What I learned in 36 years of marriage

I learned that deciding to keep deciding has a lot to do with staying together. Oddly, though I don’t like other kinds of risk, I do like adventure sports. So I decided think of marriage as an adventure sport. It’s supposed to be unpredictable and it’s supposed to be fun. There’s a lot you can’t control and little bit you can.  I’m glad that I didn’t let fear keep me from deciding to jump into the unpredictable unknown with a guy I’d known for less than two years.

Thanks to Ted, I have learned to call myself a cautious optimist. Very cautious, but still, for a professional glass-is-not-only-half-full-but-the-water-is-probably-contaminated pessimist, getting anywhere close to optimism in 36 years is progress.

Thanks to Ted, I can engage in personal conversation.  I would rather wait for people to volunteer information about themselves. I feel like I’m being nosy even when I ask people the basic get-to-know you types of questions. Ted has a gift for walking up to total strangers and walking away with a dossier about them. He can ask friends really personal stuff and it comes off as caring instead of nosy. I’ve become a much better conversationalist because of Ted.

I learned that some things are worth the pain of negotiation. Ted is a really patient negotiator. He’s taught me a lot about getting to agreement. The back and forth required in negotiation has always seemed more exhausting to me than just settling for something I think I can tolerate just so I don’t have to keep talking. I am still learning to manage the stress and patience required to get to agreement when two people want different things. I don’t even have to be one of the people involved for this process to stress me out.

I’ve also learned that avoidance creates just as much stress as conflict. So our wedding is an example of when negotiation would have been a better choice than avoidance. Ted really wanted to get married at our church even though it was a hideous building. There were a lot of people who meant a lot to him and he wanted to invite them. All. I’m more informal, plus I’m a bit of an introvert. I also find it stressful to have to make “events” and “occasions” out of gatherings. I just wanted to invite a few people and eat barbecue or send out for pizza. At the time I wanted to think I was being gracious because having the whole thing seemed to matter more to him than not having it meant to me. But it did mean as much to me as it did to Ted. I just didn’t want to tell him and create conflict. On a tight budget, I planned the whole thing myself except for all the unsolicited advice. I got really stressed out. Then the AC broke on our wedding day and I don’t do well when I’m hot and sweaty. I got shingles a month later. I’ve learned to speak up about stuff that matters to me. I’ve learned not to get so stressed out about stuff I can’t control. I am still working on re-framing the wedding day narrative into something more positive. All the anniversaries have been fun. A few have even been “events” but I didn’t have to plan them.

I’ve learned that experiences last longer than stuff. Experiences form connections with people and cause perspective shifts that owning a thing – unless it’s a pet or really great works of art – can’t. I didn’t register for any gifts when we got married because it seemed weird to me to tell people what present to buy me. I don’t think we had to buy towels for 10 years. For years Ted and the boys made it a tradition to buy me some random “as seen on TV” item because I didn’t specify what I wanted. Now I get cool things like art lessons and game night. Because now I know what I want and how to ask.

We learned the art of doing nothing together early on and still enjoy it. For our honeymoon we rented a cabin on a beautiful mountainside in Estes Park, CO. I still associate the fresh scent of evergreen with new love and new beginnings. It was fun to start life together living right off campus with more flexible student schedules and a city full of cheap, fun stuff to do (ATX was way cheaper then). Staying in is doing something in our book.

We learned that houses occupied by more than two people need two bathrooms. By the mid eighties we had grown-up jobs and bought our first house. It was two bedrooms, one bath and under 1000 square feet. It sat on a cul-de-sac with a stick in the yard called a tree down a street with a line of sticks in a line of yards in southeast Round Rock. Probably not the most thought-out purchase we ever made. As soon as Eric and Nick both started using the potty we moved.

This is an important life lesson. Life is too short not to have a cat and a dog. When we got back from our honeymoon we got a cat, Nadia. She lived 20 years. Now we have Daisy. She’s almost 16. Two cats in 36 years is a decent record for picking cats I’d say.

Right after we bought our first house we got a sweet Collie dog named Rusty. After we lost Rusty way too soon. When we were finally settled in the house on Crosstimber Ted came home with Elvis, our delightful little span-huahua mix. Something Ted learned about me. I prefer it, but you don’t actually have to ask first if you bring home a dog. We had Elvis 13 years through four more moves. He loved us all but was really Ted’s dog. A couple of years and a move later, we’ve got Greta. She’s a two-year-old long haired dachshund mix. She makes us smile. We can’t make her do anything.

I learned that even when you take a risk and lose, regretting the loss is better than wondering what would have happened if we’d tried. In the early 80’s Ted had an idea in the shower. We took a risk with a start-up business and took that idea from concept to market. It didn’t work out. We lost a lot but we learned a lot. I like to call this our experiential MBA. I also learned that I never want to be an entrepreneur and that Ted is a serial entrepreneur but promises it will be nights and weekends. I promise cautious optimism.

I’ve learned, and Ted agrees with me on this, a more curated set of possessions makes life simpler and happier. After 11 moves we’ve learned how to pick a sufficient house in a convenient location, furnish it comfortably with what we need, periodically cull our stuff and let go of everything extraneous. Learning this was a process because relatives kept dying and I kept thinking I couldn’t say “no” to dead relative relics without hurting someone’s feelings. What a relief when I finally learned to say “no thank you.”

I’ve also learned that I need big trees around me. It took buying in three different house-farm suburban neighborhoods for me to figure out why I was so uncomfortable there. Besides hating to drive. I am happier in a neighborhood with mature trees even if it means the house is older. No more sticks in the yard.

I’ve learned to stop worrying about what other people think. When I was in my early 40’s I had a couple of friends who were in their 50’s. Both of them told me the same thing in almost the same words: “One good thing about turning 50 is that you just don’t give a damn what other people think anymore.” I listened. Honestly, my 30’s and part of my 40’s were marred by worrying too much about what other people thought, and worrying about being judged, and worrying about losing credibility. I think learning not to give a damn earlier would have been made me a better wife and mother.

I’m not sure where I learned this, probably from Jesus. I don’t remember not knowing it, but grace and forgiveness are free and unearned. People who hurt me don’t owe me any kind of penance. Relationships matter more than being offended or seeking retaliation. That alone has made my relationships with other people, especially Ted, so much better.

In 36 years of marriage I’ve learned that a very short list of things actually matter. But they are all big things. God matters. Love matters. Relationships matter. Experiences matter. Perspective matters. If I could change anything about the past 36 years it would be that I wish I had learned this stuff earlier.