For Jen and Mladen–The Secret to a Happy Marriage

Recently I have been thinking a lot about what makes a happy marriage.  From the perspective of 30 years (27.6 of them happy, cumulatively), I think I can say that I have isolated the ONE thing that will ensure your future happiness:

–plain, old, blind, dumb luck.

That’s right.  Luck is the one thing that separates the good from the bad, the sublime from the truly awful.

I know it’s an unsatisfying answer for a couple of goal-oriented, high-achievers like yourselves—not to mention bad news for Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, Dr. Ruth and all those people who grind out millions of pages of advice in “women’s” magazines.

But it is the truth.  It’s amazing how much of it comes down to stumbling on the right person and being, for whatever reason, at a point in both your lives when you are smart enough to recognize it.

So while there isn’t much you can do now, having found the right person and all, to ensure your happiness, there are a few things you can do to protect against unhappiness. So here is the only secret I have figured out.

Fighting is no big deal: I am always skeptical of those couples who never fight.  After all, this is a huge step you are taking.  You are promising that you will never again, ever, make a major decision without taking into account the needs and desires of another person.  And there are some huge decisions not far down the road for you—whether, when and how to have kids, where to live, where to work, how much to work, how much to spend, how much to save. And that’s just for starters.  You will need to revisit some of these decisions again and again as time, fate and luck (remember luck?) play into the equation. 

With practice, most couples find ways to navigate the big decisions, but that leaves the small stuff.  Things like—

–What-is-this-(alleged-collectible, hideous-piece-of-furniture, free-loading-relative)-and-why-is-it-taking-up-room-in-our-house? Or

–What-do-you-mean-you-took-the (trash, dog, free-loading relative)-out-the-last-time? And the ever popular

–Would-it-kill-you-to-(replace-the-toilet-paper, run-the-disposal, wait-on-the-freeloading-relative)-just-once?

Or whatever the little frictions in your particular relationship may be. 

Anyway, fighting or arguing or bickering is just the way that, having pledged to go down the same road for the rest of your lives, you negotiate the direction, speed, vehicle, and all the many things that remain negotiable.  So don’t worry about it, unless you run into

The Three Horseman: The three horseman of the marriage apocalypse are money, sex and the kids.  If a couple is fighting about one, they are normal.  If they are simultaneously fighting about two, danger signals are flashing.  And if they are fighting about all three, it is just a matter of time before you are sending their Christmas card to two different addresses.

The thing about the three horsemen is they are bedrock values issues.  When a couple is at odds over all three for an extended period of time, they almost always expose a true fissure in the relationship—a couple whose core values are growing apart.

So it’s important to know what you are really fighting about.  Money, sex and the kids are all short hand for what you value. You demonstrate what you value by how you allocate your resources, time and attention.  What you attend to says more about you than anything else.

Which brings us to

R-E-S-P-E-C-T:  Marriages can survive deep financial setbacks, horrifying personal losses and infidelity.  But they can never, ever survive the loss of respect.  When one spouse loses respect for the other, even if love remains, it becomes just a matter of time until the marriage, one way or another, is over.

So the good news is, each of you holds half the key to the success of your marriage in your hand.  Whenever you are at a crossroads, make the choice that allows you to maintain respect for yourself.  And if you make the wrong choice, grab hold of it, fix it, stop it, turn it around.

The bad news is, each of you holds only half the key.  You cannot control the other person.  You will find there are times when a word, gesture, action or even silence helps the other person make the right choice. You will also find there are times when nothing you do or say can make a difference. If you picked the right person (and you did) then they have it in them to make the right choices.

And that is the secret.

Which pretty much brings us back to the luck part.

Jen and Mladen–I have no doubts about you.  You are strong people who have each faced adversity in your own lives and come through with strong and common values.  And you have been lucky enough and smart enough to find each other at just the right time.

I hope the universe brings you nothing but happiness.

For Sheila–some advice as she embarks on her greatest adventure

Dear Sheila—

As motherhood nears, I wanted to take some time to share some of my hard won experience with you.  In doing this, I am fully aware that my desire to give advice is far greater than your desire to receive it.  In fact, one thing I can reliably predict is that in the next 25 years (I can’t speak beyond that) you will be getting a constant stream of advice, good and bad, solicited and unsolicited, from friends, family and total strangers you meet in the supermarket.  It is easy to have contempt for these people, but remember, it is an uncontrollable urge, and soon you will be one of them.


There are some other things I can reliably predict.  For example, I know that in the next 24 months, at least seven out of the following ten things will happen to you.

1. As you grow closer to your due date, women will tell you horrible labor and delivery stories.  No one knows why women inflict these stories on other women who are about to give birth, but they inevitably do.  Since men have been allowed into delivery rooms, sometimes they tell awful labor stories, too.  This is even more disconcerting than when women do it.

