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Letter To A Young Fiancé
Marriage is for life, don't screw it up
Editor’s Note: Have a difficult question that has eluded the wise people in your life? Ask Matt at email@example.com. But keep your expectations low - he’s only human. He puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like you. Two legs at a time, when he sits on the bed. (One of Matt’s patented “life hacks.”) Non-difficult questions also welcome.
I recently got engaged (it's so fun!), and since you are a fount of wisdom on all topics, I was wondering what advice you have. It's my first (and hopefully only!) time doing this, and sadly the New York Times wedding section hasn't provided any advice on the topic.
First, congratulations on your engagement. You sound happy about it. Giddy, even. I don’t know if anyone has broken the news to you, but these engagements typically end in marriage. So enjoy your happiness while it lasts.
Second, congratulations on not gleaning advice from the New York Times wedding section. I like the New York Times. Or as Mr. Trump prefers, “the failing New York Times.” I have written for them. I have talented friends who work there. But whenever I read the wedding announcements, which sound more like résumé-polishing or the sort of not-so-humble-bragging best left to Instagram influencers, it makes me root for divorce. I think my revulsion was best captured in this parody by Colin Nissan. Excerpt:
The bride, thirty, graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth, with a B.A. in education. The groom, thirty-two, graduated magna cum laude from Penn, with a B.A. in economics. This disparity in achievement will be a recurring source of tension for the couple, first rearing its head during their honeymoon, in Belize, when the groom will take a little too long to calculate a tip and the bride will step in to “summa the situation”—a phrase the groom will coin in that moment and continue to employ for years to come, with diminishing amusement.
I have heard lots of valuable marital advice dispensed throughout the years. The writer André Maurois, whom we know was likely into infidelity on account of his being French, said, “A happy marriage is a long conversation which always seems too short.” That staple of Bartlett’s, Mark Twain, who regularly gets credit for the things he said, and the things he never said but that sound like he might have, (supposedly) said: “To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.” But for my money, the most practical marital advice I ever heard came from a friend’s wise father, who offered: “Whatever you do, marry a woman with small hands. They’ll make your junk look bigger.” (Don’t come for me, wokesters. I’ll dime him out for a full-immunity deal.)
But you’ve come to the right place. Not only am I doctor of fly fishing, politics, and religion, but I am also what my wife calls a Doctor of Love. (She doesn’t, actually, but I’m trying to make it stick.)
As of next month, I will have been married 28 years. That’s one year longer than Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, or Jim Morrison were even alive. Thus making me a rock’n’roll legend of sorts in marriage circles. Along the way, I’ve noticed several things that make for a happy marriage. These are those:
Marry someone who is better than you are. Of course, it’ll be impossible for both of you to do that, unless you turn your bicycle into a tricycle. Which would be a whole different column. But if one of you has to settle, think selfishly, and make sure it’s your spouse. I married a woman who is a better person than I am. That’s not me flattering her in case she reads this, or exhibiting false humility. Anyone who knows us both would say, “Yeah, a lot better.”
She is Felix to my Oscar, Shirley to my Laverne, Ali to my Frazier, Marky Mark to my Funky Bunch, Jodie Foster to my John Hinckley Jr. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve lost control of this metaphor. Let’s start over.
Most people in life are not on your side. That doesn’t mean they’re actively against you, usually, just coldly indifferent. So make sure your spouse is on your side. That they bring out your best, elevate your game, and pull you up instead of down.
Liking someone is as important as loving them. Liking makes the loving easier. My wife, Alana, and I were good friends before becoming workout partners at Cupid’s Gym. And because when love struck, I already deeply liked her, marriage didn’t feel like an intimidating life change. It wasn’t jumping out of a plane and hoping your parachute opens. Rather, it was more like a natural progression. As though we were lacing up our boots and going on a hike together. A very long hike.
