I have been married forever.
Well, not since the Big Bang but since the Nixon administration — 35 years — a stretch long enough to startle new acquaintances or make talk-show audiences applaud. Recently one of my wife’s college students kept pressing us, with baffled curiosity, for our secret, as if there had to be some trick to it, like wearing each other’s clothes on Tuesdays.
Back when we became engaged, our news was also greeted with baffled curiosity. It was the ’70s, after all, when the freedom to be able to hop from one relationship to the next was as essential as anything in the Bill of Rights. Our friends were profoundly perplexed; nobody, they thought, could want a fondue set that badly.
We had already been together three years at that point, pretty much ever since I turned around at the orientation meeting for new history graduate students and saw her in her granny dress. (As I say, it was a long time ago.) Our feelings about marriage may have been shaped by our pursuit of such a traditional area of study. Perhaps our attitudes would have been different had either of us been in gender studies.
Of course, back then no one had heard of gender studies.
The surprise that now greets us at the fact that we’ve managed to stay married so long — as opposed to having shaken hands at some point and decided who kept the ice cream maker — is even more extreme. Friends you haven’t seen for a long time often inquire delicately about the spouse you had when they last saw you.
I once explained to a colleague that I was looking for a job change because of something going on with my wife. His eyes widened with the assumption that our situation involved a family law specialist instead of a fellowship that required me to follow her across the country.
Since our wedding, the numbers have increasingly turned against us. Fewer people marry. Fewer stay married. And when it comes to having and raising children, being married has become as optional as the color of your baby’s onesies.
Throughout the ’80s so many of our married friends broke up that it started to seem as if the married demographic consisted largely of us and several television situation-comedy couples. Since then, Hollywood has wisely shifted the base of many of its sitcoms to work and friendship rather than the nuclear family, situations younger viewers can better identify with.
Anyone who has been married for a long time starts to feel like a soldier surrounded by heavy casualties. In graduate school, a couple who married when we did failed to make it through a year. In my first job, we were one of four couples who got together almost every weekend; a few years later my wife and I were the only ones still together. Deep into our married life, five couples we knew, each together at least two decades, came apart in a single year, shells of separation bursting all around us. Like surviving soldiers, we like to think we were a little better prepared, maybe a little better suited for it. But we also know we’ve been lucky.
Anyone with an anniversary in the precious-metal range knows what it’s like to support friends whose marriages have fallen apart. That newly disconnected friend sleeping on your couch who came to dinner with a tight smile and a greater interest in red wine is like a walking cautionary tale, the image pressed permanently into any marriage’s mental photo album.
And making all those changes in your address book affects your own marriage. When a close friend left his wife for someone much younger, my wife intensified her exercise regimen. Watching other couples break up also reminds me that divorce causes friends to choose between the two parties, and I would not like my chances.
Being single is all about the future, about the person you’re going to meet at Starbucks or after answering the next scientific compatibility questionnaire. Being married, after a certain point, is about the past, about a steadily growing history of moments that provide a confidence of comfort, an asset that compounds over time. What you share is what you’ve shared, and measuring your communal property in decades puts you in a freakishly high bracket.
So experiences such as my being fired from my first job — I’ll tell you the story sometime; my wife has heard it often enough — or the long years when it seemed my wife would need to undergo complicated and scary spinal surgery transform over time from life’s low points into promontories of reassurance.
Looking for something profound to tell my wife’s student, I mumbled something about respect. She nodded reflexively; sure, respect, human beings deserve respect. I couldn’t quite make my mouth move fast enough (I’ve been married since before the Bicentennial) to explain that that wasn’t it. It wasn’t a matter of basic human respect in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights sense, but of respect for someone who is in some way better than you.
I am somewhat better with words than my wife is; she is infinitely better with people. In different ways, we translate each other to the rest of the world, and admire each other’s contrasting language skills. Being married to someone you respect for being somehow better than you keeps affection alive. That this impressive person chooses you year after year makes you more pleased with yourself, fueling the kind of mutual self-esteem that can get you through decades.
The other part, about how those decades change over time from obstacles into assets, is something my wife’s student will have to figure out for herself. It could take a while.