Lessons from 30 Years of Marriage — Part 3
Lessons from 30 Years of Marriage — Part 1
Even a stubborn old dog eventually learns something
Lessons from 30 Years of Marriage — Part 2
The second act of a marriage with children
My wife and I have raised our children together for 20+ years. Our daughter has already graduated from college and is now in graduate school. Our oldest son will soon be graduating from college. Our youngest son is finishing up his senior year in high school and has already applied to several colleges.
That’s right, folks. We are nearing the “empty nest” phase, and I’m already feeling the early effects of empty nest syndrome. It’s very real.
It began when our older children left home. I want them to grow up, be successful, and lead their own lives. But, I also feel incredibly sad and have a deep sense of loss. The nostalgia kicks in, and I remember all of our times together when they were little. I’m happy for them, but I miss them already.
More and more lately, my wife and I look at each other and say, “Ok, now what?” Being parents and raising our children has been a huge part of our lives. Even more so since they were mostly homeschooled. We’ve spent our days together for most of their lives.
Well, we are reconnecting and making plans. We’re already exploring what our life will be like as just a couple again.
We’re trying to decide what to do with this newfound freedom that is right around the corner. We already know that we’ll spend a lot of time visiting our children, of course. But, we love to travel and have our eyes on several destinations.
We want to avoid what seems to happen to a lot of couples when the last child leaves the house. They divorce. So many of my friends’ parents divorced as soon as the youngest child went off to college.
According to the stats, most couples usually divorce in the first 7–8 years of marriage. So, we made it past that initial hurdle. Whew! But, of course, divorces still happen later in marriages for a variety of reasons.
According to research in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, ten of the most common reasons for divorce are:
- Constant conflict (e.g., money, unrealistic expectations, incompatibility)
- Not prepared for marriage and a lack of commitment
- Emotional distance
- Lack of communication
- Physical and emotional abuse
- Lack of shared values
- Substance abuse
- Lack of physical intimacy
- Lack of equality
Here are my final thoughts on marriage and some of our lessons learned. I’ve also included more advice from my friends.
In the end, it’s all about personality and intelligence
Marriage is already hard. It’s even harder when you try to navigate it with someone who isn’t that bright. Intelligence isn’t just sexy. Having a smart partner will come in damn handy over and over again during the course of your life!
Also, sharing your life with another person is almost impossible when they don’t have a great personality. At some point, I’m sure you’ve asked someone on a date simply because they were attractive.
Oh, you’ve never done that? Well, aren’t you special and selective!
If you have done that, sometimes you discover that their personality doesn’t match their appearance and you can’t wait for the date to end. Now, imagine being married to a spouse with a bad personality for years. 😧
Yeah, year. I know it sounds like I’m a hypocrite because my wife is gorgeous. I will admit that her looks were the first thing that caught my eye across the crowded room that evening 31 years ago.
But, it was her smile that drew me in. It was her intelligence, kindness, attitude, loving nature, and more that made me stay. I didn’t marry her because she was pretty. That was a nice bonus.
The older you get, the more you appreciate someone’s personality, wisdom, sense of humor, and quirky traits. The surface-level stuff fades and means nothing in the big scheme of life.
Love the soul
Similarly, you fall in love with the deepest essence of the right partner. As my friend, Jack Calhoun, said, “Love the soul, not the body.”
He said that he is just as attracted to his wife of almost 24 years as he has ever been. No one looks the same at 50 as they did at 25, but it doesn’t matter.
“I’m as attracted to who she is and the life we’ve shared together as I am to her physical attributes, and that was the case from the beginning of our relationship. The guys I knew who married the ‘Barbies’ are almost universally divorced because they didn’t much care about the soul from the beginning.” — Jack Calhoun
When you marry a great person, your love grows deeper with each passing year. You love the way they think, the little things they do, and enjoy growing old together. The journey to the end is wild, surprising, and even sad sometimes, but it’s so much better with someone by your side.
Your best friend
My friend Eric Sangerma said, “Be each other’s best friend.” I know that’s the case with my wife too.
She is definitely my best friend. I enjoy spending time with her, and everything I do is better with her there. I used to travel alone for business a lot. I’d visit museums, art galleries, and other sights but always wished she was there to see it all with me.
However, you shouldn’t assume that your spouse will be all things for you. They can be your favorite friend, but they shouldn’t be your only friend. It’s a recipe for disaster when you expect that someone else should meet all of your emotional needs. We need more people in our lives for balance.
Talk about everything
“There hasn’t been a day in the last 20 years we’ve been together I haven’t talked to my wife.” — Eric Sangerma
My wife and I talk about everything. There are the usual daily conversations about household stuff and planning, but we also discuss the news, things we’ve read, and the latest insane postings on social media. I won’t name names… 😉
She probably grows weary of this, but I’m constantly sharing my latest crazy business ideas, marketing plans, and talking about my writing. She’s always sharing something she heard in a podcast.
