How To Make Your Marriage Last: Don’t Stop
My wife and I went to a fancy (for us) restaurant for our latest wedding anniversary. Lucky 13! We survived. Anyway, I guess my wife had told them on the reservation that we were celebrating, which was smart, because they gave us free drinks. So when we arrived, the hostess, a young woman, congratulated us and said, “Wow, that’s a long time. What’s your secret?” It wasn’t a serious question, just some friendly chatter, and I answered, jokingly, with the first thing that popped into my mind, “Don’t stop. Just keep going.”
We all laughed and took a seat at the table. We enjoyed the free and the overpriced drinks. We had some appetizers, a sushi roll, a few small plates to share. Our conversation went on to other topics. It was a good night we don’t get often enough. I kept thinking about that first question, though. Here we were, 13 years later, with two kids, our relationship better than it had ever been. How? Despite thinking about it ever since that dinner, I can think of plenty of mistakes we made and hard times we had, but I can’t think of anything we did particularly well or different. The more I think about it, the more I think my half-joke was the whole of the truth. We made it this far—and 13 years isn’t that long, considering the time we have to go—only because we first of all decided not to give up.
Maybe that seems outdated. There are so many choices in the world, and so many ways to access those choices, why commit yourself to sticking with something that isn’t working, that has no guarantee to ever work? You wouldn’t buy a phone and keep talking on it if you didn’t get any reception. You wouldn’t spend all your time gardening if none of your flowers ever bloomed. You wouldn’t order a cheeseburger and keep eating if it tasted awful and made you sick. You would find a better phone or service, you would take up a new hobby, and go to a different restaurant. There’s something to be said for cutting your losses, for realizing when something is doing more harm than good, taking up valuable time and attention and resources you could use elsewhere. You gave it a good try, maybe one more bite than you really should have, but you can be commended for having the self-awareness to admit your mistake and move on. Wasn’t the whole point of getting a cheeseburger to make you happy and satisfied? It doesn’t help anyone to get food poisoning on principle.
I shouldn’t need to say this, but your wife is not a cheeseburger. You didn’t order her online made just the way you like, with all your favorite toppings and a side of fries. You can’t take her back if the lettuce is a little wilted or the beef a little cold. And, what is more, you don’t consume her for your own benefit and throw away what’s left when you’re full. Your wife doesn’t exist to make you happy. Otherwise, why wouldn’t you move on when you become dissatisfied? And what are the chances you will never feel unhappy, never feel discontent, never feel like giving up at any point over the course of a decade?
It’s harder to avoid than you might expect. No one goes into marriage expecting to quit, but close to 50% do. But no one orders a meal they expect to be rancid or takes up a sport they don’t think they can win either. Rather, the impulse sneaks up on you. You’ve probably felt it before. The new job you started is going fine for a while. Then some little thing takes a turn, maybe your boss makes a harsh comment or a coworker blames you for something they did or all your clients start to have issues at once. A crack forms in the satisfaction you once had, and the thought that things might not be as good as you think slips in.
Suddenly you see all the little problems you once ignored. Those small annoyances only compound the problem as daily reminders of a larger dissatisfaction. You start looking for a way out, each new incident becoming an excuse. You may not realize it, but you’ve already decided to quit, and nothing can change your mind or allow you to unsee the problems, though you’ll probably stick around until you’ve either found something better or you’ve let the frustration build to point of being intolerable. It can happen in a job (or an employee). It can happen in a friendship. It can happen in a game or a hobby, even a book or a movie. Once you get the idea you should stop, you’ll keep reinforcing the idea until you do. There are always plenty of flaws to find if you want to. That’s certainly true in marriage.
The only way to avoid this trap is to never allow yourself the option. If you know you can’t quit no matter what, you’ll be less likely to focus on the reasons to quit and more likely to find a way to make it work regardless. Maybe you’ve used this with your kid. You don’t let them quit a sport just because they hate conditioning or are sitting on the bench for a season. You make them stick it out, at least till the end of the season, and figure out a way to get better. They usually do. Kids scream and cry when they want something, but they calm down as soon as they realize they aren’t going to get it. We’re really no different as adults. Tell yourself the same thing.
It takes a predetermined commitment. We generally call this love. You stick by the things you love even when they make a mistake, even when they disappoint you, even when they hurt you. When you love something, you don’t look for a way out. You work to make it better. You would never abandon your kids, though there are days you want to strangle them. You don’t look for new parents when you realize how their flaws damaged you as a child and still plague you as an adult. But somehow we’ve gotten the idea that if things aren’t working out as we hoped, it’s okay to search for a new spouse. If you believe that for even a moment, you will find plenty of reasons to do so over the course of a lifetime.
If you want your marriage to last, you don’t need any secret tips. You don’t need regular date nights or special gifts or perfect communication. You don’t have to agree on everything or immediately resolve every conflict. Those things will come and go with time. You just have to want your marriage to last. You have to want it more than your own happiness. In other words, you have to love your wife more than you love yourself. It’s hard, I know—she’s as flawed as you are—and you’ll fail often. That’s ok. You can make it. Just don’t stop!