In a few days, we will celebrate fifty years together. That we have lived this long is due, undoubtedly, more to genetic and environmental luck, modern medicine, and some reasonable choices than to anything else. That we have stayed married this long owes much to the social support of family and friends who provided us with the benefit of their love and support, sustaining us in a world that can make life difficult and dangerous.
I like to think, as well, that we have benefited from a deep and practiced love. Falling in love is the easy part. But staying in love - protecting and building a marriage - is harder. There is, after all, so much in life that can tear the fabric woven at a wedding. We both have had to learn how to mix love and caring into the cement of the foundation of a good relationship.
In part as self-reflection, and in a small way as thankfulness for the opportunity life has given us to learn, we've extracted some of the major lessons derived from our journey together. Though sketched just briefly here, each is a much more complex work of art that could be drawn on the canvas of our lives from memories and painted with words:
Focus on what's important for your marriage, not just on what's important for you - on "we" not "me." If it builds your marriage, it builds you as well.
Only say "no" if it really matters. And it really matters a lot less than you think.
If you have earned enough for the basics of living, then don't fight over money or material things. You already have plenty.
Celebrate and enjoy your differences. It's an irony of marriage that we choose someone because they bring what we lack, and then spend too much time trying to change that person to be more like us.
It's OK to say "I want . . . " if you also listen when your partner says "I want . . . "
Say "I'm sorry" more than "I'm right." Being right feeds the ego. Being sorry builds human connection.
Learn to say "I forgive you" and mean it. Don't let resentment build. It's the quiet acid that eats away at relationships.
Confront problems, as hard as that may be sometimes. Resist the desire to avoid conflict, because burying core disagreements buries marriages.
For things that matter, learn how to fight. Make those argument about core values and critical needs, not about trivial and surface events. Resist the desire to score points by picking on words uttered in the heat of the moment. Avoid tangential issues that are not the real problem but merely the trigger that gets the argument started.
Don't interrupt when you're arguing. Even if you think you know what your partner is going to say, she or he needs to feel heard - that you're willing to listen.
Most things you argue about won't matter much even later that same day. Put them in perspective, and let some of them go.
Don't go to bed mad. Even if you are mad, kiss goodnight anyway, because you are always grateful for each other, even if not for what upset you.
Things that seem so bad at night rarely look so bad in the morning. Sleep has a way of calming the emotions as well as the body.
When your spouse really needs you, be there. At the end of life, what you did for your job will pale compared to what you did for each other. A career matters - but not more than the person you vowed to honor and cherish. Finding another job is much easier than finding another person you love.
Surprise your partner with things that bring happiness. Most of these surprises need to cost little or nothing. They will be giving of yourself - the greatest gift you can bestow.
Have a sense of humor about your partner's faults - and even more importantly about your own. Your partner is not perfect. Neither are you. Laughter can cross many chasms that otherwise seem unbridgeable.
Do something you enjoy together each and every day, even if it is as short as holding hands.
Look for where you're wrong - how you have contributed to a problem. Very few difficulties in marriage are the fault of just one person.
Accept love as well as give it. If you want to show love, know that your partner wants to show it to you. When you find it hard to receive, you deny the one you love the joy of giving.
Did we always know or practice these insights? Absolutely not. Are there others we could learn? Absolutely yes. When we stop trying to be right for each other, when we stop thinking there is any more to learn, we shortchange not only our marriage but our humanity. In a way, the greatest gift of a marriage is the opportunity it provides to become more fully human. Marriages in the movies always come at the end. In real life, they come at the beginning. I don't know what happens to movie marriages after the credits roll. Maybe their most perfect point has already happened. But I know what has happened to our marriage, and it has only gotten better.