Sunday, August 14, 2011

Marriage Rules

A co-worker recently got married. Before she did, she asked for some advice from some of her already-married colleagues. And although I have been married 15 years, I still didn’t feel qualified to say anything to her. To me, marriages are like children—when you really dig down into the nitty-gritty, they are all unique. What may seem to the outside world to be the perfect marriage might be a train-wreck behind closed doors. What seems like a bad pairing might be perfect for the people in it. Marriages simply cannot be judged by anyone but the people in them.

So I couldn’t really give my co-worker much in the way of anything useful. After all, she wasn’t marrying me or my spouse, so what insight could I possibly have for her? But after some thought I did come up with one piece of advice I shared, and that was to always assume the best of your spouse. Doing this can prevent fights, lead to kindness, and build in some empathy that hard times and short tempers can erode away. Assuming the best instead of the worst can change the whole tone of an interaction.

For example, rather than assuming that I have not fixed the falling tiles of the dining room ceiling because I am lazy and don’t care how the room looks, Erica can assume that I simply don’t know what I am doing and would fix those tiles in a second if I had the faintest clue about how. And instead of assuming that Erica is a slob who doesn’t care that her suitcases have remained half-unpacked in the middle of the hallway for a week since her last conference, I should assume that her year on the road has gotten old and she just can’t even think about unpacking, because that leads to thoughts of the next trip away next week.

Doing the mental and emotional work it can take to stop and step out of our skin and into our partner’s skin can really make a huge difference in the long term. I didn’t tell my co-worker any of this. All I did was give her one sentence: Always assume the best.

To that advice I would now add a second piece: forget the past.

I teach American history to sixth graders and when they ask me why we have to know about the Articles of Confederation or the Monroe Doctrine, I tell them that knowing what has happened can help us avoid making the same mistakes earlier generations have made. At some point each year I write on the board, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I believe there comes a point in every long-term relationship where the opposite holds true: “those who remember the past are doomed to replay it.”

After 15 years of marriage Erica and I have built up huge databases of wrongs perpetrated by the other—both petty and major. How could it be otherwise? So, when something happens to activate this database it is far too easy to come up with example after example of how and why the other is at fault. Rather than being about an isolated incident, a thoughtless word or action, or even a major screw-up, the ensuing discussion can easily slide into long-held grievances and accusations and universal statements like “Oh yeah? Well you never…”

Lately, I am finding it far more productive and helpful to our marriage to treat each case in its particulars and to refrain from those all-encompassing statements neither one of us can take back once they are said.

So, if my co-worker were to ask me now if I have any advice for newlyweds I would have three things to say:

1) assume the best until proven otherwise,

2) forget the past,

and 3) learn how to fight in the least damaging way possible.

Marriage is hard enough as it is. Life seems to conspire against long-term relationships, so why not decide to be each other’s ally? Why not decide to give each other the benefit of the doubt? Why not see the best in each other, even when the other can’t see it in himself? Why inflict unnecessary damage when the world and its vicissitudes will inflict enough damage of its own to bring down even strong relationships?

I am thankful Erica and I are discovering these rules together, even if in the end, they don’t really apply to anybody but us. I am sure I will never tell my co-worker any of this—that is not the sort of relationship we have. And besides, she has been married two months now and has started discovering her own rules.


  1. I have such a negative response to the post. I must be cranky today. I do think "forget the past" is an essentially male way of thinking... that is why every weekend I sit there thinking: Hmmm here we have AGAIN a completely unplanned weekend that he did nothing about. Because he forgot the past, when we had a weekend unplanned and it sucked and I said: "I plan the whole week, why don't YOU plan the weekends.' Forget the past is a big, fat male copout.

  2. Love it, Chris -- thanks!!

  3. Actually, I AM a slob who doesn’t care that her suitcases have remained half-unpacked in the middle of the hallway for a week since her last conference. But thanks for the credit!

  4. Interestingly, you have hit on the strategy that game theory advocates in repeated-interaction, mutually dependent relationships: Start out assuming the best and act accordingly. If you're burned, be more cautious with your trust for a little while--the minimum it takes for your partner to start playing nice again. And don't have a long memory: Holding grudges leads to mutual destruction.

    Who knew (a) game theory would have anything to say relevant to the real world, and that (b) I would one day be quoting it?

  5. @ e-e baby: If you were assuming the best of your mate, you might not have such a hard time with what he had and had not done so that you are able to forget the past!

    Great words of advice--especially those of assuming the best and crawling inside the other's skin. Perspective can most certainly be a quick fix to sleeping on the bed vs sleeping on the couch!