Ask Polly: How Can I Make My Marriage Last?

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Photo: Frans Lanting

Hi Polly,

A number of people write to you because they have lost or are looking for love. Supposing you already have it, do you have any advice for making it last?

I am about to marry the love of my life. We badly want for things to last. But we also live in a contemporary climate where love’s chance to last, monogamously and constructively, is pretty compromised.

People divorce like mad. I grew up, as a child of the ‘90s, seeing my parents split, seeing all their friends split, hell, I saw most of these people split from the second marriages, too. Don’t get me wrong: I am a child of liberalism like any other, and I adore the right to be able to leave an abusive marriage behind, and I don’t have much patience for the heteronormative, romanticist dream of ownership and forever-after behind picket fences in claustrophobic gender roles.

But I have also seen all the pain and heartache, the loneliness and the suffering. I want something different for myself. So does my soon-to-be-wife. We both very much want to commit to each other, to turn this miracle it is to love and be loved into a command, into something we wholeheartedly decide on and carry through with. We want to bear witness to each other’s lives, we want to nurture each other through our respective struggles, negotiate and renegotiate, and ultimately, we want to make it last — and why not? We are both young and beautiful and hopeful. But we also have the entire world against us: We are same-sex, we are interracial, we are interfaith, multicultural, and multicontinental. Maybe this will weaken us, maybe it will strengthen us, maybe this is not what matters at all.

So what does? What matters? Aside from love, what makes love last?

Love,

At the Beginning

Dear Beginning,

Plenty of marriages are solid, functioning, and sturdy, but maybe they aren’t destined to last forever. It’s easy enough to align yourself with someone who wants the same things that you want, but will you actually feel loved and supported over the course of several decades together? Will you feel grateful for each other, and know in your hearts that you’re with someone who’s fully equipped to understand and appreciate you? 

I want to try to make a distinction between a sturdy, functioning, but possibly temporary marriage and a great marriage, both because I think you want a great marriage and because I think that the tone of a long-term relationship is often set in its early years, and there are definitely attitudes and habits that will help to make your marriage stronger as the years roll by.

Of course, it’s tough not to sound either smug or delusional when you tell people how to have a lasting marriage. Even when you say, “Yeah, my husband and I are very happy together,” it sounds like you’re either in denial, lying, or rubbing it in. To state the obvious for a second, people can have rich, interesting, happy lives with or without a partner. Likewise, married people can be very happy and still feel a little on the fence about whether they’re with the absolute right person for them. I know couples like that, and they’re doing fine, and maybe they’ll get divorced at some point and maybe they won’t. These things are complicated, and honestly, as you get older, they tend to look a little less tragic. There are things you can’t know when you start down this path, and that’s okay. Shit happens, and most people survive (and even thrive) nonetheless.

Generally speaking, while I’m happy to talk about how to make a marriage last and make it as good as it can be, I should say that all marriages — bad, okay, good, and great marriages — involve compromise and collaboration and tolerating bad times and accepting each other for who you are. Lots of people will tell you that there will always be squabbling and disappointment and making up and feeling bored and feeling comfortable and trying for better. And this is definitely true. True love is not a 40-year-long orgasm. When people say, “I fall in love with her all over again every time I see her,” I really want to know what kind of cocktail that person drinks at night before his or her spouse walks in the door.

Marriage is hard work. Being married is sometimes not so romantic. That person sleeping a few inches away from you at night will, at one point or another, smell bad. He will complain about his bad knees. She will talk about her unfulfilling job or her difficult friendships, and she’ll do it in the same goddamn way year after year. And needless to say, kids throw a giant wrench into everything. So it’s important to know and to accept, deep down inside, that no one gets to skip the badly timed quarrel or the insensitive remark or the moments when your spouse is doing something so differently from how you’d do it that you can’t help but think, THIS HUMAN BEING I AM CHAINED TO FOREVER IS DEEPLY DISTURBED.