Along with liking and loving? A little lust never hurt anybody. Attraction isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing, either. Get a head start on happiness and if you can help it, make sure she puts some lead in your pencil, or he puts a little sugar in your bowl, as Nina Simone had it. Animals mate not because they want to, but because they have to. They don’t ignore their biological imperatives. We have to suppress ours a bit, in the interest of appearing civilized. I love my dog, but can’t use him as a behavior model, lest I spend the entire day licking myself and begging for treats. But when it comes to animal attraction, animals tend to have the right idea. As long as you still want to see your spouse in the sack, that can paper over plenty of differences. Disputes that can’t be settled with words can sometimes be settled other ways.
Laughter is not only important, it is essential. Laugh with each other a lot. At each other, less so. That’s why God made in-laws – someone needs to serve as the butt of your jokes. And you should have lots of jokes that nobody else gets.
You will fight. And it’s unnecessary to be a pushover when that happens. My gal pal and I are both half-Italian, so it gets a little loud around here sometimes. But people tend to respect those they walk with, not over. Getting angry is an inevitability. Staying angry is often a preventable tragedy. Too many marriages break up due to pride, because people are unable or unwilling to say two simple words: “I’m sorry.” Even if you’re not sorry, try to be. Because if you can’t admit you’re sorry when you should be, you’ll be sorry later and longer.
Tell her you love her with some frequency. Better still, show her. This doesn’t mean buying expensive gifts or giving her a homemade coupon that entitles her to one night of sex with you. (Yeah, I’ve tried that. Wasn’t a hit.) But hear your spouse when they talk, don’t just watch their lips move. Make them feel like what they’re bringing to the equation is appreciated. Let them bring out your own goodness, if there’s any to be had.
And send poetry, now and then. I’m certainly no poet, but here’s a timeless classic I wrote for my wife on Valentine’s Day, 2015:
You mothered my children
We thank you for carin’
But no more surprises
Before your womb goes barren
Or maybe send them someone else’s. Here’s one I’ve sent from the great Thomas Lynch, who is a little better at it than I am, and who beautifully captures marriage in one he wrote called “Nines.”
Thus we proclaim our fond affirmatives:
I will, I do, Amen, Hear, Hear, Let's
eat, drink and be merry. Marriage is
the public spectacle of private parts:
cheque-books and genitals, housewares, fainthearts,
all doubts becalmed by kissing aunts, a priest's
safe homily, those tinkling glasses
tightening those ties that truly bind
us together forever, dressed to the nines.
Darling, I reckon maybe thirty years,
given our ages and expectancies.
Barring the tragic or untimely, say,
ten thousand mornings, ten thousand evenings,
please God, ten thousand moistened nights like this,
when mindless of these vows, our opposites,
nonetheless, attract. Thus, love's subtraction:
the timeless from the ordinary times -
nine thousand, nine hundred, ninety-nine.
Next to lastly, have a couple of kids if you get a chance. They’ll costs you tons of money, aggravation, and time. They’ll break your heart in a thousand ways without even trying. And they’ll bring you more joy than anything else you’ve ever received or made. We get invested in that which costs us most.
Lastly, good luck, and don’t get spooked. Yes, being happily married takes a lot of work. But being miserably married takes a lot more.
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Bonus Track: After playing all that Nanci Griffith last column, it had me returning to someone I regard as her spiritual song-sister, Gillian Welch. I was stuck on this song about a decade ago, and now I am again. Here’s Welch doing “Hard Times.” And whoever put together the video did so over Ryan O’Neal and a very young Tatum starring in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 film, Paper Moon, which somehow fits perfectly. And speaking of great poetry, it contains one of my favorite verses:
Said it's a mean old world, heavy in need
And that big machine is just picking up speed
And we're supping on tears, and we're supping on wine
We all get to heaven in our own sweet time
So come all you Asheville boys and turn up your old-time noise
And kick 'til the dust comes up from the cracks in the floor
Double Bonus Track: The aforementioned legendary Nina Simone, doing one of my favorites from her, “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl”: