Love is patient, kind, etc. Love can also be hostile, messy in the figurative and literal senses, and often requires that you tolerate someone else’s propensity to stockpile quarter-full water glasses along their beside.
Nonetheless, having and holding and misplacing dishware all fall under the terms of traditional, pre-packaged marital vows. If we choose marriage, the promise is fairly standard: I’m here, I love you, I will not change my mind. Even in a generation preoccupied with questioning the sanctity of matrimony, for the most part, the vows still apply: Our relationships, government-sanctioned or otherwise, come with promises, concessions, and demands—the creation of a unique common ground.
So for those of us like me, struggling to make peace with the institution of marriage, I asked 10 couples—all of whom have been wedded anywhere from one to 56 years, including my own parents, Karin and Dave—about the relationship advice they’ve acquired over time. For richer or poorer, ’til death do them part, here’s what they had to say.
Alexis & Cole: 1 Year In
“Marriage makes me feel old. Most of our friends aren’t married yet so it feels like we made this big, crazy decision—all of a sudden, we’re all these years ahead of our friends and I really hate the distance that creates.
But even in this first year of marriage, I’m learning that one of the things we have to do to be happy is make time for our respective people. That way, they don’t start to feel even further away. It’s nice, obviously, to have other friends who are couples, and to do things with them as couples. But it feels super important that we also do things separately. I never want to be one of those couples that you 100% assume is always going to walk into a room together. And when we make time for other people, we don’t have to rely so much on each other. Then we get home from our own evenings or afternoons or weekends or whatever with our separate friends, and we’re so excited to see each other and recount things. It’s a good routine.” —Alexis
Claire & Dani: 3 Years In
“We had been living together for so many years before we actually got married, it didn’t feel like much of a shift. I guess we were committed in a way that didn’t require the whole ceremony. To be honest, the wedding was just for fun. We had a great time. And that’s what my advice is all about: I think it’s so important for couples to do things together.
While we’re still young and we don’t have serious roots tying us down anywhere, it’s good and joyful to travel, and explore, and go to museums, and go out to eat. In married life, it can be tempting to put in minimal effort because your lives are sort of built-in together—but going out on date nights and exploring together is still important. Shared experience is such a big part of what makes a relationship strong.” —Dani
Simon & Ben: 6 Years In
“A big part of marriage is support. We both have different professions in the arts and it can be tough to not feel competitive or disheartened when either one of us is enjoying more success than the other at any given time. But the best thing we can give one another is true, honest support—we show up for each other and praise each other’s work and share it to the best of our abilities. Our most serious fights have been about our inability to show up for each other in this way, and knowing that, we both make it a priority. That’s one of those things that’s made us really happy as a couple.” —Ben
Raquel & Hannah: 11 Years In
“I’m sure everyone you asked has said this, but I’d say the most important part of keeping a marriage alive is communication. We’re just starting our first journey as parents together, and deciding that we wanted to have a child, and what our values were as parents, and how we wanted to go about raising a baby, was such a formative experience for us. In order to feel like we’re both happy and solid and approaching parenthood in a way that makes us comfortable, we have really spent time talking to each other about what we want and what we imagine and what we need from each other, and all of these conversations have made us feel closer than we ever have before. We’re already talking about the next child and I’m so excited.” —Raquel
Kate & Brendan: 17 Years In
“It’s crazy to think that we’ve been married for 17 years. How did that happen so quickly? I think, as parents, and as a married couple, the most important advice I have is that you and your spouse should both have your own hobbies or interests or things that you’re genuinely excited about. Brendan takes a writing workshop, and I have a membership at a ceramics studio. As of late, I belong to a book club, and I love it (wow, I sound so old). This makes it so we both get to feel like our worlds are bigger than just our shared home. I think that’s a good way of making sure we don’t feel stifled or inhibited.” —Kate
Karin & Dave: 28 Years In
“Choose what to focus on. Human beings have a natural bias toward negativity. We tend to focus on what’s not working and take for granted what is. This is a recipe for disaster in relationships. As a couples therapist, I’m often reminding my clients that partnerships thrive on positive reinforcement, gratitude, appreciation, and love—and they flounder when criticism, complaints, and requests for change predominate. Chances are, your partner is a mix of qualities you love and qualities you don’t. Spend more time thinking about, enjoying, appreciating, being grateful for, and acknowledging all the good qualities he or she possesses.
