Seven Rules of Highly Resilient Marriages
My sister Tara confided in me as we were sitting on the beach this summer: “I cheated on Jon,” she said, not meeting my eyes. I followed her gaze to her two young boys, happily bobbing in the surf.
“What? How could you?” I asked, remembering her fairy-tale DC wedding 12 years before.
“He’s been away so much for work….” Her voice trailed off. “I’m just tired of being alone every night.” She saw my dismay and only then cracked a smile. “I’m talking about watching Orange Is the New Black.”
I groaned and kicked sand in her direction. “I thought you were serious!”
“I am! It’s our show. Jon and I always watch it together, but I couldn’t wait any longer, so I watched an episode without him. And it was so good that I watched another, and another, and pretty soon…”
“You went all the way?” I gasped.
“Did you tell Jon?”
“No, I rewatched every episode with him. He never caught on.”
Later, when I told my husband, Jeremy, what my sister had done, he pulled me close and said, “Promise you’ll never do that to me.” We too had made a pact that neither of us would watch our show without the other. From his perspective, Tara’s indiscretion was equivalent to infidelity.
I looked him in the eye and swore, “Never.”
Actually, I struggle with temptation every time Jeremy goes away. What stops me from grabbing the remote is the knowledge that I’d be spoiling something that’s become critical to our marriage. We’ve been together for 17 years, and now, with three school-age children, date nights consist of Jeremy and me sitting on the couch for hours at a time, neither speaking nor looking at each other. For a marriage that’s gotten a little, well, predictable, Netflix instant streaming and Game of Thrones binge-watching add a spark. When Daenerys Targaryen walks out of the fire naked with three dragons, or Ygritte tenderly deflowers Jon Snow beside a hot spring—let’s just say we have the makings of a wild night in Wayland.
I thought we were the anomaly. But when a friend revealed that she and her husband watch separate shows—he on the TV, she on her laptop with earphones—seated beside each other, I realized that we might be more mainstream than we thought.
Which was a bit of a shocker. I mean, sometimes I feel that Jeremy and I are just barely holding on for dear life, cobbling together a semblance of a relationship in the hope that someday—soon?—it’ll get a little easier. Yet we are committed to sticking it out, and in that respect, we’re not alone: The divorce rate in the U.S. has been steadily dropping since its peak in the 1970s and early 1980s. About 70 percent of people who got hitched in the ’90s reached their 15th anniversary, up 5 percent from those who married in the ’70s and ’80s. And among the people who wed in the 2000s, divorce rates are even lower.
Experts explain the dropping divorce rates by pointing to the fact that we’re getting married later. As a result, we’ve probably already lived together, so we know what we’re in for; we’re comfortable having children out of wedlock, so no more shotgun weddings; and we’re waiting longer to have kids, who add a whole new level of stress to the equation.
That may be, but I think there’s more behind the uptick in longer-lasting marriages. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, we saw the emotional toll a breakup takes on a family, and we tacitly agreed that we weren’t going there. Once you take divorce off the table entirely, it’s liberating—you have a common goal. Jeremy and I, like so many in our generation, have created a marriage that isn’t necessarily about the journey or coloring within the lines or being happy all the time—it’s about staying together. We’re in it to win it.
So, what are we all doing right? In other words, how are my friends and acquaintances keeping it together each and every day? To find out, I started asking questions that I probably shouldn’t have, gently prying into their marriages and peeking (mostly metaphorically) behind closed bedroom doors.
Three months and myriad sotto voce conversations later, I uncovered the seven things we’re doing to make it work. Here are the rules, with names changed to protect the innocent.
We rarely call each other.
But, man, you should read our texts. “My husband and I use the most ridiculous emoticons, like farm animals and drug paraphernalia—although we don’t do drugs and are insanely allergic to most animals,” says Catherine, a mother of three who’s been married for 13 years.
Or we talk dirty: “We send very flirty, racy texts constantly,” says Sara, who’s in her fifties.
What about? I ask.
“He’ll say something like, ‘How’s my gorgeous wife?’ and I’ll say something like, ‘Better if I were in your arms.’ And we might get a little racier [and] write about what we want to do to each other later….” She pauses. “I’m not sure how pornographic you want this to be.” I get the idea. We’re flirting with our spouses like we did when we were first dating—albeit over text. While they’re not exactly swoon-worthy, Jane Austen–caliber professions of love, it’s fun and silly and reminds us of why we were attracted to him or her in the first place. And yes, it does lead to hanky panky, but only on designated days.
We schedule sex…
“Every Thursday and Saturday,” says Kristen, a mom of three. “If we don’t schedule it, I’ll be downstairs doing laundry until 11, and then I’m too tired.” But doesn’t that take the romance out of it? On the contrary, she says: “It feels special. This way I can actually shower and prepare for it.” And really, do our husbands care whether it’s scheduled or spontaneous—as long as they get some action?
In fact, pretty much everything we do goes into a shared online calendar—school pickups and drop-offs, sports practices, doctors’ visits, PTO meetings, poker nights— to help keep track of our crazy-busy lives. Countless couples I talked to declared their Google calendars a “marriage saver.” “It makes me less of a nag,” one mom explains.
…But we don’t sleep together.
