A couple were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. Their domestic tranquillity had long been the talk of the town. A reporter asked about the secret of their long and happy marriage. The wife beamed and the husband explained: "It dates back to our honeymoon to the Grand Canyon. We took a trip down to the bottom of the canyon by pack mule. We hadn't gone too far when my wife's mule stumbled. My wife quietly said, 'That's once.' We proceeded a little farther and the mule stumbled again. Once more my wife quietly said, 'That's twice.' We hadn't gone a half-mile when the mule stumbled the third time. My wife quietly removed a revolver from her pocket and shot the mule dead. I started to scold her about her treatment of the mule. She looked at me and quietly said, 'That's once.'"

I know it's not a great joke. And I do think the wife's having the gun makes it funnier than if it were the husband, because that's unexpected and because nothing about men with guns and women without makes me laugh. But this not very good joke is in the service of understanding two important pieces of the long and happy marriage: the worst of what you saw early on, you'll see a lot more of (and that's true for everything from hair-trigger temper to sloppiness to drooling booty-watching to tight apron strings), and it's better to tell the truth about who you are (that your wit conceals despair; that your tiny waist requires constant watching, of which you are beginning to tire; that financial security is more important to you than monogamy, if it is; and that, you may as well confess before the wedding, you don't much care for fly-fishing). So many people, men and women, approach potential mates as if they were prizes and the point was winning, not knowing and being known.

Think about your friends. Think about their unhappy childhoods, their unresolved issues about money, power, sex, and...their mothers. Then imagine them spending 50 years—the last 15 in declining health and activity—with a partner who has an equal amount of psychological baggage (and if they marry men, an equal amount of baggage and slightly less facility with the language of feelings). The surprise is not that many marriages end before the 50 years, or even that only one in 20 does reach the golden anniversary. What is astonishing, even miraculous, is that there are people who truly love, like, and trust each other, for good reason, after 50 years of disagreements and disappointments, money troubles, misunderstandings, and hogging the blankets.

The good news and the bad is that long and happy marriages require magic, luck, and predisposition. And more luck. It's good news because nothing stops us from being lucky, and it's bad because luck is very different from the generally agreed-upon commandments of happy marriage: mutual respect, commitment, hard work, and communication. It's not that any of these are wrong, or even unnecessary: They are the bedrock of good marriages, which is the best that a lot of us can hope for—good meaning safe, fond, and not unhappy. But these commandments are not sufficient for happiness, and we all know it.

Mutual respect is possible only if you had the good sense to marry a decent human being and to marry based on your own decency and not greed, insecurity, or desperation. This is part of the marital mantra: "Don't just find a good mate, be a good mate." In other words, as the Scottish proverb goes: Never marry for money; it's cheaper to borrow. On the other hand, do find a good mate. That fabulous creature raining kisses on your lower back and refusing to cook, pick up after himself, or arrive on time may not be ideal husband material. Do not marry him and expect him to be that. Do not marry him. Sleep with him, for as long as you need to.

You'd think commitment was pretty clear, and people certainly talk as if it is. But on closer inspection, it turns out that every married person has his or her own code, and a lot of times the true code has never been discussed with the spouse. I know of couples where her code is: "You can look but you can't touch, and I wouldn't let another man so much as pat my fanny" (although she might, with a couple of glasses of wine, allow a tiny bit more than that), and his is very simply, and without any wine at all: "If it happened out of town, it didn't happen." I know another couple in which she believes their marital motto is "Don't ask, don't tell" and he believes they are the last monogamous couple on earth. I think a happy marriage in which knowing the truth would break your heart is a tricky kind of happiness.


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