Lessons from 30 Years of Marriage
Divorce rates spiked globally during the pandemic last year. Legal firms saw dramatic increases in divorce research and applications. There was a 57% increase in divorce agreement sales just three weeks after quarantines began!
A sobering statistic is the percentage of marriages that will end in divorce:
- First Marriages: 42–45%
- Second Marriages: 60%
- Third Marriages: 73%
Many of us older folks — Gen X here — grew up assuming that we would get married someday. But, the marriage rate in the U.S. has been declining since 1982. In 2018, marriages hit a historic low.
People are also waiting longer before getting married. The median age at first marriage is now around 30 for men (I was 24) and 28 for women. I’m sure the pandemic isn’t helping things!
Frankly, I’m not surprised that so many marriages fail. I blame it on the many misconceptions about love, relationships, and marriage.
The fairytale stories in books and movies don’t prepare us for the reality of a long-term marriage. Not nearly enough people are sharing how hard it is to maintain a lasting relationship.
Few are telling the truth about what it’s really like. Instead, people have rosy visions in their heads and unrealistic expectations of bliss and perfection.
We met over 31 years ago
It was the winter break before my last semester in college. My friend and I had been barhopping on a cold winter evening, and we were about to call it a night. Someone told us about a big party at some house, so we decided to check it out.
The place was packed. I stood with my friend on one side of a huge living room full of people dancing, laughing, talking, and drinking. There was a keg somewhere.
A beautiful young lady caught my eye on the other side of the room. I kept looking at her, and it seemed like she was looking at me, but I wasn’t sure. I smiled at her, and she smiled back.
Later, my friend and I decided that it was time to go. I was walking out through the kitchen, and there she was. She was standing with a guy she was dating at the time.
I walked up and used my best line, “Hey.”
She smiled and said, “Hey.”
He didn’t smile. He frowned and gave me a dirty look.
That was it. We left, and I didn’t think I’d see her again.
However, a couple of weeks later, I walked into my very last class that I was taking that semester. One evening class. That was it. Then, I would graduate and leave town forever.
I walked across the small room and sat at a desk near the window. I looked around the room, and there she was, sitting across from me. What are the odds? We looked at each other, and she smiled.
I went up to her during the break later and playfully asked, “Why did you leave the party so early?”
She frowned and said, “I didn’t leave early! You did!”
The rest is history. This week, my wife and I are celebrating 30 years of marriage.
We’ve raised three children, moved around the U.S., traveled the world, and had many ups and downs and losses. But, we’re still together.
We’ve had great times together. We’ve also experienced our most miserable times together. It has required hard work to stay together all of these years, often behind the scenes of what private people don’t share publicly.
I’m a very private person, so I certainly won’t air all of our dirty laundry from the past 30 years. I’m sorry if you clicked this story hoping to see some of that!
But, I’m also not a “Pollyanna” who will smile sweetly and pretend that every moment has been bliss and marriage is a cakewalk if you can just find the right person. So, I spent some time thinking about the lessons we’ve learned, talked with a few friends who’ve also enjoyed long marriages, and read some research from psychologists and therapists.
I captured my biggest lessons from 30 years of marriage. I’ve broken it into a three-part series that I’ll share during the rest of this week. Here are the first ones.
There is no “Right One”
You don’t wait for the “right person,” hoping that will make your marriage great. You find a great person and work hard to make your marriage right.
There’s this weird myth that your one true love exists somewhere in this world. Your ideal match is out there, somewhere. When you finally find each other, you’ll know it and your marriage will be perfect.
There are 7.8 billion people on this planet. If only one of them is your perfect mate, it will take you thousands of years to find them. Good luck!
What is the “right one” anyway? What does that mean?
I can guarantee what you think defines the right one right now won’t be the same things you want in a partner 10 years from now, let alone in 30–50 years. Don’t be silly.
But that doesn’t mean that you settle for any old person to walk with down the aisle, either. Spend some time defining what matters most to you in a lifelong partner. Get real and dig beneath surface attributes like their looks, body, and money.
Know your non-negotiables
Some issues will kill a marriage. You can gloss them over in your early days of passion and feel-good hormones. But they will come back to bite you.
They’re different for everyone, but here were some of mine to give you a sense.
- Intelligence, kindness, humor, and loving nature.
- Wants children and will be a good parent.
- Where they ideally want to live. I love nature, so I knew that I couldn’t partner with someone who wanted to live in a big city.
- How they spend and save money.
- Enjoys being physically active.
- Loves to read books and travel!
Marriage is hard even with a great person. Two people will always have some disagreements and conflict at some point. It’s inevitable.
But, if you aren’t aligned on the big issues that matter to you (e.g., having children), you’re already stacking the odds against the long-term success of your marriage. I’m old, so I know many couples who thought they could make it work despite those differences. They’re divorced now.
Burn your small stuff list
You’ll notice that the list above didn’t include things like putting the toilet seat down, cleaning up your laundry, or snoring. So many people complain endlessly about crap that doesn’t matter. Grow up, already.
They’ll marry someone who religiously puts the toilet seat down (Yea!) but burns through their savings doing lines of coke every afternoon.
Or, they’ll marry someone who doesn’t snore but can’t engage in an intelligent conversation. That’s so damn boring.
Congratulations! You won the battle but lost the war.
I’m not saying that you won’t be annoyed by the little things. I’m saying keep them in perspective. Remember the big things that matter and how lucky you are to be with someone who has those attributes. There’s someone somewhere who dreams of finding a partner like yours.