That said, I want to strongly urge you not to aim for an okay marriage that might just last. I want you to aim for a great marriage instead. I want you to aim to have an amazing fucking marriage, one that makes you feel grateful almost every day. Some days your marriage will STILL seem merely sturdy, functional, and not transcendent. That’s the nature of how it feels to be alive and live your life in tandem with another flawed, unpredictable human being. Having merely functional days together should not discourage you. But you should aim to keep your faith in each other strong, and part of that faith relies on saying to each other, “We don’t want to settle for a MEH marriage. We want to have a great marriage. We want to spend our lives feeling grateful and supported and deeply loved.” I say this in part because your letter suggests that love is a very high priority for you. Say that out loud. Talk it over. Sit down, before the wedding, and discuss your hopes and dreams as a couple, and write some of them down if you can. Talk about how committed you are to supporting each other’s happiness.

Now you’re aiming high. That’s good! But remember, also, that you have to walk a delicate line: You have to accept your partner and keep your expectations of her low enough that she doesn’t feel oppressed by them, but you also have to refuse to trudge along in a marriage that feels joyless or resentful or stagnant or prone to bouts of quiet avoidance, punctuated by bitter outbursts. You have to be patient and sometimes bite your tongue, but you also have to be sensitive and speak up when things get tense or prickly. You have to give your love but you also have to give your partner plenty of space.

For me, part of what makes a marriage work is the ability to step away and be COMPLETELY immersed in something else, and then, later, come together and really show up and be available to each other. That’s easy when you don’t live together. But when you’re married and you throw in a lot of mutual housework and meal preparation, it’s a complicated dance. So a big part of having a great marriage relies on talking about how things are going and recalibrating, week by week, month by month, so that each partner can get her needs met without feeling guilty or nagged or frustrated.

Being truly available to each other requires vulnerability. It’s easy to be distant when you’re married. After a long time together, it’s easy to treat your partner like a piece of furniture. To really share your life with someone, though, you have to get in touch with your feelings and express those feelings without shame. If you don’t do that regularly, eventually what’s pure will get clouded and what functions will break down and what’s exquisite and glorious and breathtaking will feel mundane and useless. In order to have a great marriage, you have to honor your true self and honor someone else’s true self with dedication and intensity. If you’re fooling yourself, if you’re stuck in your own head, if you’re sure that you’re right about everything, if you refuse to open your heart and listen to another person’s experience, then you are not going to be able to love that person fully.

That makes marriage sound like a never-ending therapy session, which it’s not, so let’s throw in some extremely concrete advice: Invest in the biggest bed and the very best mattress that you can afford and stuff into your apartment or house. Consider breaking the bank. Consider the mattresses that say “luxury” on them, even if that word is a turn-off to your proletariat sense of yourself. Why? Because squeezing two full-size adult humans into a double bed for the balance of their days on earth is sheer madness. You spend half of your waking hours with this person, and then you’re also supposed to listen to him or her snore all night, an inch away from your face? NO. Cuddle bugs, I salute you, but personally, I believe in the separation of cuddling and sleeping. Losing consciousness is a deeply satisfying thing, one best savored without a ten-pound arm slung over your ribs. Have you ever seen that movie The Hours? “Come to bed, Laura Brown”? Ignore the claustrophobia of a tiny bed, and the next thing you know, you’re fantasizing about drowning alive in it.

Another very pragmatic tip: If you want to grow old with someone without murdering them in their sleep at some point, you both need to exercise — a lot. If you think your partner is moody now, just wait until that motherfucker is 45 or 50. And, okay, I’m just going to say it: Exercising together, while super-dorky and embarrassing, is a very solid long-range strategy for avoiding mutual homicide. When my husband first suggested that we work out together, I think I spat on the floor. Trust me, though, past the age of 30 without exercise, you have no energy. Past the age of 40 without exercise, you feel like you’re coming down with the flu all the time. And you’re angry, about nothing! And you need a nap! Put two bloated, angry humans who need a nap into the same house, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re filing for divorce. Encouraging each other to stick with the grueling torture of daily exercise is important and it’s also pretty satisfying — as is turning to the person next to you, mid-push-up, and saying, “This fucking sucks.” To me, that’s part of what a great marriage sounds like. It sounds like: “Fuuuck, my ass hurts.”

