Two simple rules for a long and happy marriage

I’m writing from an island off Cape Fear North Carolina this week where Yvonne and I are sharing a vacation house with two couples we have become good friends with over the past few years.

The origin of this triad friendship rests with the three ladies, as is typical of most couple relationships. A notable exception that comes to mind is when old frat brothers get together to smoke cigars, drink Jack Daniel’s, and swap tall tales about the good old days, while their wives clean and cook, and pass the time talking about clothes and kids.

This is not to say that we three men, Dave, Bernie, and I, just came along for the ride. As I write this column it is day three and we’re having a good time. It probably helped that Bernie brought the cigars and that Dave brought the Jack Daniel’s. And, as you know, I can tell some tall tales. I should also note that Diane, Annette, and Yvonne are not frat wives – we guys are doing our share of the cleaning and cooking.

In one respect we three couples are a peculiar bunch. We are all one-marriage couples, having respectively been married for 39 43, and 45 years. We are marriage survivors. This observation is not intended to be an offense to our many good friends who are enjoying happy marriages the second time around. But our marriage longevity does add a certain tone to the stories we share. A recurring theme seems to prevail – how in the world have we managed to stay together for all these years.

The ladies, Diane, Annette, and Yvonne, jokingly say they have stayed with us because of our ingratiating wit and irresistible charm. We do not disagree about possessing these endearing qualities. At times we can also be suave and even thoughtful. Okay, on this last point I admit to hyperbolic exaggeration. But surely there was at least a time or two over the past four decades when Dave, Bernie, and I managed to utter a few thoughtful words at just the right moment.

However, as any man who is a 40-year marriage survivor can tell you, wit and charm are not the stuff that holds a marriage together. There is a unique talent that a man must acquire if he is to have any success in fulfilling his husbandly obligation of helping to make his marriage a happy one.

This talent is to simply learn when and when not to speak. The reason so many men fall short in learning this skill is that they do not understand that they first must become good listeners.

Before some of the ladies reading this start writing letters to the editor protesting that men are incapable of becoming good listeners, let me explain. I didn’t say that men are capable of becoming intent listeners. I’m fully aware that Intent listening is exclusively a genetic trait of females. This kind of listening involves intuitive understanding and a deep empathy for the feelings and emotions expressed by another human being, which, of course, is always another woman.

For a man, listening does not mean intuitively understanding your wife’s feelings. It simply means being able to filter the words coming out of her mouth well enough to know whether you should speak or keep your mouth shut. I’m not saying anything that Dave and Bernie don’t already understand. They are veteran marriage survivors. But let me break this down for the young husbands who may be reading this. There are two simple rules that you need to keep in mind when you listen to your wife.

Rule #1 – Try your best to never give an immediate answer to anything she says. I realize this may not seem natural. More often than not you think you know the right answer to her question, or you think you have something useful to say in response to her comments. Trust me, she will usually disagree with your answer, and she doesn’t really want to hear your comments or opinions. When you can pull it off, not speaking is always the first and best course of action.

Rule #2 – If she asks an outright question and you hesitate to respond, you will probably get “the look.” The look means an answer is required. When answering a question always provide as minimal of a response as your vocabulary will allow. This can be as basic as a slightly audible grunting sound to acknowledge that you heard her speak. Surprisingly, this sometimes works. If it appears that a fully audible answer is required, use as few monosyllabic words as possible. Here are a few tried and tested examples that will satisfy almost any question she may ask. “Hmmm, I think you’re right honey.” “Ok, that sounds good to me.” “I don’t know, what do you think?” And one last example, “Yeah, I think so too.”

With practice you will learn to select the right nondescript answer to fit almost any circumstance. As a side note, in the interest of marital harmony it is a good idea from time to time to initiate a conversation. When you do this, always keep in mind that she will have opinions and will express them about the things you say. She may even ask questions. But don’t fall into the trap of actually thinking she wants you to respond. Just stick with the rules.

George Brown is the executive director of Clermont Senior Services.