How to Stay Married (Happily) for Forty Years: Ten Simple Rules

“Life Unexpected” — the name of this blog, is an apt description for the event that occasioned this essay. Who could imagine that one day we, my beloved spouse and I, would be celebrating our fortieth wedding anniversary? Standing under the marriage canopy forty years ago, we could barely see beyond the week of sheva brachot, the week celebrating our marriage.

In anticipation of this momentous occasion, my daughter Shoshi asked me to share the secret to staying married for all these years. Her request most definitely gave me pause for thought. What is the secret to staying married in these challenging times when fewer and fewer people are willing to commit to a lifetime together? What has helped us in the vicissitudes of life? What has helped us continue to enjoy each other and grow together, rather than apart?

Consulting with my erstwhile walking partner the other day as we completed our regular circuit, she said, “You just do it! You stay married.” I was quiet as I mulled this over. Later, I realized that it’s not only about the steadfastness of staying married, although that is truly important, but the emphasis here is on staying happily married. What is the secret to keeping a marriage alive, dynamic, interesting, and even fun? How do you plow through the hard times, without giving up?

Actually, I think that marriage, much like a plant or an animal, is something that you must nurture, protect, feed, water, and pay attention to. Relationships change over time as do the people who make them up. A long-term marriage definitely does not happen all by itself. If you put your marriage into “automatic mode,” I am fairly certain that you will have a guaranteed failure in the not so distant future. So, what then is the recipe for success?

I do not presume to have THE recipe, nor, can I assert that our sailing has always been smooth. As all couples who have been married a good length of time, we have had good times and bad times together. Nevertheless, I am going to suggest ten rules or pieces of advice that I have found helpful along the way, in the hope that they may bring some good to the world, and specifically to some of the younger set who count their marriages in the single digits, and others that are still open to change.

  1. Keep the big picture in mind. When those little things bog you down, and annoy you, and they will (I won’t start to list them), try to remember the bigger picture — the family you have created, your life goals, your relationship over time.
  2. Do small, considerate things each day, things that you know your spouse will appreciate. For example — make a cup of coffee exactly the way he or she likes it, take out the garbage, or give a back or foot rub.
  3. Find things you like doing together, and make sure to do them. In our early years together, we used to enjoy bike riding, taking walks, jogging, playing ping-pong and pool. The activities we do in tandem have evolved over time, but we are always on the lookout for things we will both enjoy — whether it be watching a course on Italian Renaissance art, sitting in a Jacuzzi, enjoying a glass of wine in our garden, studying the Talmud, or taking a walk.
  4. Make time for each other as often as possible. When I say “time” I mean time alone, without kids, without friends, without colleagues or family members. Time for just the two of you. This can be as little as an hour or an evening, and as much as a weekend or vacation. If you are afraid of spending time alone together, talk about it and try to figure out why. Perhaps you have gotten out of the habit. Maybe this is a warning sign that you need to stop and tend this relationship. Spending time alone is a good way to remember why you married this person in the first place. Focusing on each other is a wonderful way to keep the flame going.
  5. Try to overlook shortcomings in your partner. We all have them. Am I perfect? Certainly not! Why then, do I expect my spouse to be perfect? (I do, of course, but then I catch myself, and remind myself of rule number 5.)
  6. Say one nice thing to your spouse, each and every day. Tell him or her that you like the way they look, the way they smell, the way they cut the salad, the way they fold the laundry, take care of the house, the finances, the way they drive at night, the way they hug , the way they scratch your back. Whatever it is. Tell them. Tell them. Tell them. By the way, you can say more than one nice thing a day. One is the absolute minimum. (I sometimes forget).
  7. When you fight, and you will, try to fight fair. Try not to bring up your mother-in-law and the kitchen sink in every fight. Try to focus on the issue at hand. In the middle of a fight, try to take a breath for a moment and step away, hopefully gaining a little bit of perspective, before resuming. Remember, that it is always easier to hurt someone than to repair that hurt.
  8. Take a united stand in front of your kids. You are bound to disagree on more than one issue when it comes to child rearing. Try to support each other. Do not undercut one another. If you disagree, take it up, but not in front of the kids. Of course, the corollary to that is, don’t fight in front of the kids, but dare I say that my kids have been privy to more than one fight between us? And, of course, never ever let the kids play you off of each other.
  9. Find time every day to talk with each other. I believe that the average couple spends less than 10 minutes a day talking with each other. Try to beat that average. Share your day, your experiences, your thoughts and feelings. When your spouse talks, make sure that you listen. That means no cellphone, no texting, no TV in the background. Give yourselves and each other the gift of undivided attention.
  10. Last but not least, tell each other ” I love you”. Often. Don’t save those words for very special occasions. Say it as if you mean it.

I cannot say that these rules are golden in any sense, but I believe that they are helpful in keeping a relationship going over the long run. I know that I should read this list from time to time, myself. Don’t worry. I fail at each one of these rules, regularly. But then again, I also have my good days.

Fortunately, very fortunately, I have my partner of 40 years, who is both forgiving, and supportive, a veritable rock to lean on in good times and in more challenging ones as well, a wonderful father, a fabulous grandfather, and a true partner in my life. I got very lucky when I was fifteen years old. God blessed me with the wisdom to say yes at 18, and to marry at age 20. Although we have had our moments over the years, they have been just that, “moments.” For the greater part of forty years we have had a wonderful life together. When you have been partners for so long, it is hard to imagine anything else, and thank God, thank God, we have been blessed to journey through life together.