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Long-Term Marriage: The Survey, Part 1

by Mary McHugh

First of all, I want to thank all of you who took the time to answer my questionnaire on long-term marriages. As you know, I was interested in how the second half of a marriage that has lasted longer than 25 years is different from the first half. It turns out that in a good marriage the second half is often more rewarding that the first half.  In a bad marriage, the second half puts into stark relief the problems that were present in the first half and the marriages often dont last. The letters you e-mailed me were incredibly interesting oral histories of women who have obviously led full, valuable and often difficult lives. 
      Women are tough creatures - we all knew that. Let me tell you about some of the women who wrote to me and what I learned about marriage. I wont use names, of course. I found the answers to how you handle problems and arguments inspiring. They showed how women change and grow and become more confident as they get older, and in doing so, their husbands often change too. 
     Listen to this woman who has been married for 40 years. She is 62, her husband 67. We deal with problems better now. After 40 years and living with four women (we have three daughters), my husband has finally learned that women are pretty smart and can handle most things that come up in life. He came from a background where his mother depended entirely on his father and children. She never made any important decisions and deferred to her husband or sons. I now handle all our finances and have made better investment decisions by reading and investigating before I invest. He relied entirely on his stock broker. We argued constantly during our first ten years, most of all because of his macho upbringing. He felt that because he was the bread winner I had no say in anything other than grocery shopping and taking care of the children. He was brought up to believe that his decision was final, no matter what. We really had some terrible arguments over this and I did take my children and leave him for a couple of months. I convinced him that we needed to go see a counselor and that I would not return until we went through counseling sessions. Forty years later we are still together! Who wins? Neither one. One of the other usually gives in now. Very different during the first five years of our marriage - he usually won until I started working and did not have to depend on him. 
      Can you imagine what it took for that woman to pack up and leave with her three children until her husband agreed to counseling? I am awed by the strength women find to do what they have to do. I received several letters from women who had a child with a disability. This interested me, of course, because I grew up with a brother with cerebral palsy and mental retardation and wrote about the stress this places on a marriage.  My younger daughter also became blind, had kidney failure, and an amputation because of diabetes before her death last Christmas at the age of 40. 
      These letters moved me tremendously because of the courage of these mothers. Many of them have good strong marriages, which is not easy to do when you have a sick child to take care of. I understand how hard this is because my husband and I are still together after 46 years, and it has often been very difficult. Luckily, we have survived and are stronger for it, more gentle with each other, more grateful for the fun we have together. 
     One woman who wrote me a wise letter that should be a guidebook for young brides setting out on this long and sometimes rewarding, sometimes heartbreaking, road, had three sons, one of whom had severe medical and mental problems. She and her husband somehow survived the years of raising this special child. You have an overwhelming sense of powerlessness being unable to fix this for your child or to protect him, she writes. But her marriage, after 33 years is rock-solid. She is 60, her husband is 62. 
      What did she learn along the way?  Let her tell it in her own words: We know plenty of families who fell apart when the demands of a critically ill child overwhelmed their families and their marriage. We were fortunate not to fall into that trap, but it took everything we had in terms of physical and emotional energy to survive it, but we did it together. I vividly remember my husband saying, We can choose to spend the next twenty years in sadness and desperation, wringing our hands and being angry, or we can expend our energies coping and making a life for ourselves and the boys in spite of this.
      She and her husband approached life in two very different ways - he is analytical and a champion of unemotional solutions. I have a tendency to emotionally labor over things and I was miffed may times at his often-cavalier approach.  Does this sound familiar?  Hasnt almost every woman said this in one way or another during her marriage, but this woman puts it elegantly. After the fact, she says, Ive had to admit many times that he was more right than I was.
      She says they dont argue because they discovered early on that they simply couldnt. We got angrier and wound up furious and frustrated. Over the years we established a pattern where we agree to disagree unless its a really critical issue that needs to be dealt with. Should their children go to a parochial school? He felt really positive about their going, so I finally went along with his choice, although I hated Catholic school when I was a child, because his position was more important to him than mine was to me. Neither of us cares keenly enough to go through the trouble of convincing the other to buy into the logic of the others position. I can count on one hand the number of real fights we have in our marriage. That is not to say that we dont disagree. We disagree a lot. We just dont fight about it. We dont shout or get nasty. Each of us sort of makes her/his case. 
     We are also very respectful of each other. We both take care not to speak disrespectfully even when we are upset. My husband compliments me frequently. He has never, and I mean never failed to thank me for every meal I have prepared, even if its only a sandwich, and I notice that my adult sons still do this with me, as does my married son to his wife. He has never left his clothes on the floor for me to pick up and he has always done his own laundry. I tried to wash his clothes when we were first married and he told me he had done these things for himself for years as a single guy and saw no reason he should not continue to do so. When the boys were little, the house could be rather chaotic, but I always tried to at least keep the bedroom peaceful and tidy, another thing my Mom taught me. These kinds of things, just like our good morning and good night kisses, are simple things that remind each of us that we are cherished. 
     I know. I hear you saying, Well, she found a perfect husband. Its not that hes perfect, she says, nor is she, its that she learned to be grateful for the things she loved about her husband and to show him her appreciation rather than letting herself be disappointed at the things he wasnt. I really believe that many women are sabotaged in their marriages by the Prince Charming fantasy that prevails in the acculturation of girls in our society. I think we are ill prepared to make the everyday adult choices in married life that will make us happy. Too many of us grow up thinking someone will make us happy in the perfect marriage. I dont know that boys are any better, but girls are seriously impaired. Females have it backward with the emphasis on the romance, and little of the skill of appreciating the different strengths that each one brings to the marriage relationship and how to develop them. Without real emotional maturity you are left without the capacity to find romance again and nurture it throughout your relationship after the early rush fades. And nurture it you must, that I know. 
     For me, that says it all. Psychologists tell us the leading cause of divorce is false expectations. We keep expecting the other person to act like our mother or father, or like Alan Alda or Mrs. Cleaver. Since no one can live up to these standards, people give up and move on to another relationship, where they have the same unattainable expectations. 

Part Two >>


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