We both have unique interests, of course. Very, very different interests! But, at least we feel like we can discuss them with each other.
“Laugh together and laugh at yourself.” — Eric Sangerma
If you don't think that humor is important in a relationship, you might want to check out this research and this study, as well. For example, one found that “the more times a man tried to be funny and the more times a woman laughed at his jokes, the more likely she was romantically interested.”
Also, laughter is simply good for us. It can relieve pain, boost your immune system, reduce stress hormones, and make you feel more connected to others.
I love to make my wife laugh. It’s one of my favorite things. I have to admit that it is getting harder over the years. Hmmm… she sure did laugh more easily on our first few dates. Maybe my material needs an update.
Intimacy is critical
Lack of intimacy is one of the top marriage killers. That includes intellectual, emotional, and physical intimacy.
Do you have someone in your life you talk with frequently, and you just seem to click? That’s intellectual intimacy.
You enjoy your conversations, can talk about anything, and there are never awkward moments when neither of you knows what to say. You can talk for hours and not notice the time going by.
Emotional intimacy requires vulnerability. It can be frightening to open up and reveal yourself to another person completely. It requires a deep level of trust.
For me, the full process has taken decades. I’m not sure why. I’ve had some bad experiences with betrayal, and I really hate feeling vulnerable. But, I know that I have to let my guard down with my wife because emotional intimacy is so important for her.
Address physical intimacy imbalances
Speaking of intimacy… A mismatch in physical intimacy needs is one of the top causes of divorce. I think it’s because people get frustrated and don’t face it head-on with an honest and deep discussion.
We need physical touch and the connection it gives us. We’ve all been experiencing “touch deprivation” due to the pandemic, and it’s making folks sad and irritable.
While hugs do help, sex is important for most people in a long-term relationship. Not everyone wants or needs it. But, if someone who needs it marries someone who can live without it, it’s going to be challenging for both partners.
A degree of mismatch in drives is most likely inevitable. As human beings, we also have an ebb and flow of feelings, so timing is always challenging.
One person feels pressured. The other person feels frustrated. No one is happy.
Suffering in silence is not a solution. Simmering inside, being upset, and having it come out in other ways is also not a solution.
You have to come to terms with it. Have an open and honest discussion about the issue. It’s not easy, and you might be embarrassed, but you have to do it.
Work together to create a solution that satisfies you both (pun intended?). If you aren’t sure where to begin, experts suggest various ways to deal with conflicting expectations.
Appreciate what you’ve built and experienced
This is slightly different advice from avoiding the “Grass is always greener” pitfall. It’s more about gratitude and taking time to remember everything that you’ve built together as a couple.
It’s about remembering all of the memories you’ve shared, as well. In a long-term relationship, no one else — NO ONE — can replace that bond. It’s so powerful. She knows me better than anyone else in the world.
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” ― Epicurus
Human beings tend to be greedy and absent-minded creatures. We forget how good we have it. We always want more.
I witness this every day on social media. People who live better than the royalty did centuries ago. Heck, we live better than people did even decades ago.
But, they want more, more, more! A nicer Tesla. A bigger home. Longer vacations in Hawaii.
The same thing happens with our relationships and lives. We forget that what we have now is what we dreamed of having years ago. I dreamed of loving and being loved by a wife, having children to raise together, having our own home, and a life to share.
I now have everything I dreamed of having someday. I have to remember to appreciate the life we’ve built together.
A psychologist, Dr. John Gottman, researched the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Conflict” that can ruin a marriage. Have you heard of them?
- Criticism — you blame your partner frequently
- Defensiveness — your response to feeling criticized is to get defensive
- Stonewalling — you withdraw from interaction while staying in the room
- Contempt — includes things like threats, name-calling, eye-rolling, and insulting
A lack of respect for your partner and a refusal to engage in civil discussions and arguments will kill your relationship. Contempt is the most destructive of these four horsemen.
No matter what you are upset about or what the argument is, remember that your partner is your lover, friend, and life companion. They are not your enemy!
Finally, maintain some mystery
30 years is a long time to be together, but we still surprise each other. We have stories from our childhood that we’ve never shared before.
I have some stories from high school and college that I’m just now comfortable sharing — one by one over the years. The statute of limitations has expired. I think…
I’m still learning who she is, and, of course, she keeps changing, so I’ll never know everything about her. I keep changing, as well.
It’s good to maintain some mystery. You don't have to share every single random thought that pops into your head. You should also explore hobbies and interests on your own.
We are together, but we also have our own lives. It’s an amusing paradox. But, I think it’s the only way to have a lasting marriage.
Be complete within yourself first. Enjoy your own company. Have your own dreams, ambitions, and pursuits.
The magic happens when two people agree to share their independent lives.
Any other long-term couples out there? What advice would you share to help others successfully navigate their long-term relationships?