Things I've Learned From 20 Years Of Marriage

When Jenna Goudreau, who is getting married in two weeks, recently invited FORBES colleagues to share their best advice for the bride and groom (or couple) on their wedding day, several staffers fired back with one word: “Elope!” I heartily disagree. Next month, my husband and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary and we both look back on the day we got married as the second happiest day of our lives. (The first was when our son was born, one day before our fifth anniversary.) We had a small wedding in the garden of my parents’ house. Our roughly 100 guests traveled from all over the country to be there. I remember stepping into the garden, seeing them waiting for the ceremony to begin, and thinking how wonderful it was that every person had come to help us celebrate. Since then, at least 10% of those guests have died, including parents, grandparents, uncles and cherished friends. I’m so glad that they were with us on that special day. Lately, when I go to weddings of colleagues, friends’ children and younger family members, I think how easy this day is–no matter how stressful it may seem to the couple of honor–compared with what follows. Marriage is a journey. The wedding is just a point of departure. Anyone can put on a white dress and say “I do,” but merging two lives is hard. Coordinating careers and being parents together can be extremely challenging under the best of circumstances, and in time you’re bound to bump up against situations where not all the stars are aligned. The promises you make on your wedding day—to stick together “in sickness and in health” and “for better or for worse” — have no meaning until life’s adversities strike. And sooner or later they do. There’s no secret recipe for getting through the rough times. During the past 20 years, here’s what I have learned. 1. Identify common values. These are the things you discover early on that put you on the same wavelength. They might include religious background (even if you don’t participate in organized religion), environmentalism, political views, agreement about where you want to live, spending habits and attitudes about money. The more areas of compatibility, the better. 2. Develop mutual interests. The more of these the better, too, since they provide you with activities you can enjoy together. A love of foreign travel (especially to exotic destinations) has been a big one for us. But there’s no need for total overlap here, as long as he doesn’t mind your listening to folk music while he tunes in to heavy metal, for example. Headphones now and then can preserve marital harmony. Just make sure you’re not always tuning each other out. 3. Share experiences. Stack up as many of these as soon as possible. When the going gets tough, they are money in the bank because you can look back fondly and say, “Remember when. . .” Postponing children gives you time to build this equity. 4. Keep your sense of humor. Being able to laugh together at life’s absurdities, and make each other laugh, is a great antidote. But no jokes at each others’ expense. 5. Make time to talk. Some couples have their best talks in the car. Others do it while walking the dog together. We’ve made important decisions while walking on the beach. Lately we’ve gotten into the habit of taking a 3 1/2 mile walk every weekend in the park near our house. Sometimes it’s just to get fresh air. Other times we air our differences.