Also: Make requests instead of complaints. Express your needs rather than telling your spouse how they screwed up. Apologize. Genuinely and sincerely. Practice acceptance. Not always and for everything, but generally. You don’t always have to like qualities and behaviors to accept them. Be vulnerable. Talk about your feelings of fear, anger, mistrust, hurt, disappointment…. Is that enough?” —Karin
“28 years ago, when we first got married, I don’t think I had any idea what I was really agreeing to. After raising three children, buying a house, changing careers, growing older, losing parents, having friendships wax and wane, I’m not the same person I was then. I know my wife isn’t either. So I guess the thing I’ve really learned is how to stay connected through great changes.
I think if either of us had become fixed points, the ‘spark’ would have been hard to hold onto. So my advice to you is about the necessity—and the excitement—of constant change. We’re like parallel lines, running side by side. We’re moving together, but on different planes, so in a sense, the imperative is simple: ‘Keep up!’
I trust that I’ll be with her for the rest of my life, which is maybe a more profound thing to say than that original ‘I do.’ I trust this because I trust her, I trust that she sees the world in a similar way. I trust that she will not be the same person in 10 more years and neither will I—and I can’t wait to find out what our relationship will look like then.” —Dave
Dan & Carol: 29 Years In
“Essential to us (and to couples at any stage) is time together. Seems obvious but I’m shocked at how often we fail to prioritize this. You need time for all the dynamics of a marriage to play out… connection, fighting, making up (not a given), talk both important and trivial, silence, love, collaboration, sabotage, repair, healing. A corollary to the ‘time-together’ suggestion, though, is finding ways to have fun together. Find activities that you both enjoy (biking, hiking, museums, travel, games, art) and do them. Together.
I pay attention when Carol does something that surprises me. It reminds me that after all our years together, she remains a mystery with territories unknown. At the same time, no pedestals allowed. Deep love and respect have to go in combination with accepting all the flaws and irrationality that go along with being human.
Accept a medium-sized collection of irreconcilable differences and try to find ways to cope with them. By definition, you won’t resolve them. You’ll just figure out a way to move on (for a time). When you circle back (and you will), try to remember what you did to move on: perspective, forgiveness, understanding. Again, the idea isn’t to fix it, just to find a way to move forward.
The length of a marriage matters. You change over time. Your spouse changes over time. The relationship changes over time. The years will fuse you together in ways that are difficult to explain. Marriage is like any deeply satisfying endeavor in life. What you get out depends on what you put in. If you throw yourself in and let the process challenge you and change you, you and your spouse and your marriage will be the better for it.
Also, it’s important to go to bed mad. This goes double if your spouse is a morning person. The conversation will almost always go better in the morning.” —Dan
Tara & Steve: 29 Years In
“We were watching High Fidelity the other week and we were talking about the whole ‘Top 5’ theme that runs through the film. After the movie, Steve told me the top 5 things he loved about me. One of them was that I always apologize first.
For years, I’ve been somewhat resentful of the fact that, when we fight, I’m always the one to apologize first. But he admitted that this was something that was really difficult for him and he loved that I helped him to do it (he’s always able to apologize AFTER I do). This sort of changed everything for me. I now have this totally different feeling about apologizing first. I think resentment has been converted into pride. So maybe the secret is to tell each other what you love and appreciate about one another, no matter how many years it’s been.” —Tara
Daniel & Lois: 56 Years
“Lois and I were married for 56 years. She passed away four years ago, but they were a perfect 56 years. I like to think I was a good, committed husband for all of them. I know she was a wonderful wife. I think a good marriage is very simple:
1) Be kind and attentive always
2) Be compromising
3) Love your job, and do it well
This works for both members of the marriage. And, yes, an occasional martini will keep your love strong.” —Daniel
Quotes have been edited & condensed for clarity
Graphics by Coco Lashar