. Even spouses in the most solid marriages have stretches of despair and itches to bolt. A piece I wrote for Huffington Post Divorce, "The Fine Line Between Marriage And Divorce," is one of the most-viewed posts in Huffington Post history. In this article I reveal how the majority of the women I interviewed for my book often contemplate divorce, and I received dozens of letters from readers who expressed relief that they weren't alone.
Yet thinking about divorce is a lot different than hiring a divorce lawyer to figure out who gets what and child custody rules. Those of us who do remain on this side of the fine line know the straight truth about what lies on the other side. Divorced friends tell us that that often the grass is not greener once you cross-over, that even if a new lover offers the best sex ever, ending a marriage tears up hearts, especially when you have children.
Those of us who believe that marriage means forever carry on and push through the pain because we said we would on our wedding days. And unless a spouse is abusive or adulterous or an addict, most marriages can endure, and do endure, as evidenced by the women in The Secret Lives of Wives. They are rich and poor, black and white, Muslim, Jewish and Evangelical Christian. Yet they share a common and significant trait: They have managed to navigate the hurdles and stay married. They meant what they said on their wedding days, come hell or high-water
These longtime wives are bound to the promise that "I do" means "I will" as they nurse husbands with lung cancer, raise children with autism, survive adultery, the loss of breasts, the death of children, bankruptcy. They often pull out bridal pictures to remind them that a wedding is not about the big dress and the big crowd and the big gifts; it's about vowing to honor a commitment. If they can forge onward through serious crises, we certainly can push through piddly annoyances like boredom which is a common reason that women tell me they consider leaving marriages.
And so we make that choice every day, every fight, every disappointment, to keep our promise to be loyal and forgiving, to be a couple that lasts. We remember those words we exchanged, clutching each other's hands, in front of God and family and friends. A wedding is not a theatrical performance: it's the real thing, an adult decision that is supposed to determine the direction and integrity of the rest of our lives.
In the early years of my marriage, that grind of the ordinary that comes with living with the same person in the same house used to frighten me. Today, my marriage that is nearly a quarter-of-a-century old is soothing. The power of the ordinary and the predictability of family life is not something we want to throw away in a world of chaos and uncertainty.
Yes, I have come to love this aging marriage of mine. As the holiday season is upon us, I feel protected by, and deeply thankful for, the shield of an intact family. I am relieved to know I have a permanent boyfriend. It's a hell of a lot better than dating and having to Spanx every body part to impress a rotating stable of Mr. Wrongs.
Marriage means you get to soften at the belly. Marriage means you get to relax.
Iris Krasnow is a journalism professor at American University. Connect with her on www.iriskrasnow.com
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