How Am I Still Married?

“What the hell did you do?” my wife asked me. She looked at me as though I were a large arachnid.

Oh, crap. I have heard that question enough times to know I messed up big time. It was our thirtieth wedding anniversary. I decided to do something different. My wife had never seen my naked face. So I decided to shave my beard and moustache off while she was out getting ready for our dinner date. She had just returned to see my pale lotioned face.
“I wanted to do something special for our anniversary,” I said.

“Without asking me? What is wrong with you? You will grow that back, won’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

I admit to having been a little crushed. I have long understood that my wife did not marry me for my looks (or money either). But, you know you are ugly when your wife of thirty years takes one look at your naked face and demands you cover it back up. Some might find my wife’s reaction overbearing. After all, it is my face. I should have the right to do with it as I please. And there are some areas of my life where I stand firm against her sensibilities. Exhibit A is that she can complain vociferously about my desk or work bench without me making a single change to them. And if she tries to organize these places to her satisfaction, she knows she is in for a fight. I mark and defend those territories vigorously. She finally gave up trying to “straighten” my desk or work bench prior to our tenth anniversary.

But when it comes to sartorial or hirsute judgments, I defer to her opinion. First, because I really don’t care. And second, because I have zero fashion sense. I grew up thinking red flannel shirts and Sears Toughskins with prepatched knees were haute couture. She likes a furry face and I hate shaving, so it was a good match until I decided to surprise her. In general, I do not do a good job of surprising her in ways she likes. I get it right occasionally–reservations to her favorite restaurant, for example. Or taking her to buy a better diamond ring for our twentieth anniversary. But most planned surprises end up like the shaved face. They seem like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect, “What was I thinking?” manifests as my post-disaster analysis.

This week, we celebrate our fortieth anniversary, which seems like a good time for some reflection. People who hear of our celebration always ask, “How did you do it?” I hate answering, “I don’t know.” But it’s true. It’s not luck, and certainly perseverance played a role. Both of us really wanted the marriage to work. But answering the question is difficult. We are each flawed individuals who bug the heck out of each on a regular basis. We have each left the other for brief periods of time and divorce has been an option we have each considered on occasion. But fundamentally, we trust that on the most important decisions, we have each other covered. We share the same values. Therefore, I am content to let her make decisions like pulling the plug if the time comes. I trust her with my life, and she trusts me with hers.

There is also an acceptance that as each of us grows and changes, the dynamics of the relationship must change as well. We have both been able to handle that challenge. Our friends, who love the gooey, glowing feeling of first love, have all been married and divorced several times. Sinbad put it best when he said, “I can handle her kind of crazy.” Even better than tolerance, we can often laugh at each other’s foibles as well as our own. We gave up on the idea of the perfect mate sometime during our first five years together. Not striving to be or expecting the other to be perfect is liberating.

I can’t speak for her, but I do know one thing that I have brought to the marriage that has had a big impact on its longevity–a willingness to humble myself. During those moments when I am sure she has wronged me horribly, that she “just doesn’t appreciate all that I do for her,” in that instant I have found that I need to apologize. Even if I don’t know what I am apologizing for, I find something. “I’m sorry I raised my voice,” for example. The stronger my feelings of victimization, the greater my need to apologize. Because once she starts talking to me and I start really listening, I usually find that I have hurt her somehow without meaning to. I totally overlooked some aspect of my behavior that affected her in a negative way.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Most conflicts between people are created out of misunderstandings and mismatched perceptions. Why should our most intimate relationships be different? Deborah Tannen has written extensively on the subject of misunderstood coversations between the sexes. Men and women do not generally communicate in the same way or for the same reasons. And even though my wife is less obtuse in her communication than many females, I still don’t always grasp her message. And even though I am more aware that I have other emotions besides anger, this doesn’t mean I can quickly recognize and express them. The struggle for communication is a daily chore that must be attended to. Because ultimately, I want her to have a good day and she wishes the same for me.

There are lots of advice books and articles about how to have a good, long lasting marriage. The problem is that every relationship is different, every couple unique. Yes, date night is a good idea. But what does that mean? For every couple it’s different. Heck, for us, it’s different every Saturday. First, because we do a daytime date, and second because our only rules are that we spend the day together and eat a meal. Sometimes it’s a fancy sit-down affair; sometimes it’s hotdogs from a cart.

How have we outlasted all of our friends and relatives who got married? I truly don’t know. I have said from very early on, if my wife left me tomorrow, I wouldn’t blame her. And maybe, trying hard every day to prevent that is the secret.