The Main Man and I feel qualified to talk about what makes a marriage last a long time. Unbelievably, to us, on Friday, July 13, of this year, we will have been married 50 years. We never thought we could be married for 50 years. We both were older when we got married in 1968, and had been previously married for a few years and then divorced.In fact, we had a fantasy that we had signed a fictitious 39 and a half year contract with an option to renew. We thought that was as long as we might last.
It might be nice to tell you that the years rolled along with candles and moonlight, lobster and champagne, billing and cooing, but that’s not how it went. In fact, I have come to believe that people need to have times of wrenching disagreements. When you get through them, you know better what you value and what your partner values.
Our first crucial test happened long before the 39.5-year contract was up. At about seven years into the marriage, we were making up property lists — how to split it. We decided to take the afternoon off by going to the annual Washington Square Art Show in New York City, an event we had attended many times before. While there, we saw a brown ceramic lamp that was the perfect thing we needed for the living room. So we bought it.
That brought us up short. What were we doing? I have no idea what it meant, but that table lamp became a symbol for us. We went into counseling, at the recommendation of The Main Man, not me, and it taught us a lot. BTW, the clunky, dumb 1970s lamp is still in our guest room — we’ve never been able to throw it away.
There were two specific things that marriage counseling taught me. I can’t answer for The Main Man. He’ll have to write his own column to clarify that.
The first thing is that the person we married was a figment of our imagination. In the heat of discovery, newness, hormones or love, we imagine that we have found the Prince. Or he has found Cinderella. We imagine the other person has all the virtues we need in a partner.
I was looking for the urbane, cultured, Manhattan bachelor who knew all the latest trends and fads. After all, The Main Man had an appointment at New York University, had an Upper West Side apartment overlooking the Hudson River, was forging a career in uncharted waters as a veterinary ophthalmologist, and he was fun to be with. What is not to love?
On his part, he saw a person with terrific legs in miniskirts (it was the years of Twiggy), who liked walking in Central Park and feeding the squirrels, did the New York Times crossword in pen, was in charge of her life as a scientist, and had a wicked sense of humor. What is not to love?
Surprise! Those virtues are only part of the picture. What we learned in counseling was who the other person really was, not only in our eyes, but in theirs. That is a different story.
The second thing that I learned, and that has remained true throughout the following 43 years is that we respect each other. We can disagree but the disagreements do not mean that the other person is an idiot, or useless, a cretin, or any of those other epithets are too easy to throw around. We have never had the shouting arguments I heard from our former neighbors that consisted mostly of yelling FU, FU, FU at each other.
When you denigrate another person, those words, that tone of voice, never leaves them. No matter what you say afterwards, the echo of being worthless is always in the cavern of their brain. Even though you’re a ballerina, the sound of your parents calling you a klutz is always there. Respect for the other person. Worth its weight in gold.
When The Main Man comes out of First Northern Bank on Main Street in Winters and walks toward me, I see his hokey L.L. Bean plaid flannel shirt, his worn blue jeans, the baseball cap hiding some of the wisps of hair on his head, his silly smile… he looks like a Prince.