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 University of Tennessee to propose to me, so we have many pleasant November memories (As it happens, our first child was also born in November). Most people associate young love with springtime, but for me the strongest associations are more of the “let it snow” variety.
Obviously, there are Ricochetti who have been happily married for many more years than we; nevertheless, the Lus are hardly newlyweds. Interestingly though, I remain the only one of my parents’ five offspring to have either a spouse or children. I don’t believe that any of my siblings are commitment-shy or anti-family. It’s just that romance has become quite complicated nowadays. We don’t have many agreed-upon courtship rituals anymore, and conflicting educational and professional plans can make for some agonizing decisions. The path to established family life isn’t so clearly marked as it used to be.
In a way it’s hard for me to enter sympathetically into my siblings’ reflections on these subjects, because I, if anything, had the opposite problem to theirs; I found the person I wanted to marry at a time when I wouldn’t have minded staying single for just a bit longer. But I also hesitate to give advice on these matters just because I realize that, like most people, I may tend to make too much of my own experience. Not everybody is like me. Not everybody should be. There seem to be multiple counterexamples to almost every “rule” one generates about finding happiness in marriage.
Still, it’s an important subject, so I thought it might be interesting to open it here. What criteria ought a person to consider when looking for prospective spouses? Among these, which are essential and which are more secondary?
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”. Our immediate attraction to a person tends to reflect the first, so young people are often (properly) advised to take things slow and think about the future. Among those who are late to marry, however, I find that the second can sometimes become something of an obsession, even to the point where they half-ignore personal compatibility issues for the sake of finding an “appropriate” life companion. I think it’s clear that both things are important, but striking the right balance is obviously a challenge.
The category that I label “personal compatibility” can really be further broken into two basic issues. First of all, do you like being around the person? Do you enjoy their conversation and look forward to spending time together? It may seem obvious, but I find some people surprisingly oblivious to this point. If you marry a person, you will be around him or her quite a lot. Try to find someone whose company will in general be pleasant to you. Secondly, though, it’s best to find someone whose general lifestyle preferences are moderately compatible with yours. If one of you is an obsessive neatnik and the other is a slob, that will probably be a source of tension. If one is addicted to pop tarts and cheeseburgers and the other is a strict vegan, that might be hard. Obviously, there’s a lot of give and take in any marriage, and children will radically upset your lifestyle preferences whether or not they are shared. It’s still worth thinking about these things.
Long-term compatibility relates to things like faith and family plans, but also to plans for education and career. Politics may or may not factor large in your thinking, depending on how much you care about it. Now, my feeling as a young woman was that faith and family are absolutely central to a good marriage, while professional plans are the sort of thing that may need to be adjusted and changed. I still stand by that. I don’t think I would ever have married a non-Catholic, but it’s especially unwise to marry a person who doesn’t respect and support your religious commitments. Equally important, marrying a person whose wishes concerning children are quite different from yours is an obvious recipe for unhappiness. And don’t be too confident, when you’re in your mid-twenties, that you “never want children.” That tends to change.
If you can find a person who is eligible in all the above respects, I would advise you to count yourself lucky and find a way to make the other stuff work. Mind you, I don’t pretend that the professional obstacles are trivial. Professional choices can be agonizing for any number of reasons. In the first place, it obviously makes sense to consider your joint financial prospects. How much debt do you have, and how much earning potential? Financial insolvency is hard on any marriage and very hard on children. Another factor is time. Academic careers are in some ways extremely good for marriage and family, because they allow for very flexible hours and lots of time at home (On the downside, academics are fairly constrained when it comes to choosing a city or region of the country). Other careers are far less amenable to family life. I, for example, would have been reluctant to marry a man who was active in the military. As much as I respect the military, I wouldn’t want my husband to be away from home all the time. I also wouldn’t want him to die! Careers affect families in multiple ways.
At the end of the day, though, I think a good marriage needs to transcend professional goals. If your family matters less to you than your career, you probably won’t be a very good spouse or parent. In the end, life is long, and job prospects can change. Faith and family will hopefully endure. That is why I recommend flexibility concerning career plans.
Often women are faulted for wanting too much in this regard. I must say that, mentally surveying all of my old friends and acquaintances, I think the men (both liberal and conservative, but especially conservative) are somewhat more liable to hold their careers sacrosanct, where women tend to assume that flexibility and sacrifice are necessary components of family life. There are many exceptions, certainly, but that seems to me to be the trend. Women may have educational or professional ambitions, or they may prefer a more domestically-oriented existence, but either way they tend to assume that there will be some give and take. By contrast, I have known quite a number of unmarried men (especially conservative ones) who 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. Quite often couples do find a traditional breadwinner/caretaker division of labor to be mutually agreeable, and it’s not an unreasonable thing to want. But it’s hard to count on anything in these uncertain economic times, and it’s not good for marriage in general if one spouse feels entitled to more than the other. That, at any rate, is my perspective, but I’ve little doubt that some here will disagree!
In any case, I would summarize my best advice as follows: find someone you genuinely like to marry. Make sure that your larger life goals and commitments are roughly compatible. But don’t obsess over finding someone whose immediate plans and interests are nicely harmonious with yours. Even if they are today, they probably won’t be tomorrow. The most important thing is for both of you to understand that family matters more.