Now, from the outset I have to admit that my qualifications for offering advice on building a happy marriage are limited solely to any wisdom that managed to stick in my skull after twenty-two years of marriage, and - truth be told - my wife and I have had our share of rough years. What is more: I think that it took at least twelve years for me to get even a clue about what makes a marriage successful, at least beyond such temporary diversions as designer jewelry.
Yet, as I survey the relationships of married couples I have known, I recognize that my wife and I have managed to build a strong marriage in spite of the problems we encountered.
In the spirit of understanding what has worked for us, I humbly offer a few suggestions to readers in the hope that I might help someone whose marriage is struggling. I also hope that other readers will weigh in on this important topic and share in the Comments section those items that worked in their own marriages.
1. Be honest. Here I am not only thinking about avoiding egregious violations of trust - like affairs, addictions, or other examples of secret lives - but also about your own likes and dislikes. Going along and pretending that you are satisfied with a spouse's decision that rankles you will only build resentments.
2. Make time for each other on a regular basis. My wife and I have a lunch date every week, and we do not let anything interfere with our time together. No kids, no other couples: just a married couple enjoying each other's company and an inexpensive meal.
3. Treat each other with kindness and respect. Even when we have been angry with each other, my wife and I never slip into the temptation of calling each other cruel names like "idiot" or "dumbass." Yet I occasionally hear married couples use some of the most belittling and hurtful terms to describe their spouses. You might also be surprised at the effect that a "Hello, beautiful!" or a "Hiya, handsome!" can have after a tough day at work.
4. Don't be afraid of public displays of affection. Do you hold hands with your spouse in public, or are you too reserved to broadcast your love this way? My wife and I hold hands almost everywhere we go, and I am not such an insecure twit that I would ever be embarrassed by kissing her goodbye in a crowded room.
5. Allow your spouse some outside interests. There will undoubtedly be some areas in which the interests of even the most perfectly-matched couple do not intersect. I could spend hours sitting on the beach, while my wife would go batty with such a sedentary pursuit. We each have hobbies and friends in which the other is not necessarily interested, and that's just fine.
6. Develop some mutual interests. Sure, this is just the flip side of the previous item, but married couples need some common activities that bring them closer together. For us, this can be as simple as a game of Scrabble or backgammon, or something longer term, like our lives as foster parents or volunteers with Planned Pethood. Otherwise, what would we talk about at the dinner table?
7. Agree upon a fair division of the work. I do the dishes, trash, and lawn without asking, because these are chores my wife dislikes and, frankly, they have become ingrained into my personality after decades in the restaurant business. My wife does the shopping, the bills, and most of the cooking, and she is a whiz with a circular saw or wallpaper. The rest of the work we divvy up as needed.
8. Do things for your spouse without being asked or cajoled. No one likes to have to beg for attention or help, so get off your duff and offer to help your spouse. Better yet, surprise your significant other by anticipating some need and being there with the help.
9. Show spontaneous physical affection to your spouse. No, getting jiggy once in a while does not count for this item, you Neanderthals in the audience. As I wrote this post, my wife came up behind me, put her arms around me, and kissed me on the ear as she told me she loved me. Not only did I feel special and loved, but my mood improved by this thoughtful gesture.
10. Have fun with your spouse. Some of the heartiest laughs I have experienced have been at jokes my wife told, and most of my favorite life memories are those in which we set aside our daily routines and enjoyed life with a walk or a movie. Remember: this is the person you chose to grow old with, so make the time and effort to cherish the limited time that you have together on the planet.