Secrets to a successful marriage

Secrets to a successful marriage

Author: Canadian Living


Secrets to a successful marriage

Originally titled "Staying Together," from the August 2007 issue of Canadian Living Magazine, on newsstands or click here for the back issue.


The day my husband, Brad, and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, our 17-year-old daughter, Kathryn, paid tribute to us with a card that read, in part: “I'm so proud of my parents. I know for sure that the last 10 years or so weren't easy -- and there were probably rocky points before then, too. But you made it, and for that I am infinitely thankful [because] as long as Mom and Dad are OK, everything is OK….”


The right decision
Her note was about 200 words -- just a few handwritten sentences, really -- but it was a profound affirmation that staying together was the right decision.

As we brushed tears from our eyes, Brad and I each felt a painful stab of memory: Both our parents had divorced shortly after their own 25th anniversaries, after repeated separations that began years earlier.

Brad and I were already in our 20s and married when those marriages finally came unglued, and though the divorces were different -- one stormy, the other silent -- the consequences were the same: all six children (three in each family) felt instantly diminished.

Brad and I cried over our daughter's card because we understood the depth of her fear and knew what it felt like to be betrayed by the two people you love the most. But we also cried with relief: Here was proof that despite myriad mistakes we had made in raising our children (a list that would require a hard drive upgrade), we had somehow managed to get this important thing right.

Finding something solid
I met Brad in 1974 when I was 14 years old. In the spring of 1980, while travelling through France together, our high school friendship matured into something like love, and on our return to Canada we announced we were getting married. I was 20; Brad, 21. It wasn't fashionable to wed that young, and when I told my mother, she said, “Why would you want to do that?” I don't remember how I answered her, but looking back I would say we were in a hurry to formalize our relationship because we felt adrift in our own families. We needed to tether our hearts to something solid -- namely each other.

At our small house wedding during a university reading break later that same year, some of the guests started a pool to bet on how “premature” the baby would be. They waited eight years for that first child. After Kathryn, our son, Adam, arrived three years later in 1991.

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A short separation
We hit the marital skids about 17 years in, for all the usual midlife reasons: health troubles, work troubles, money troubles. As is so often the case, a pile of petty grievances had smothered the smouldering flame of our mutual regard. After months of halfhearted marriage counselling, and with a great deal of jaw-flapping and finger-pointing, Brad moved out.

It still shames me to think of the way our children -- then 10 and seven -- wailed at the door and tried to block his leaving. It was only for a short time but it made an impact on our children. As Kathryn wrote in her card: “My worst memories are of the [time] you separated, because I was so afraid I would lose the security I had in your relationship.” Later, Adam confirmed that those four weeks were also the most unsettling of his young life.

Survival skills
It was during those 30 horrible days, with the children going back and forth between Brad and I, trying not to show too much excitement about seeing their daddy, that I saw clearly what I was prepared to risk for the sake of stubborn pride. My children were becoming experts at editing their conversations so as not to hurt or irritate me by any mention of their father -- a much-loathed survival skill I myself had perfected years earlier.

As I reflected on this second generation of shuttered hearts, I came to realize that nothing was so broken in our marriage that it couldn't be fixed -- maybe not right away, but over time, the way you patiently revive a tired house.

Coming to a realization
Years after our separation, when I read Tim O'Brien's bittersweet novel July, July, in which one character ascribed the unnecessary end of his youthful marriage to “a failure of imagination, the inability to divine a happy ending,” I understood precisely what he meant. Before Brad left, I'd devoted my energy to conjuring how I'd make life work without him. In the trenches of single parenthood, I had plenty of opportunity -- and motivation -- to imagine a happier ending.

I thought about Brad and myself as grey-haired 70-year-olds, dandling grandchildren on our knees. I pictured my children coming home 17 years into their own marriages to ask for advice on how to make it work. I imagined a funeral -- maybe mine, maybe Brad's -- where our children would reminisce about our marriage. I imagined, in short, a legacy of love and honour, and that most old-fashioned of words -- duty.

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A mutual agreement
Brad, it turns out, ended up in the same place by a different route: a middle school teacher, he says he can often spot children of divorce by a vulnerability in their eyes and manner. And so, for the sake of our children (and their children to come) we put down our weapons and slowly, awkwardly negotiated a truce.

Most significantly, we agreed to bar the door against divorce -- it was time to stop looking for an escape route. It meant we suddenly had to become a whole lot more creative about resolving our differences. We'd have to trade the old arsenal -- screaming matches followed by icy silence followed by simmering contempt -- to give peace a chance.

Suddenly the skills our marriage counsellor had tried to develop in us -- reflective listening, daily compliments, monthly date nights, time-outs after our disagreements -- seemed relevant.

Slow and steady change
Things didn't change overnight. For a long time after Brad returned, the children walked on eggshells. They recognized the fragility of our reunion. If one of us so much as arched an eyebrow at the other, we felt their rising anxiety as if it were a physical presence. They bristled at the mildest disagreements.

We told them that we wouldn't promise not to fight in front of them, but we would let them in on the peacemaking process. If they saw us argue -- and by God, we could be fierce -- they would also see us kiss and make up.

There was no small magic in this strategy. But it turned out that in the course of trying to do the right thing by our kids, we did the right thing by our relationship. As the months passed, the time between angry words and gentle apologies shortened. Studied kindness grew into genuine affection and, finally, renewed love.

Making an effort
We practised modelling peace and forgiveness, making an extra effort to negotiate even minor issues to a successful conclusion in front of the kids. We counted to 10 -- sometimes to 110 -- and went for walks to gather our thoughts and muster solutions when we felt angry and critical; and we tried hard to resolve and contain our issues so that yesterday's grievances didn't spill over into today's.

And then one day we realized we weren't practising anymore. We had absorbed the very lessons we were trying to teach. Still, we are not saints.

Together forever
We continue to fret, bicker and generally drive each other to distraction. But as Brad recently observed, “It's like we passed through a storm in a small boat: the water's still a little choppy, but it's nothing we can't handle now. Not smooth sailing but fun sailing.” Our children have taken to calling us Darcy and Elizabeth, after Jane Austen's famously stubborn romantic couple.

As the 20th-century English journalist G.K. Chesterton has wryly observed, “Fairy tales promise husbands and wives will live happily ever after -- though not necessarily peaceably.” I have no doubt that Brad and I are destined to live a fairy-tale marriage: together forever -- but not without a fight.

Determined to make it last? Read about the 10 ways to make your love unforgettable.

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Secrets to a successful marriage