Starting this week, that became my answer to the question, “How long have you been married?”
Reactions to my answer through the years have ranged from delight to surprise. The delight usually comes from people who reached, paid homage to and surpassed the same milestone. They understand and appreciate the effort, then admit me to an ethereal club bounded only by the unstated belief that membership is sparse and diminishing.
The surprise spawns from two camps: those who insist I am too young to accomplish any such feat, and those who actually are too young.
Between these rather mild extremes resides the camp that concerns me most — one made from a mix of the wistful and indifferent. Some of these campers wish they were married that long, and maybe strayed outside reason in the effort. Still others can’t conceive of spending that much time exclusively with one person and aren’t inclined to try.
I am confident in my categorizations because nobody reacts silently or indifferently to my answer. People are compelled to compare the size, shape and color of their matrimonial experiences, not out of pride but validation, and they use degrees of courtesy or rudeness to do so. That is because all married people discuss their marriages in public like they talk about their children, pets or vacations. These things double as yardsticks with which we measure our self-worth.
A few people also wonder aloud how a quarter century of companionship is possible, as if this were a traditional recipe and the secret to mixing the ingredients vanished with the last good cook, and upon answering the query I always stumble. Not that I am reluctant to reveal secrets, or that a secret even exists, but because I doubt anyone who has to ask holds any value in perseverance.
For those people who are certain that a recipe exists, however, I will describe my ingredients, mixed in equal parts:
Respect — For any relationship to work, the individuals involved must appreciate one another’s beliefs, perceptions and conceptualizations as unique and precious. Disagreements over these things are possible, perhaps even inevitable, but the differences should not be allowed to detract from the relationship. If they are, the relationship is bound to fail.
Commitment — Marriages require constant maintenance; they are neither perfect nor automatic. The reason is clear: marriages can break and need repair, as with anything that undergoes stress and pressure. The key then is moving forward with repairs even if they hurt, even if egos are bruised and attitudes must be adjusted. Saying “I’m sorry” bespeaks courage; saying nothing bespeaks cowardice. While I know I lack the courage to climb Mount Everest or swim across the English Channel, I also know that is not the kind of courage necessary to make my wife happy and my marriage enduring.
Consensus — This relates to respect, in that spouses should possess the maturity to find a middle ground where they can coexist between divergent beliefs. My wife and I hold distinct views on everything from yard work to laundry, yet neither forces the other to concede. I have lost count of the times we settled our differences by sorting through what aspects about them each of us can accept. Sometimes, too, consensus means trading responsibilities. (After all, I never liked doing yard work and she never liked doing laundry, so that turned out to be a smart trade.)
Teamwork — Marriage, by definition, constitutes two people trying to make a life together. Anyone who expects or even demands to be exactly the same person after saying “I do,” as before saying it should hold off until the compulsion for selfishness and self-interest subsides. Alternately, anyone who treasures autonomy and rankles at relinquishing even a small part of it probably is better off in a relationship where neither partner requires much from the other.
Love — So, how did I know “we” sounded more appealing than “me”? I was an undergraduate in college, the woman soon to be my wife was a graduate student at a university 175 miles away, and one evening she drove down as a surprise. A few hours earlier, she had said by phone that an unexpected project had quashed her plans to visit. I hung up feeling lower than I thought possible about missing another person.
Shortly afterward, her plans changed yet again, and she jumped in the car and sped south without first calling. When she knocked on my door and I saw who it was, my joy reached a level that resonates with me even today.
But that was not “the moment” when I knew I was in love forever. It came later that night, after we celebrated her surprise with an evening on the town. She was leaning against the car waiting for me to unlock the door, nothing more, and I glanced over at her …
… And I knew, in that fraction of a shred of an instant.
No fireworks. No cadre of singers in my mind belting out Handel’s “Messiah” — just an overwhelming flush of confidence and contentment and assurance. A common moment somehow sparked an uncommon feeling. Little else was certain about my life at that point other than an intense realization that whatever came next was worthless without this woman sharing the experience.
A realization like that is the first ingredient, the main ingredient — the secret ingredient, if you will — in the recipe for any marriage. All other ingredients merely enhance it; they do not supplant it. But mixed well, these ingredients retain their cumulative flavor much longer than 26 years.