When I was a kid, moms made their sons wear stiff blue jeans that were way too long. All the boys showed up on the first day of school walking like zombies, with pants legs turned up half-way to our knees. These were cuffs that meant business. We could easily have smuggled in candy bars, comic books, and probably a small cantaloupe.
The interesting thing was that by Christmas break, everybody's jeans were fitting them with only a minimal cuff being necessary.
It turns out that getting married is a lot like starting school with clothes that don't fit. You realize you're getting involved in something that's way too big for you, but over the years God grows you into your marriage.
Twenty years ago I joined the staff of Marriage Partnership. By the time I left, I'd been married 20 years, and in many ways my marriage grew up with the magazine. So today, in honor of Marriage Partnership's 20th, I'd like to share a few things I learned after being married two decades.
Optimism morphs into confidence. Although no one gets married expecting to fail, after a few years your optimism takes a beating. As they say, life happens. But around the 20-year mark you start to feel as though you're getting it. You've gained confidence based on years of meeting challenges and overcoming obstacles together. Your optimism is now much more than hoping for a good outcome. It's confidence that's grounded in two decades of shared history.
You create your own measure of time. After 20 years, you stop recalling significant events according to the month and year they actually happened. Instead, you date certain events based on their proximity to other events. (You might be doing this already, but after 20 years it becomes your default setting.)
You: "Honey, what year was it when Eddie ate the dog's chew toy?"
Your spouse: "Let's see… . Was it around the time your brother gave us that ghastly painting?"
You: "No, it was before that. It was closer to the time we had to borrow your dad's truck because we'd totaled the Gremlin."
Your spouse: "That's right, so Eddie ate the chew toy in July 1996."
You: "I thought it was '96!"
Late-night adventures end much earlier. When my wife and I lived in Illinois, seeing a double feature at the drive-in was a favorite summer activity. We could watch two movies for less money than the multiplex charged for one.
Then we moved to Colorado and found out the nearest drive-in is 50 miles away. Having by that time already passed the 20-year mark in our marriage, we had to give this a good deal of thought. It was sobering to realize that the second feature wouldn't let out until past midnight, and then we'd have to drive 50 miles to get home. That's when we acknowledged our limitations and joined the couples who were hanging out at Blockbuster on Friday night.
You're rattled by fewer mysteries. The first few years I was married, just about everything about my wife, our relationship, and life in general was a mystery. A big celebration was called for whenever I finally figured something out. But now, the biggest mystery I can think of is the continued popularity of Dancing with the Stars. I'll hazard a guess that when I'm married 50 years I still won't have the answer to that one, but then again, neither will my wife.
You find that you and your spouse have developed a spooky mental connection. I used to wear myself out hunting for the tv remote, my billfold, or a book I'd been reading. I'd finally give up and ask for help. My wife would walk in the room, take a quick look around, and hand me the missing item(s). But that has changed. Now, after several minutes of fruitless searching, all I have to do is call my wife's name and suddenly I find the lost item. It's a little spooky, and I can't explain it. But it's sure handy.
You figure out it's a mistake to accept certain statements at face value. Pretty much any guy—even those of us who lack nuance—understand there's a deeper meaning behind "Oh, there's nothing wrong." A successful husband is one who recognizes the unspoken request to shut up and listen. That part is doable, but here's the catch: After you listen for a while, a response is expected. And this is where you don't want to toss out just any random comment. It needs to be the right comment. I suspect that's a skill that could take another 20 years.
You discover there's little that's worth fighting about. If you're like me, you have an urge to make your position perfectly clear. But after 20 years, it's difficult to recall even one argument that brought about permanent change. Let's say you've stated on numerous occasions that you hate it when you hop in the car to rush to an appointment only to find the fuel gauge on empty. I promise you that further clarification—even really loud clarification—won't turn this around. So you might want to leave a little earlier for your next appointment—or consider buying a hybrid.
It makes perfect sense why marriage is an outsized relationship. It has to be big, because you spend a lifetime growing into it. The great thing after 20 years is that your relationship is starting to fit you really well. You've worked out the stiffness, and all of a sudden you're turning up the cuffs only a little bit.
You might still be able to smuggle a pack of chewing gum. But the cantaloupe is definitely out.
Ron R. Lee was managing editor and later executive editor of Marriage Partnership from late 1987 to 2000. He has been married to Jeanette for almost 29 years.
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