Sunday, May 22, 2011

What Happily Married People Know

At a party last night, I saw a lot of happily married people. It was a very nice party, by a lake and appropriately casual with lights strung around the lawn and a taco truck for food and a bar staffed by nice young people who were being paid in tips.

Divorced people frequently find solace in our finely-attuned ability to see chinks in the armor of Tribe of the Perpetually Happy. Oh sure, we tell ourselves, they've been together for two decades and have a beautiful and talented family, a couple of enviable chunks of real estate, and impressive resumes.  But did you see the way she snapped at him when he ordered his third scotch?

Sometimes we're right and people bust up in spectacular and trainwreck fashion, but when they do it's rarely satisfying to those of us who've been there.  Like when we read about another famous and powerful man who's had a secret life for a decade at least, we wonder if anyone is immune.  Happily married people have the luxury of not thinking it will happen to them, at least not for more than a fleeting moment.  Sure, they understand that it might, but they've been spared the experience of having their lives implode and the brittle truth that nothing, absolutely nothing, is forever. 

Instead--and most important--these charmed and wise people are kind to one another, even in moments of stress.  A couple of years ago, my daughter told me a story about parents of one of her friends; this couple was among those I talked to at length last night. My daughter was in the car when the mom ran out of gas. She called the dad, who soon arrived with a full fuel can. Instead of the screaming match my children would have braced themselves for back when their parents were tethered to one another, these thoughtful people were, amazingly, apologetic to one another. "Sorry I had to call you." "It's okay, I drove your car yesterday and noticed your fuel light was on and should have filled it up then." Really? Not where my kids lived.  Hearing the story, I was seared me with shame at remembering my own impatience in the face of dropped balls.

These couples also talk to each other, a lot and about everything, from what I can tell. And, most amazingly, they sincerely like the people they've traveled with through young married life past babies and toddlers and into now the phase of raising middle and high schoolers.  That's it, in essence: they really do still like each other. There is shorthand in conversation and the way one just looks at the other when one is ready to leave the party and the other one knows. Many of these people even look like they're going home to get busy. It's not, who the hell are you and how did I get here?  Or, why do I feel like I'm living someone else's life?

As I looked around last night I realized I like all of them, nearly to a person. I suppose this tempers my burning envy of their happy unions, or at least I'd like to think so. Also, they still invite me to their lovely parties and never make me feel like a freak, my default self-perception.  No, they let me into their magic circle despite my clear failures, and so we get to talk about all we have in common, even beyond kids--many of them have interesting jobs, great reading lists, screechingly hard workouts (I think this might be the middle-aged version of talking about ailments, as my parents seem to do constantly with their friends, though they laugh about it) and where we'd like to live once our kids leave the nest--and I have a marvelous time. 

As my single life stretches into the second half of a decade, I am thrilled to still be included at such gatherings.  Although seeing all these people in truly satisfying marriages (once one has passed forty I think "happy" is rather a frivolous word) where they've had the corners knocked off them and go on with anticipation rather than dread, does make me consider once again what is so terribly wrong with me, it also gives me tremendous hope.  That my daughter and her brother have the chance to spend time around so many people who have made happy lives is proof to them that it can be done.  And maybe someday it will rub off on their mom.


  1. I haven't been married long and actually just wrote about what I know about marriage today. You're right about 'liking' each other though, as an important element. And this is not as easy as one thinks. I hope there will be genuine liking in my marriage for a very very long time (avoiding the use of 'forever' since you said there is no such thing) ;-)