Discuss your long-term dreams and plans
Share your long-term dreams and listen to what they say. Really listen. Are you in alignment? If not, someone will be miserable someday.
I’m always surprised when I hear of a married couple that didn’t do this before tying the knot. Someone literally didn’t discuss having children until after they were married. WTF?
The other reason to discuss your partner’s dreams, goals, and plans is so you can help support them. And vice versa. Your partner should support you in your dreams too.
The grass isn’t greener
This is a good reminder from my wife. Over the past 50 years, I’ve watched a lot of people fall into this trap. Things become challenging in a relationship, and they exit stage left.
People sometimes think that the problems they have in a relationship are unique to their partner.
- “We fight all of the time because of how she talks to me.”
- “We’ll never get along because of things he does.”
- “If he would only change his ways, we could get along.”
So, they leave the marriage, find someone else, and start a new relationship. They’re sure that things will be better this time.
Unfortunately, the same old problems crop up again — big surprise — or entirely new issues arise. Before you know it, they are unhappy again and want to move on to greener pastures. Again.
Good luck with that.
There’s a saying:
“No matter where you go… there you are!”
— Jim Russell
Again, I’m not saying that you should stay with a truly terrible partner. No one should remain in an abusive relationship, for example.
But way too many people tap out over crap they could fix if they would work on their relationship. Way too many people think that a spanking new relationship won’t have unpleasant issues. Riiiiiiiiiiight…
Highs and lows are normal
My wife said, “Never base your evaluation of your marriage on either a high or a low.” Your marriage is never as perfect as it feels during a high. It’s also not as bad as it feels during a low.
Highs and lows are normal, folks. Don’t make rash decisions during a down period. They happen. They will happen a lot over the years. It is normal.
Life is like that, in general. It has highs and lows, which are also normal. Why should your marriage be immune to those trends?
Newsflash, it won’t be. When you have terrible days at work, it will impact your relationship. When you’re feeling down, your emotional state will bleed over and affect your partner.
Here’s the funny pattern we have noticed. When I’m feeling down, she brings us up. When she is feeling sad or depressed, it’s my turn to turn up the positivity.
We didn’t consciously choose to behave this way. It just seems to naturally happen. After 30+ years together, we noticed that we do that for each other. It helps! That’s what a partnership is.
Ignore the social media charade
My wife also mentioned that “Social media is a lie.” People show their brightest happiest moments online. I get it. I tend to do that too.
I know plenty of couples who were always posting happy happy joy joy bullshit and are now divorced. Don’t compare your real marriage to their fake online one.
The people shouting about their supposed bliss and perfection are the ones who are usually in the most trouble. Remember that.
Don’t fall for the lies. Don’t compare your real marriage to their fake online one.
Kim and Kanye looked pretty happy. They had it all, right? MmHmm…
Don’t marry people hoping to change them
I hear this all the time. People start dating someone, list some of their flaws, and then say, “Well, we’re going to work on that!”
Folks will get married and be fully aware of some incompatibility that they know is a relationship killer. But, they tell themselves that they will be able to change that person and everything will be ok.
It doesn’t work that way. People don’t really change.
The good ones are always learning, growing, and becoming a better version of themselves. But they will never turn into someone else.
You have to let people be who they are. Fall in love with that person or walk away. People work on themselves on their own plan and schedule. You can’t force it. You should never take on that burden. It’s not your job, and no one wants someone trying to force them to change.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t encourage them to be the best they can be, though. Of course, you should be supportive and want people to succeed.
It also doesn’t mean you let them spiral down into a destructive pit of despair. You can’t save them, but you can support them in getting the help they do need.
Let me repeat that because I see it all too often. You can’t save a partner who has deep emotional issues, a serious addiction problem, a mental illness, etc. You will not succeed, and it will tear you down in the process.
Help them get the help they need! That’s the best thing you can do for someone you care about.
Marry for potential
My wife certainly didn’t marry me for my looks. You can see that in the photos.
She married me for my potential to be a good father. She told me that. She watched how I interacted with her little siblings. She knew that I was loving.
She didn’t marry me for my money, either. I had nothing. I had a job that covered the bills, but that was about it. My car barely ran.
However, she saw my ambition and drive. I was applying to graduate school when I met her. I didn’t have any wealth, but I did have dreams and goals.
I didn’t just talk about it, either. I was doing something about it. I was working hard to improve myself and build a good life for my family.
Don’t marry for money, looks, or some other meaningless garbage like that. The highway to Divorce Town is littered with couples who thought that would work.
To my previous point, you shouldn’t be marrying someone with a plan to change them later. Potential isn’t about forcing the changes YOU want. It’s about someone being smart, ambitious, and willing to grow and evolve.
You want a partner who will grow with you. You should support them in their growth, as well.
Be their biggest champion and fan as you watch that potential unfold and join them on their journey. My wife has supported me every step of the way, even when my ideas were crazy and risky.
Keep dating them
After all of these years, I still want to impress her. I still want her to see me as a gentleman. I want her to be proud of me and proud of being seen with me.
I know that I certainly feel that way about her. I’m so lucky to have her as my wife.
I’m proud of the woman she has become and everything that she has accomplished. She’s smart, classy, kind, sexy, beautiful, an amazing mother, my best friend, and the partner I want to spend the rest of my life with.
I got lucky. But, we’ve also worked really hard to keep making our marriage work.
After being together for over 30 years, I still date her. As a matter of fact, we just went on a wonderful date last night.
You don’t have to fall into a boring rut of the same old routines. Have fun with each other, keep exploring the world together, and keep that spark alive!
Ready for Part 2?