Sure, we have king-size beds with beautifully coordinated bedding—but only one of us is still in it in the morning. One in every four couples sleeps separately at night, according to the Better Sleep Council and National Sleep Foundation—that’s twice as many as 15 years ago. “I’ll wake up at least 10 times a night,” Kelly, a mom of one, tells me of the evenings when her husband’s snoring is particularly bad. At first she’s gentle with him, asking him to sleep on his side. “But I generally get more and more agitated and sometimes start aggressively pushing him—something I’m not proud of, but when you’re that tired and frustrated and delirious, sometimes it just happens,” she admits. Eventually her husband heads to the couch or an air mattress in the basement.
For Anne, a working mother of three, snoring isn’t the issue: It’s her two youngest children. “They used to come in during the night and wake me up, and I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. I was exhausted.” Now the girls sleep next to her every night, while her husband is relegated to the guest room downstairs. “If you’d asked me years ago, I’d have said I’d never share a bed with my kids. But we don’t have it in us to change it right now.” It’s sometimes called a “sleep divorce,” and while it’s not something we boast to our friends about (they might erroneously conclude there’s trouble in paradise), “we’re much happier this way,” says Kelly, the snorer’s wife. “Nobody has to be anxious about a poor night’s sleep.”
We want our spouses to go away.
It’s vital that we don’t lose ourselves entirely in our marriages. We strive to preserve our sense of independence, and we want our spouses to do the same. Susan Costello, a marriage counselor in practice for 34 years, puts it this way: “Happy individuals make happy parents and happy partners.” So we encourage our spouses to go to the gym, grab a drink with a coworker, join a book club, or go away for the weekend with friends—whatever makes them feel good about themselves (even if that means the alarm startles us both awake at dawn so he can get to his CrossFit class). “We’ve learned what the other needs to maintain our sanity,” says a mom of a three-year-old.
Meanwhile, I can’t remember my mom ever leaving us to go off with her girlfriends for the weekend. My dad would have looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “But who will cook dinner?” he’d have asked. But now, my own husband would be helping me pack an overnight bag, recognizing that I needed a break. That’s probably because…
We don’t give a damn what’s for dinner.
There is nothing square about our meals. And we’re fine with that. “Dinner doesn’t usually occur to me until about 4 p.m., at which point I’ve long missed the window to defrost something or make anything that requires significant planning ahead,” says Allison, a nurse and mom of three who’s been married for 17 years.
She and I agree that when we were growing up, there seemed to be a huge focus on meals. “Dinner seemed to be an anchoring part of our day when we were all back home together—rather than the ‘half the family is missing/quick, shovel the food in on the way out the door to practice’ that it is for us,” she adds. “Because when you get home at 6 or 7, and your kids are starving, and your husband doesn’t pull into the driveway until 8, you get what you get…and you don’t get upset.”
As for me, my husband doesn’t care if I have a proper meal prepared—he’s fine with a sandwich. Whereas my dad definitely expected more from my mother. Now I expect more from my husband.
Wives fix leaky toilets and husbands change poopy diapers.
And when they’re not on diaper duty, men load the dishwasher, empty the dryer, and vacuum the family room. “I can screw in a light bulb,” admits Todd, a dad of two in Sudbury, but his forte is cooking a tasty Greek spread of shish kebobs, rice, and salad. So Todd’s wife does the plumbing and electrical work, while he goes grocery shopping and cooks.
More and more couples are divvying up the duties of child rearing and household chores 50/50. “My husband makes breakfast, while I do the laundry; I feed our son, while he takes the dogs out. We split up childcare, tasks like feeding and bathing, on the weekends,” says one mom who’s pregnant with her second child. Incidentally, there’s a significant upside to this: Couples who share household and childcare responsibilities actually have more sex. According to a study by Daniel Carlson, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University, they’re not only happier between the sheets, but also happier overall in their relationships. And not just on Thursdays and Saturdays.
We treat marriage like it’s a job.
We are anything but passive participants in these unions. We research the hell out of any issue, identify the steps to success, and then execute. Given that the average age of a first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men, this makes sense. We’ve been in the working world for five to 10 years, or more, by the time we tie the knot. We bring the same degree of intensity and commitment to our relationships as we do to our careers.
We’re willing to arrive early and stay late to make our marriages run smoothly and will even try therapy—something our parents might have benefited from but likely would have scoffed at—to work out our issues rather than stewing silently or giving up altogether. One woman tells me she and her husband each have a therapist, plus they go to couples counseling and attend 12-step group meetings. “We’re probably atypical in the amount of therapy we do, but we’d be sunk without it,” she says, adding that a healthy dose of TV together on the couch every night doesn’t hurt either.
So somehow, miraculously, we’re keeping it together, and it’s a point of pride. In fact, we’re so confident that we’ll make it to our next milestone anniversary that we feel comfortable making jokes like the one that someone told me recently: “Have you heard about the new divorced Barbie doll? She comes with all of Ken’s stuff.” Ba-dum tss. Because growing up, we saw the alternative—when the divorce rate was at its peak and “conscious uncoupling” wasn’t even a figment of little Gwyneth Paltrow’s imagination—and that’s not what we want for ourselves, or our children.
Whatever our baggage—and we all have some—we’re determined to stay together. Amanda, a mom of one who remembers a “ton of dysfunction” within her family growing up, says she has made a point not to have the same sort of dependency her mother had on her father. So she works full time, and she and her husband split household tasks evenly. “I really don’t want my daughter to have to go through [what I did],” she says. Another woman told me her parents rarely showed affection toward each other: “It’s a wonder they had three kids,” she says. That’s “certainly impacted the way I interact with my husband.”
Then again, one harried mother of three had a completely different explanation for why we’re not getting divorced: “We’re just so fucking busy, we don’t have time to dwell on our marriages.”