My husband Barry and I have been married for 44 years and he is often asked the secret to a long marriage. Half-jokingly, we say, “Skip the first year!”
It’s true – our early years were tough. I felt bad about it. What was wrong with us? Where was that initial romance, that “happy young marriage” that my grandmother always reminded me of?
But now I understand. Above all, we both had not only experienced stress in the 2 years before our wedding, but also an enormous amount of grief. Together we had been through four moves, two deaths in the family, a parent’s remarriage, three new siblings, and a difficult divorce. Tensions continued through the first year of our marriage, with three more moves and one more death in the family. No wonder we were exhausted and emotionally drained.
But today we are healthy, happy and strong here. I attribute our success to many things, but one area stands out: the ground rules or agreements we made that helped us communicate clearly and learn to “fight fairly” – that is, if we absolutely fight, which is very rare nowadays.
Here are our nine basic rules:
1. We avoid tit-for-tat
Let’s say I wash the dishes one night. In the morning, if I want Barry to do something for me, I don’t have to say, “But I did the dishes last night.” In other words, he doesn’t to debt Anything to make me do the dishes and I can’t use the fact that I had them as leverage. I may or may not wash the dishes, but if I choose to do so, the action happens alone, free of any expectations or obligations.
For us, a sense of obligation often leads to serious resignation or resentment. no fun! Instead, we either do things independently or not at all. That’s the goal anyway. Of course, this is not a perfect system. But hardly any of us feel like martyrs. If I’m ever in danger of being upset, I remind myself that I’m doing something for her, not just her. Me.
2. We have a statute of limitations policy
As I said, the first few years were tough for us. In the aftermath, sometimes one of us (usually me!) brings up a painful topic from that time or another, and we go back through our entire history and try to clear things up. Rarely used to do this. Sometimes we don’t even agree on what happened in the first place. The hurt feelings and resentments will surface again—sometimes even more bitterly than before.
As Barry said more than once at the time, “makes” all Is there supposed to be a workshop here?” (Of course I told him that we didn’t meet in a bar or at a party, but in a classic ’70s touchy-feeling group and in a place that was a sign for our future. Also type: Gestalt Studio! )
Over time we realized that we needed to find a new path which we developed into our “statute of limitations” which referred to the point at which we agreed not to bring up previous conflicts. Of course, if one of us does something that upsets the other, we discuss it and try to solve it as quickly as possible. But after a few talks, assuming we’ve come up with a solution – even if it’s not perfect – the topic is pretty far off the mark. Notice I said, “Too much.” We’re not strong, but we work to not bring things up again and again.
When exactly is this time? It’s hard to pinpoint, but we all usually have a sense of when it’s time to move on.
If I still feel incomplete after a difficult conversation, I don’t go back to Barry to repeat it. At this point it is no more Our Problem; it is my Problems I can discuss with a friend, write in my journal, or otherwise solve on my own.
When I feel resentment, it rarely lasts long. I usually walk or ride my bike, I prefer to sweat. For me, movement is alchemy; An hour of brisk exercise and I’m back to a changed person.
3. We separate feelings and judgements
Like any long-term couple, we have family, children, finances or home, travel, calendars, etc. to attend to and business to do. We’ve found that it helps to separate “business” from emotion.
For many years we had a business meeting once a week. Since the outbreak of COVID, every morning we sit down and make three to-do lists: his, mine, and ours. The “We” section often involves choices that can sometimes be emotionally sticky. If so, we put the subject aside because we know we need to have a separate conversation about our feelings first before we tackle the “business” part. We’ve learned that judgment and strong emotions don’t go well together. For this we need a quiet, low-intensity environment.
For example, we apparently didn’t agree on the departure/return date of a trip. Barry often wanted more time while I wanted less. If we were discussing a trip and either of us were feeling stressed, we would push back the travel deadline and agree to first discuss our feelings at another time. As soon as these are clear, we can make decisions again. (Regarding the timing of the trips, we solved this problem by not necessarily leaving and returning at the same time, as I describe here.)
4. We never leave a conversation unannounced
Earlier in our marriage, one of us, usually Barry, found the conversation too intense and needed a break. If he physically left or didn’t respond, I would be very concerned. Over time we’ve learned that it’s okay to take time off as long as the person acknowledges it verbally, e.g. B. “I need a break. Give me a moment.”
5. We don’t discuss serious matters if either of us is drinking
This basic rule has helped us to avoid many conflicts. As everyone knows, alcohol affects the nervous system. When we drink soda water, what feels like a slight burn can suddenly intensify under the influence of alcohol.
6. Each person tells the story
We don’t like it when other couples interrupt or correct each other, so we don’t try. When we’re with friends and one of us tells a story, the other doesn’t come up with improvisation. For example, I like to tweet and say, “Actually, that happened in 2014, not 2015,” but I’ve learned to hold back (with difficulty!). If one of us forgets and does it, the other will casually say, “Hey! Who is telling the story?”
That means if Barry accidentally says something wrong about me, like an aspect of my childhood that turns out to be wrong, I reserve the right to set the record straight!
7. ‘Tell Me’
This simple expression that means A person who says they will listen to the other person without commenting, reacting, arguing, disagreeing, offering advice, changing the subject, or setting a deadline. We think that’s easy – that’s it! Listening is very powerful.
8. We introduce some statements using the phrase “under the dome”.
I’m not sure where the term “dome” came from, but it means “I’m going to tell you something I’m upset about.” It warns the other to avoid judgment and be extra friendly.
Another way to do this is, jokingly, I could say, “Hey Bee, don’t tell Louisa, but I have to tell you something she doesn’t want you to know.”
9. We gasho
a ritual gesture of eastern origin, gasho Refers to hands pressed together in a prayer posture. we gasho As an apology or closure. We say, “I’m sorry,” “We’re done,” or “We’re good. We can continue.”
Luisa and Barry in Copper Canyon, Mexico, 2016
Recently a friend and I wrote back and forth that the way our spouses deal with conflict can be very challenging at times.
“Barry and I have spent decades figuring out how to solve the problems,” I typed on my keyboard. Then I stopped and looked thoughtfully out the window. Decade? For real?
Yes, that’s right. It took so long because we didn’t start with a set of accordions, all protected, polished and done; They developed slowly with years of practice, mistakes, disagreements and insights. Breaking our ground rules along the winding road of our marriage is part of what has made us resilient.
And they made us feel safe. Without our ground rules, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our lives to the fullest, feel intimate, or be happy together. Together they have immeasurably improved the quality of our lives. Quite simply: without them we would not be what we are.