While making a documentary film about marriage, losing my own along the way, and speaking to dozens of couples and experts in the process, I had the opportunity to think a lot about love and relationships.
Yes, a cynical reader might ask what I could possibly know about marriage, having been divorced twice, and this question would be a valid one. But you often learn the most from your own mistakes.
Twenty random things that I have learned, in no particular order:
1. Before getting married, ask yourself why you are doing it. Have a solid reason. "We're so in love" doesn't count as a solid reason; neither does "because we want to have kids" -- think of something beyond these basic starting points.
2. Life and marriage run parallel to each other, so get out of the marriage if it isn't contributing something positive to your life more broadly.
3. Couples who always answer questions using the form 'we' instead of 'I' are very boring. So are those who can't handle going to a dinner party on their own. Don't look to the marriage to complete you. Bring your complete self to the marriage.
4. In a relationship:
- A good sex life and sense of humor are key.
- Trust is essential.
5. Don't read women's magazine stories called things like -- Why Am I Still Single? Surprising Things You May be Doing Wrong or any articles that treat single living like a plague. Being single has its own set of benefits and so does a loving relationship. Celebrate the opportunity to experience both in a lifetime. Nurture the love when you are in a relationship, and savor your freedom when you are not (but don't give up all your freedom just because you are married, either). Being single is a valid choice just like marriage is.
6. No matter what relationship you are in, you will always be a percentage of the equation. This means that any negative personality traits you have in one relationship will follow you into the next unless you address them.
7. We really need some more updated ideas about marriage:
- Marriage can look however we want it to look, on an individual basis.
- Make your marriage work for you, not for the approval of your in-laws.
8. I know from experience that this one makes more narrow-minded readers freak-out, but time-limited, renewable marriage contracts are one example of a creative idea outside the "til death do us part" box. This means you could decide on the length of your marriage before signing up for it -- say 20 years for raising kids, or 10 years to try it out and see if you'll want to renew.
9. Human beings are not monogamous by nature (according to biologist David Barash and psychiatrist Judith Lipton, co-authors of The Myth of Monogamy). Lifelong monogamy is challenging... we might want to be more creative about this, too. One example of a more realistic approach to the monogamy challenge would be a brief yearly relationship hiatus.
10. In the boardgame Life, marriage is like buying insurance, getting a job and having kids -- just one more mandatory stop on the roadmap of life. But in real life, it isn't. Marriage should be viewed as one possible choice out of many, not a given.
11. Any person still fighting against same-sex marriage should give up the fight immediately and save him or herself the shame of being the last man or woman standing against civil rights. Marriage has been evolving for generations, and it's not going to stop just because of your outdated ideas. According to marriage historian, Stephanie Coontz, "for thousands of years marriage was not about love and mutual attraction but about making political and economic alliances, even sealing peace treaties, and also about expanding the family labor force." So that's what traditional marriage looked like. Let's keep the evolution rolling.
12. Conservative Christians don't own marriage and they don't own family values, either. They should peacefully be allowed to live their own version while the rest of us have the right to live ours.
13. The end goal of marriage should not be 'forever.' 'Forever' should be made up of good days turned to good years turned to good decades.
14. I shouldn't have to be married to my partner in order to have him as a free additional driver on my rental car. This way of thinking should be re-evaluated.
15. Amazing psychologist John Gottman (who can predict divorce with 94 percent accuracy) knows everything about successful marriages. He says that criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are toxic.
He also says:
- Happily married couples behave like good friends, and they handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways.
- Happily married couples are able to repair negative interactions during an argument, and they are able to process negative emotions fully.
16. I suppose you could simply describe love as "The 5th Most Searched Thing on the Internet" (right after porn, Facebook, YouTube and Google). But I think real love could better be described as A Motivator. Love is a parent's motivator when he or she is willing to die shielding a child from danger, and a partner's motivator, which keeps him or her plowing through difficult times in a relationship. Both serve the same end goal -- keeping alive the things we cherish the most.
17. When you are leaving the house and you are being too slow, so your partner is waiting but chooses to say 'LET's stop screwing around' instead of 'stop screwing around,' you love him just a little bit more for making that subtle but non-blaming linguistic choice of words.
18. John Lennon gets quoted a lot on love with, "love is all you need". But obviously love wasn't all he needed in his first marriage (which ended up in divorce). At some point he got more pragmatic and made this more true statement, "Love is like a precious plant. You can't just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it's going to get on by itself. You've got to keep on watering it. You've got to really look after it and nurture it." True love is precious. Nurture it.
19. Other small pieces of advice I was given by couples I interviewed:
- Learn to say yes, dear.
- Learn to laugh together.
- Marry the right person in the first place.
And my personal favorite:
- Before breakfast, have only pleasant conversation. And not too much of it.
20. Never ever make a film about marriage while going through a divorce (like I did). It is a traumatic experience.
Kate Schermerhorn is the director of "After Happily Ever After," a documentary film about modern marriage. The film premieres February 10th, 2013, 8pm on PBS World Channel's new series, America Reframed. Visit afterhappilyeverafter.net for more information, digital downloads, DVDs and to receive a free list of ten secrets to marital bliss.