How To Make A Successful Marriage

Every year around this time, I get in the mood for listening to old standards – Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and the like. It’s kind of a sentimental thing, because that was the music my husband and I used to listen to back in the early days of our courtship, which in our case began in November of 2004. I was a first-year doctoral student at Cornell, and he was in the final stages of that same program. Exactly one year later he flew back from his teaching post at the Universi…

  1. Mama Toad

    Rachel, are you saying you and your husband don’t just follow the Rules?

    Just kidding.

    What works for me and Papa Toad is that he is my best friend. As Evelyn Waugh noted, his friendship is valuable not in that he makes me laugh (he does!), but more importantly, that I make him laugh. He thinks I am funny! Hooray!

    The other thing is that we try to remember that the other person is acting out of the best possible intentions, even when we don’t really believe that. And that, before the children came along, we were still a family. It is about him and me. Not about the children vs. us, or me and the children vs. him, or him and the children vs. me. They are here because we are a family, and our relationship is the central one to the family.

    Beautiful post, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Casey
    Mama Toad: 

    What works for me and Papa Toad is that he is my best friend. As Evelyn Waugh noted, his friendship is valuable not in that he makes me laugh (he does!), but more importantly, that I make him laugh. He thinks I am funny! Hooray!

    My wife does not think I’m funny.

    I even told her I once got over 40 Likes but she still doesn’t think I’m funny.

  3. Vance Richards

    Low Expectations.

    Hey, it works for my wife . . .

  4. Southern Pessimist

    After 17 years of marriage, I went back for training in a second residency and worked with other residents who were 10 to 12 years younger than I. One afternoon over drinks at Friday afternoon happy hour, I mentioned that I had been married 17 years and another resident looked at me and said “Wow, I can’t imagine what 7 years would be like, much less 17.” I said, “Barry, at seven years they call it an ithch, at seventeen it has turned into gangrene.”As you can see my wife married me for something other than my sense of humor.I don’t know why she married me, but a big part of the attraction to her I felt was her vulnerability. It was if she knew I could easily hurt her feelings if I chose to do so but she trusted me not to. In 43 years, neither of us have ever openly ridiculed the other in public.

  5. Red Feline

    My daughter’s friends used to love to ask her eldest son, when he was five, “What kind of girl are you going to marry. “One my Mommy likes!” was the answer that used to have them rolling on the floor laughing. 

    But, hey, there is a lot of sense in that. :-)

  6. tabula rasa

    Rachel:  Superb essay, and true.

    I can’t find anything to disagree with.  I would only add three observations:

    1.  Toss the “soul-mate” idea (the belief that there is one, and only one, person who was meant just for you).  In fact, there are many potential mates to whom a person can be attracted physically and with whom a friendship can be created that will serve as the solid foundation for a marriage (think of friendship the rock upon which a marriage is built).  A great marriage is what creates soul-mates.  

    2.  Guys: ask a woman out on a formal date and act like a gentleman.  If you can’t think of interesting things to talk about, ask her about herself (it’s something she’ll feel flattered about, and she knows the subject).  Have some fun. In other words, create your own courtship ritual.  Just because others don’t do it, doesn’t mean you can’t.

    3.  This one is for Rachel.  Your marriage will be strengthened by a mutual love for the Notre Dame football team this year.  Sorry everyone else.

  7. tabula rasa
    Casey

    Mama Toad: 

    What works for me and Papa Toad is that he is my best friend. As Evelyn Waugh noted, his friendship is valuable not in that he makes me laugh (he does!), but more importantly, that I make him laugh. He thinks I am funny! Hooray!

    My wife does not think I’m funny.

    I even told her I once got over 40 Likes but she stilldoesn’t think I’m funny. · 1 hour ago

    My wife mostly doesn’t get my sophisticated sense of humor (at least that’s how I characterize it).  She would likely say that we’ve forged a great marriage despite my juvenile sense of humor.

    We do find quite a bit to laugh about (just not me), and we’ve made it forty years.

    Moral:  if your spouse won’t laugh at your jokes find something else that both of you can laugh about.

  8. Lance

    Love together.   

    Worship together.

    Dream together.

    Travel together.

    Journey to hell together.

    And back together.

    Parent together.

    Sleep together.

    Sleep in together.

    Dream of growing old together.

    Live your own lives…together.

    Just always love being, more than anything else in the whole wide world…together.

  9. Mantis9

    Great essay, Rachel. I agree with most every point. I’d add only:

    Be for “us”. Everything in this world should rank 2nd. If it doesn’t, you run the very real risk of divorce. And, give your spouse the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re for “us”, too.  In the light of this marital commitment, arguments become disagreements that are resolvable and aspirations (career or otherwise) can be reached for.

  10. Astonishing
    Rachel L.:  . . .  quite a number of unmarried men (especially conservative ones)  . . . think it perfectly reasonable to demand that their prospective wives’ primary desire and ambition should be to keep their house and raise their children while supporting their chosen careers.   I don’t regard this as especially reasonable, but, more importantly, I don’t think it’s terribly healthy for men to think that way.  . . .

    Change the word “demand” to “expect”  or “want” and you will have labeled unreasonable and unhealthy about 95% of American men who married before 1965 . . .  around the same time divorce rates skyrocketted.

