How to stay married (according to my parents)

Dancing in a conga line since 1979!

Today my parents celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. For those of you who don't know my parents, this factoid might not interest you. But it should, because my parents provide an excellent example of what real marriage looks like.

As this marital milestone approached, I found myself thinking about how I perceive my parents' relationship, how it has affected my life, and what lessons I can take from them. For example:
  1. I see them as two loving, imperfect people in a loving, imperfect union.
  2. I grew up enveloped by their evident love and affection for each other. I also saw the less pretty, more stressful moments, reminding me that parents are people, too.
  3. Thanks to them I've learned that love deserves display, affection requires sharing, words are worth saying, truth needs telling, forgiveness demands granting, and date nights ALWAYS need calendaring.

But I was observing all these points as the child of a partnership, not a partner in the partnership. So I decided to go straight to the source and find out what it looked like from the inside.

I emailed each parent separately, not divulging that I was asking the other parent the same question. My initial prompt: What would you like to tell (Mom/Dad) that you haven't said to (her/him) yet in 35 years of marriage?

Both responded quickly with nearly identical answers (sign #1 that you've been married for 35 years):

  • "I don't know what I can tell you that I haven't said in 35 years. You know how open we are with each other."
  • "The only answer I could come up with is that I have nothing to tell your Dad that has not already been said. I think that is a somewhat remarkable achievement. I never planned to make sure that I would tell him everything -- our relationship just creates an atmosphere that is honest and safe and open. And just so you don’t think all communications were romantic ones, sometimes things were hard to say. I thought about the fact that I would have no regrets if your Dad was not here with me tomorrow. Just the other night, in the dark movie theater, we marveled at the fact that we have been married for 35 years (met 40 years ago this coming October) and we both agreed—without missing a beat—that you and your brother are our greatest achievement. I know that there is more to be said in the years ahead, and I am certain we will say it!"

As lovely as these answers were, I wanted more. Back to the drawing board I went, and came away with a second prompt: What would you like the next 35 years to look like with Mom/Dad?

This one went over much better. My mother answered first:

I really liked this question... I think I told you once that when Dad and I were talking about getting married, I had this vivid image of the two of us as very old people holding hands and just being together. I knew then that I should marry him. It’s pretty simple: I want the next 35 years to look like the first 35 -- lots of surprises, fun times that bring us closer, sad times that bring us even closer still, new things to learn, trips to be taken, good food to cook and then eat with gusto, watching you and your brother grow in every way and sharing in it with you, being graceful about growing older, lots of photos snapped of the many important events that will occur, and most important of all -- still laughing like we did when we first met. It is the first thing that drew me to Dad and it is still the thing that keeps me happiest. So, I guess I want to be laughing with Dad for the next 35 years. Pretty simple.

Then my father, who addressed my mother directly:

We are now married for 35 years. This is a long way from our first date when, being the romantic that I am, I took you to see “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” by Sam Peckinpah. As I survey what we have done in that time, I know it has been all that I would have hoped and more than I could have dreamed. In the first 15 years, my work led us to live in six different houses. Still, we were always able to build a home for ourselves and the kids in all those locations. We encountered many troubles, yet we never lost our ability to laugh. And as we lived through the same recessions and ebbs and flows that everyone else did over that time, we always felt rich, as we knew that we had those things that matter.

Now I envision the next 35 years, and I see that we’re putting the finishing touches on the foundation of that next phase of our lives. Will we work? Definitely… just not at our current jobs. I picture you as a docent in some appropriate museum, and everyone will be fighting to be in your queue because you will still be so damned pretty. I’ll probably be writing to, talking to, consulting to anyone who will listen to me. I’m sure I’ll be the cute codger who tweets and self-publishes e-books (low barrier to entry on those).

What is most important is that we’ve had lots of practice in the ways we will inevitably spend our time. Taking in the arts, especially running to learn about the next big thing. Singing a cappella. Traveling, whether to keep long-time relationships alive, or seeing something new, whether it is the pyramids, Alaska, or a tango festival. Most likely, we’ll know how to be content with being together.

We know how to build a life, a 35-story building under construction one story at a time through courtship, through our wedding and raising two wonderful children. One story at a time, three decades later, we got to where we are today. And now we are prepared for Maslow’s period of self-actualization. I can’t wait.

You know what the best part of these answers is, aside from the flirting and lurving and cuteness? The best part is, I knew what they were going to say. Not because my parents are boring and predictable, but because they have always lived their marriage out in the open. My brother and I witnessed tickles at the sink, strained conversations, cuddling on the couch, moments of panic, love notes on Post-Its, bad days, good days, blah days, extraordinary days -- the million points of minutiae that comprise a life lived together.

Now that I'm a grown woman who better understands just how hard relationships are, you better believe I'm taking notes. But for all the critical lessons and important observations, it seems that a good marriage -- according to my parents, anyway -- can be boiled down to six key tenets:

  • I love you.
  • I want you.
  • I like you.
  • You're funny.
  • We did it!
  • Let's keep going!

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad. Thank you for being the collective YOU. Now get going on the next 35 years, you crazy kids! [Ed. note: XOXOXOXO]

Prayer #271: Let's Build a Life

To my spouse, whoever you may be:

Let's build a life, one story at a time.

One inside joke, one special date, one memory at a time.

One fight, one makeup, one crying jag, one sidesplitter, one lesson at a time.

One table, one couch, one move, one home, one animal, one child, one stage at a time.

One card, one heartache, one surprise, one load, one list, one Monday, one meal, one morning, one moment at a time.

Let's build a life, one story at a time, and let's tell it like we mean it.