My husband Barry and I, married for 44 years, are often asked the secret to a long-term marriage. Half-jokingly, we say, “Skip the first year!”
It’s true — our first couple of years were tough. I used to feel bad about it. What was wrong with us? Where was that early romance, those “happy young married years” my grandmother used to reminisce about?
But now I get it. Both of us, myself especially, in the 2 years before we married had experienced an enormous amount of not just stress, but grief. Between us, we had undergone four moves, two family deaths, a parent’s remarriage, three new siblings, and a tough divorce. The stress continued during the first year of our marriage, with three more moves and another family death. No wonder we were exhausted and emotionally drained.
But today, here we are, healthy, happy, and strong. I attribute our success to several things, but one area stands out: the ground rules, or agreements, we’ve established that have helped us learn to communicate clearly and to “fight fair” — that is, when we fight at all, which nowadays is very rare.
Here are nine of our ground rules:
1. We Avoid Tit-For-Tat
Let’s say I wash the dishes one night. The next morning, if I want Barry to do something for me, I don’t get to say, “But I washed the dishes last night.” In other words, he doesn’t owe me anything for doing the dishes, and I can’t use the fact that I did them as a bargaining chip. I can wash the dishes or not wash the dishes, but if I choose to do them, the action stands alone, free of expectations or obligations.
For us, a sense of obligation often leads to grudging resignation or resentment. No fun! Instead, we either do things freely or not at all. That’s the goal, anyway. Of course, it’s not a perfect system. But rarely does either of us feel like a martyr. If I’m ever in danger of feeling resentful, I remind myself that I’m doing something not just for him, but for me.
2. We Have A Statute Of Limitations Policy
As I said, we had a difficult first couple of years. In the period that followed, sometimes one or the other of us (usually me!) would bring up a painful subject from that era or from another time, and we would delve back into all our history and try to sort things out. Rarely did this work. Sometimes we wouldn’t even agree on what had happened in the first place. Hurt feelings and resentments would resurface — at times even more bitter than they had been before.
As Barry said more than once in those days, “Does everything have to be a workshop around here?” (Of course, I pointed out to him that we met not in a bar or at a party, but in a classic ’70s-style touchy-feely group, and in a place that even hinted at our future: the Gestalt Studio!).
Over time we realized we had to find a new way, which evolved into what we call our “statute of limitations” agreement, referring to the point when we agree to no longer bring up past conflicts. If one of us does something that disturbs the other, of course, we discuss it and try to resolve it, ideally as soon as possible. But after a couple of conversations, assuming we’ve reached a resolution — even if it’s not perfect — then the subject is pretty much closed. Notice I said, “pretty much.” We’re not ironclad, but we work at not continuing to bring things up over and over again.
When exactly is that time? It’s difficult to pinpoint, but usually we each sense when it’s time to move on.
If at some point after a difficult conversation, I still feel unfinished, I don’t go back to Barry to rehash it yet again. At this point, it’s no longer our problem; it’s my problem to discuss with a friend, write about in my journal, or otherwise sort out on my own.
If I do feel resentful, it rarely lasts long. I usually take a walk or ride my bicycle, preferably building up a sweat. For me, movement is alchemy; one hour of fast exercise and I return a changed person.
3. We Separate Emotions And Decisions
Like any long-term couple, we have ongoing business to deal with and decisions to make about family, children, finances, or our house, travel, calendar, et cetera. What we’ve found is that it helps to separate “business” from emotions.
For many years, we had a business meeting once a week. Ever since the start of COVID, early every morning we sit down and create three “to do” lists: his, mine, and ours. The “ours” section often involves making decisions, which can sometimes get emotionally sticky. If so, we put the topic aside, knowing we’ll need to have a separate conversation first about our feelings before we can deal with the “business” part. We’ve learned that decisions and strong feelings don’t mix well. For that, we need a calm, low-intensity atmosphere.
For example, we used to predictably disagree about our departure/return date for a trip. Barry often wanted more time away, while I wanted less. If we were discussing a trip and either of us felt tension, we’d put the timeframe of the trip on hold, agreeing to discuss our feelings first, at a separate time. Once they were clear, we could return to making the decision. (About the timeframe of trips, we’ve addressed that problem by not necessarily leaving and returning at the same time, as I describe here.)
4. We Don’t Leave A Conversation Unannounced
Earlier in our marriage, one of us, usually Barry, would find a conversation too intense and would need a break. If he withdrew, either physically or by not responding, I would feel extremely anxious. Over time, we figured out that taking time out was fine, as long as the person acknowledged it verbally, as in, “I need a break. Give me a few minutes.”
5. We Don’t Discuss Serious Matters If Either Of Us Has Been Drinking
This ground rule has helped us avoid a lot of conflict. As everyone knows, alcohol affects the nervous system. Something that might feel like a minor irritation when we’re drinking soda water can suddenly escalate under the influence of wine.
6. One Person At A Time Tells The Story
We don’t like it when other couples interrupt or correct each other, so we try not to. If we’re with friends and one of us is telling a story, the other doesn’t jump in with a correction. For example, I, for one, love to chirp in and say, “Actually, that happened in 2014, not 2015,” but I have learned to restrain myself (with difficulty!). If one of us forgets and does this, the other will say, lightly, “Hey! Who’s telling the story?”
That said, if Barry says something false about me by accident, like some aspect of my childhood that he gets wrong, I reserve the right to set the record straight!
7. ‘Tell Me’
This simple phrase means that the person who says it will listen to whatever the other is going through, without commenting, reacting, arguing, disagreeing, giving advice, changing the subject, or placing time limits. We find that just — just! — listening is very powerful.
8. We Preface Some Statements With The Phrase ‘Under The Dome’
I’m not sure where the “dome” phrase originated, but it means, “I’m about to tell you something I’m nervous about.” This alerts the other to avoid judgment and to be particularly kind.
Another way we do this is, jokingly, I might say, “Hey B., don’t tell Louisa, but I have something to tell you that she doesn’t want you to know.”
9. We Gassho
A ritual gesture of Eastern origin, gassho refers to the hands pressed together in a prayer position. We gassho as a way to express apology or closure. We’re saying, “I’m sorry,” “We’re done,” or “We’re good. We can move on.”
Recently a friend and I were emailing back and forth about how sometimes the way our spouses handle conflict can be very challenging.
“It took Barry and me decades to figure out how to resolve issues,” I typed on my keyboard. Then I paused and looked out the window, mulling. Decades? Really?
Yes, really. It took that long because we didn’t start off with a set of agreements, all preserved, polished, and readymade; they evolved gradually, over years and years of practice, mistakes, disagreements, and insights. Hammering out our ground rules along the winding road of our marriage is part of what made us resilient.
And they have given us a sense of safety. Without our ground rules, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our lives as fully, feel as intimate, or be happy together. They’ve enhanced the quality of our life together immeasurably. Quite simply, we wouldn’t be who we are without them.