    One does so tire of the prejudged way of discussing these things:

    – Why use the word “demand” to describe what men “want”? Men “demand.”  In the same paragraph, women “need,” “want,” or, at the very most, “assume” (with assumptions likely to be dashed). Unmarried women apparently make no “demands.”

    –Equally tiresome is how you deploy the word “their” three times in succession: “to keep their house and raise their children while supporting their chosen careers,” as if someone has asserted all three as separate male interests, as if a wife cannot have complementary interests and benefits in all three.

    Why such divisive language?

  11. Guruforhire

    If a guy wants a traditionalist arrangement, that is his perfectly reasonable desire.  Men are people too, and they can want things from a relationship as well.

    This post reinforces my opinion that marriage is fundamentally broken, because the men’s side of the ledger is all red ink.

  12. EThompson

    My advice after 20 years? Opposites do not attract!

  13. Mama Toad
    Red Feline: My daughter’s friends used to love to ask her eldest son, when he was five, “What kind of girl are you going to marry. “One my Mommy likes!” was the answer that used to have them rolling on the floor laughing. 

    But, hey, there is a lot of sense in that. :-) · 1 hour ago

    My six year old is convinced that I am the girl for him…

  14. Rachel Lu
    C

    Thanks to everyone for all that lovely advice. Tabula, I may indeed say that football has been a very good part of our marriage. An unexpected “bonus” for me in marriage was finding a man who cooks very, very well. An unexpected bonus for him was finding a woman who shares his love of sport (and especially football), truly madly and deeply. :)

  15. Aaron Miller
    Rachel L.:

    What criteria ought a person to consider when looking for prospective spouses? ….

    In some ways, I think the possible criteria can be broken fairly neatly into two categories, which I might label “personal compatibility” and “long-term compatibility”.

    If I didn’t know better, I’d say you had been reading my Facebook page. From yesterday:

    If I were searching for a woman by a single criterium, I think it might be that she likes and understands the film The Bells of St Mary’s. Certainly, a basic appreciation of black-and-white movies is a minimum requirement.

    Of course, liking that film address the “personal compatibility” concern and understanding it addresses the “long-term” concern. ;)

    But she doesn’t have to share my appreciation of The Ghost and The Darkness.

  16. Rachel Lu
    C

    Astonishing, I saved your comment until I had a real keyboard on hand. :)

    Men can want a traditional 1950′s style breadwinner/caretaker arrangement. For some, it’s a very reasonable preference. But they should understand that, like many things we want, that desire might need to be sacrificed if it isn’t the best thing for the family. I use language like “demand” because that is more or less the attitude has been expressed to me by some conservative men I have known. I think there are a non-trivial number who view this as a sine qua non of an acceptable wife, and that does seem unreasonable to me.

    Conservatives love to hearken back to the white picket fences of the 1950′s, but this is a different era. Human nature doesn’t change, but economic and social conditions do, and there are several reasons why that one was more workable in 1955 than it is today. For one thing, job security is much lower than it used to be, so even well-meaning men may have trouble guaranteeing economic security for their families. (cont.)

  17. Rachel Lu
    C

    At the same time, changing economic conditions have made it much more possible for individuals to develop their skills and potential in such a way as to gain both fulfilling work and high income. To put the point in a nutshell, we live in a higher-risk, higher-reward economic world.

    One result is that dependency is riskier than before. Even a well-meaning man may not be able to ensure financial security if his field or company suffers economic setbacks. But on the other hand, it means that women potentially sacrifice a lot more by assuming a full-time domestic role. They may not want that. I think that’s reasonable too. 

    Of course children still need care, which is why everyone ultimately needs to be open to taking one for the team when necessary. And don’t get me wrong; women certainly have their issues too. There’s no telling what things liberal women think they deserve and are entitled to. But I think many conservative men have their own strain of unreasonable entitlement, which, on a conservative website, is worth laying on the table.

  18. Astonishing

    Okay, it’s obvious, or soon will be, that I’m an old-fashioned crank.

    Compatibility? A trivializing modernism!

    How about virtue? How about goodness? Does anyone mention those?

    Instead of looking for a person you “like,” begin by looking for a person who “is good.” (One cannot assume, especially in love matters, that what one likes is the same as what is good.)

    If you are a man, find a woman with human virtues and feminine ones, too, among which chastity, tenderness, industriousness, loyalty.

    If you are a woman, look for a man with human virtues and masculine ones, too, among which courage, honor, judgment, loyalty.

    You will say “all of that goes without saying.”

    And so, since “all of that goes without saying,” we shall say no more about virtue (especially not courage or chastity), but we shall talk endlessly about compatibility, flexibility, professional goals, and whether “one spouse feels entitled to more than the other.”

  19. Cornelius Julius Sebastian

    Great piece, Rachel.  I am going to print it and keep it in a safety deposit box to give my kids when they turn 17.  Wish I had had the same opportunity.

  20. Karen

    Good advice. Though in the conversations I’ve had with single girlfriends, their expectations and criteria for a happy marriage are over-thought and unrealistic. They don’t want “settle,” but they have by watching their options shrink. I’d add that it’s important to find a good person, not just a nice person. Long suffering is important as well- helps when riding out the storms. Avoid hotheads. Keep yourself open to the possibility of finding someone not your “type.” Character and personal integrity are really, really important, more than compatibility.

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