2. Once you have given birth, you will attempt to tell your own labor and delivery story.  No matter what happens to you, your story will be topped by someone else in the room, probably a relative of your husband’s.  If you are in labor for a week, then have a caesarean followed by the unexpected delivery of twins, there will be a woman in the room who was in hard labor for a month, followed by an emergency caesarian, followed by an allergic reaction to anesthesia, followed by the unexpected arrival of quadruplets.  This is a game you cannot win.  Bow out gracefully.

3.  From the day you give birth, no one will take your picture again unless you are holding, standing next to or in some other proximate position to your child.  This will be true until you have grandchildren.  Then you will have to stand next to one of them to get your picture taken.

4. After the baby is born, Brian will come home from work one day and find you in your bathrobe.  You will explain that when you got up that morning, your two top goals for the day were to take a shower and get dressed, but for reasons you are no longer able to enumerate, you were unable to achieve either one.

5.  One day, Brian will walk through the door with a big smile on his face and inquire, “How’s my baby?”  It will take you a few moments to realize he does not mean you.  These will not be good moments.

6.  On a hot summer day, your baby will explode.  That is, more poop will come out of your baby than seems possible given his size.  If you are lucky, this explosion will take place on a changing table.  If you are unlucky, it will take place in a car seat or on your Great Aunt Ida’s lap.  At a family wedding.

7. Someday, you will be at an important business meeting in a business suit and you will feel an uncomfortable dampness.  It will take you a few moments to realize that milk is leaking from your breasts.  Don’t worry.  No one else can see it.  Women’s business suits were invented for just these occasions.  There is no other plausible explanation for women’s business suits.

8. Some person, probably of your parents’ generation, will utter the phrase, “You mean he doesn’t do X yet?”  Where X will mean, roll over, sit up, eat solid food, sleep through the night, or speak Japanese.

9. Another person, also probably of your parents generation will say, “You mean he still does Y?” where Y will mean, uses a pacifier, wears diapers, comes into your bed at night or lives at home.

10.  In the next two months, you will make up a song that goes, “Go to sleep, little baby, please, please, please, please, please, please.  Daddy’s cranky.  Mommy’s brain-damaged from the la-ack of REM sleep.  Go to sleep, go to sleep, before Mommy starts screaming.  Because Mommy’s afraid, if she starts she will never stop.”  Eighteen years later, when you are lying in bed waiting for your son to return from his senior prom, you will remember this song with perfect clarity.

But What of the Advice? 

So enough of predictions—what about the advice?  Well, at the moment, Rob has an EBB (Everything But Bachelors) from UCLA and is working nights at Kinkos. (Lord help us, not even days at Kinkos.)  And Kate is lying on the couch waiting for Vogue to call.  Not that she has contacted Vogue in any way.  She is just waiting for them to call. 

So I am not feeling like I am in any position to give advice.

One Last Prediction..

However, I will make one last prediction—and that is this.  It will all be worth it.  Every bit of it. 

Before I had children, friends used to say, “We’re (exhausted, broke, hungry, living without privacy, living without sex, living with a tiny dictator who is running both our lives), but it is worth it.  And I would look into their deeply circled eyes and think, My God, some people can rationalize anything. 

Here is the amazing part–Once I had my own children, I realized they were right.

Having small children is an incredible amalgam of love and infatuation.  It’s the infatuation that catches you by surprise.  It’s like falling in love, but with everything speeded up like a movie in fast forward.  It’s got all the elements of your first crush–the desire to see the person all the time, the need to constantly touch that is so strong that you will actually contemplate waking up a sleeping baby, even though you know it is crazy.  And until your son goes off to pre-school and begins to make his own friends separate from his life with you—here is the thing: You will know every single thing about him.  You will never know anyone else as well.  And until that part of his brain that makes him a sentient, logical human being begins to kick in and rule his life—he will know everything about you. He will know when you are there, but not really there—and he will call you on it.  He will know when you need a laugh and when you need to cry and when you just need to be patted gently on the back.  In your lifetime, you will achieve no greater intimacy.  That is the infatuation part and that gets you through the hardest physical part of parenting and it is its own reward.

The like all great relationships, as the infatuation matures, it becomes a bedrock of love.  You will love your son and it will be for life. It will help you understand how your parents love you.  The love part gets you through all the rest.  As parenting becomes less physically demanding, and more and more psychologically complex, it is the love part that gets you through and it is its own reward. 

Not that there aren’t a lot of hard days and nights ahead of you.  Nights especially.  Night feedings.  Night visitors in your bed.  Nights of dealing with crazed adolescents who are “sleeping” over.  Nights waiting for the sound of a car turning into the drive.

And funnily enough, through all of that, you will never question whether it is worth it.  Because you will know that it is. 

So Sheila, best of luck to you, and to Brian and you embark on this wonderful, awful, crazy adventure, because luck is a big part of it.  I know you will be phenomenal parents.