Marriage has suddenly become a hot political topic with George W. Bush in the White House. After decades of government programs that provided disincentives to marriage, especially among the poor, President Bush has proposed $300 million in his welfare re-authorization budget to encourage state demonstration projects to strengthen marriages.
Of course, it's not just -- or primarily -- government that has conspired against marriage in recent years. The popular culture, the decline in traditional morality, even our increasing affluence, not to mention greater opportunities and independence for women, have all contributed to the decline in marriage, the rise in divorce and the increase in out-of-wedlock births. If we're to do anything about reversing these trends, we need to understand more about what makes for a good and lasting marriage.
I've been thinking a lot about this issue as I celebrate my 35th anniversary this week. If anyone had been taking bets in 1967, the odds would have been lousy that my husband and I would still be together more than three and a half decades later. He and I were both 19 when we married, a harbinger of failure, according to the statistics. What's more, he was Jewish, and I was Catholic. His father was a doctor, mine was a house painter. He liked politics; I liked literature. He favored paisley shirts and moccasins, while I still wore white gloves and herringbone tweeds. But despite our differences, large and small, we made it.
As I look back, four things seemed to have made the difference:
First, we became friends before we were lovers. I firmly believe that friendship is at the heart of most successful marriages. Passion and romantic love ebb and flow over the years, but true friendship remains a constant. Friendship entails sharing at least some important common interests, enjoying each other's company and treating each other's opinions with respect, even if you don't necessarily share them.
Second, we argued a lot, especially in our first several years. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but arguments can actually help strengthen a marriage, so long as they follow certain rules. Keeping disagreements bottled up usually leads to resentment and more anger. However, it's important to know how to disagree with each other and how to argue constructively. Letting your spouse know how you feel can help resolve disagreements, so long as both parties genuinely listen and try to empathize with each other. Doing so in public, particularly by trying to marshal allies against your spouse, is usually a disaster. So, too, is rehashing past grievances.
We found that disagreements diminished over the years, but part of that was letting go of old arguments. We also resolved never to go to sleep mad at each other, which sometimes meant very late nights. If by chance we failed to resolve the matter before falling asleep, one or the other would call a truce when we awoke in the morning, so that arguments almost never carried over a second day.
Third, we gave each other space. I never learned to like football. He never learned to like Shakespeare. So we gave each other the time and freedom to pursue separate interests. People change over a lifetime, and if they're not allowed the freedom to grow in sometimes different directions, they'll feel stifled and cheated. We've never let our separate interests become obsessions, but I think both of us feel enriched by the other's avocations.
Finally, and most importantly, we made a conscious commitment to stay together. Like most marriages, ours went through rocky periods, but we made a commitment to stick out the rough and unhappy patches. No marriage is blissful every moment. No spouse is perfect. Commitment takes hard work, but it is also a state of mind. If you're forever thinking that the grass might be greener elsewhere or that today's unhappiness or dissatisfaction will last forever, it's impossible to stay committed.
Good marriages aren't so complicated, even if they seem increasingly difficult to achieve. To borrow from Tolstoy: Every unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way, but happy marriages are all alike.