And another practical thing: Split up tasks based on skill level and proclivities and talents, rather than deep-seated assumptions, either gender-based or role-based or career-based. I work from home and I’m a woman, so I was pretty clearly in danger of being railroaded into some kind of a house-cleaner/housewife role in my marriage. It took lots of conversations and several years of recalibrating for my husband and me to settle on a separation of tasks and roles that felt right to both of us. At some point I had to say, “I feel like I’m becoming the default cook and house-cleaner.” And even after that, he did more cleaning but then I was watching the kids much more than he was. So then he started watching the kids more, and I got lazy and withdrew and played too much Candy Crush. These are the kinds of things it’s easy to fight about, but because we check in a lot about how things are going, we’ve gotten used to bringing up various adjustments we each need in order to feel happier.

Which brings us to the most important factor of all in building a great marriage: You must foster a spirit of generosity. That means that when one partner gets lazy and starts taking advantage of the other partner’s generosity (WHICH IS INEVITABLE), the partner who feels taken for granted MUST SPEAK UP, and she must have faith that her spouse WILL WANT to fix the problem. It also means that, during a fight or tense discussion, you should both try to state your gratitude and your commitment to each other’s happiness. Just something like, “I know you do a lot, and I’m so grateful for it.” Or: “Even though I’m complaining, you’re a million times better about this than anyone else I’ve dated. I just need some small adjustments.” But generosity should be part of all of your interactions. Nine times out of ten, people fight because they feel defensive or guilty or inadequate. You’ve done something to kick up their shame, and that triggers reversion to a childlike state. Embracing a spirit of generosity tends to defuse this guilt and shame, and this makes both parties less defensive and angry, and more embraced and safe.

Speaking of feeling safe, though, I have to say: You sound a little fixated on whether your love will stand the test of time. Are you wondering if you can remain loyal to this woman? Are you worried that all married couples grow to hate each other eventually? Are you afraid of being abandoned? Dig to the root of your fears and face them before they become a part of some bad marital dynamic. Have you each seen enough of the dating world to know that you belong together? Does your commitment feel strong? Do you feel seen and heard and secure in your love? If so, you should try very hard to let go of your fear of the relationship falling apart. As long as you’re both fully invested in this, that’s what matters. You’re building something together, here. Stop biting your nails, and throw your back into it!

It’s true that the first few years of a marriage can be the most difficult ones (particularly for overthinkers like you and me), but that’s also the time when you set the tone for the whole marriage. You’ve got to make sure that spirit of generosity is in place from the very start. Because shit will come up (that’s how sharing your life with someone is!) and you’ll each think, Oh my god, I’m going to be putting up with this crap FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. I don’t need to tell you that it’s a pretty big challenge to fearlessly tackle your problems with someone when you’re each paralyzed by fear that you’ve made a giant mistake. Expect cold feet and flop sweats, no matter what. You can know in your heart that you’re with the right person and STILL experience cold feet and raw, abject fear. These sensations are no prediction of future marital satisfaction. Stay calm, and expect some rough weather at first. Resist the urge to bicker for no reason. Try to frame conflicts in terms of “Here’s what’s not working and how we might address it moving forward” rather than “You always do X and Y and that means you’re bad!” If you talk things out and listen closely, your ability to handle rough seas as a couple will improve exponentially over time.

Do any of your obstacles and differences and challenges matter? They matter to some extent. But what matters most is your belief in the love you’ve found together, and your gratitude for it. When two people accept each other and hammer out their problems with a generous spirit and share their lives openly and honestly, they create a pocket of beauty in the world. Your obstacles will be smoothed over by that magic. Your love will radiate off you, and inspire other people to love and be loved, to open their eyes and see straight through to each other’s souls. There’s a purity to loving someone without reservation that brings out the best in you and in everyone around you.

Congratulations on finding the love of your life. Congratulations on wanting the very best for the two of you. Don’t be a realist about this one thing. Believe in the two of you, no matter what. Believe with the fervent passion of a mad woman, until the stars fall from the sky. Believe and never stop believing.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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