Hard work is tricky, too. Of course marriage is hard work, like all psychological growth, but hard work is not the same as masochism or slavery, and somehow it is always those poor souls who have yoked themselves to "Marriage or Bust" who can't tell the difference. A reasonable amount of hard work is learning to bite one's tongue; appreciating effort, even if the outcome is unfortunate; expressing affection even on bad days; focusing on the positive. An unreasonable amount of hard work is displayed by all women married to alcoholics, junkies, compulsive gamblers, sex fiends, horrible dullards, and bullies, including those who use the checkbook and threats but never their fists. Hard work in a happy marriage yields results; in a bad marriage, you just get a lifetime case of housemaid's knee.
Communication is hard to argue with. But what so many students of marriage have discovered (including the interesting research of psychologist John Gottman, who is pretty sure that people who communicate contempt to their spouses more than any other affect will wind up divorced) is that it's not the act of talking that matters most, nor strictly the content; it's the emotional meaning of the communication. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about golf, gold, or God; it matters that the way you talk makes me feel that you really like talking to me and you really like having me listen. Everything else is irrelevant, and polite small talk is not an improvement over sincere and silent hand-holding.
"Love is...no assignment for cowards."
After spending most of my life married, divorced, and remarried, I have come to believe that great sex—or at least mutual, unquenchable desire (sometimes the body is not so cooperative)—and a completely irrational and even unfathomable affection for one's spouse (even, and especially, for those odd habits my family likes to refer to simply as eccentricities) are the necessary pieces of a long and happy marriage, and they are as unfakable and unteachable as they are essential. I know that married life can be difficult and filled with struggle, but thinking that those self-help books or any ten simple steps or pretending not to feel what you feel or need what you need (which lots of those books recommend) will hand you a happy marriage guarantees that no such thing will be coming your way. Nothing guarantees a long and happy marriage except two people willing to throw themselves, headlong, into the uncertainty, the inevitable pain and disappointment, the absolutely guaranteed failures and essential bravery, of intimacy. It does take two—and that's a shame, because so many not–too-bad marriages have one person who is willing to make that leap and one who is, at heart, not—but if you have two people who are willing to make themselves better, more vulnerable, more honest than they were the year before, you, you lucky few, you have a shot at the long and happy.
Amy Bloom, a regular contributor to O, is the author of Where the God of Love Hangs Out.
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