My husband and I have been together almost 30 years, 26 of them married. We know couples past the 50 year point; they like to trump our landmark. “Pshaw. Newlyweds.” But in a nation where half of marriages end in divorce, and about half the people wanting a relationship are having trouble connecting, my husband and I can feel like the last pair of dodos, especially when incredulity meets news of the length of our union:
“Really? Wow… (eyes look away as bewilderment eclipses curiosity);” or, “That’s a looooong time;” and my favorite, “You seem to still like each other.”
Of course not everyone responds as if at a freak show. There are still intrepid souls who imagine the rewards of a life partner outweigh the projected ennui. For them, we are paragons expected to depart wisdom gleaned from many shared years, although anyone married for a while knows having a map can stale the adventure (especially when you factor in different approaches to asking for directions).
All the basic relationship advice applies to most couples: communicate (frequently and with lots of “I” statements); air the anger (and fight fair); have sex (preferably great and often); make each other laugh; and spend time together as well as time apart. Yet such advice can feel a bit strategic, like rules for engagement that miss what keeps a relationship alive, even vital, across the years. No wonder many yearn the ideal, the soulmate. Without a deep and meaningful connection, a relationship can easily slide into routine and become an obstacle to living from the heart.
Most of us don’t have trouble with the initial spark; it’s keeping the love alive that challenges us. And let me be real: living up close and personal isn’t always pretty, and repetition is an acquired taste. It’s true; marriage is a lot of work. But a life partnership is also deeply rewarding when you work at the right things.
Over the holidays, my husband sent me this link to a blog post on the importance of generosity for marriages. At first, I thought he was just reminding me to buy him a gift. (Note: miscommunication can be a boon if you share the same sense of humor and a love of double entendres.) Instead, Tara Parker-Pope relays research about the role of giving of oneself for happy marriages. Turns out generosity, defined as “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse freely and abundantly,” is a key ingredient of wedded bliss. Simple things like making tea or giving a foot rub do the trick (generosity of time), along with forgiveness and sharing your appreciation (generosity of spirit). Indeed, generosity may be the key ingredient that distinguishes lifelong lovers from cohabitating spouses. As lead researcher W. Bradford Wilcox remarked, “Living that spirit of generosity in a marriage does foster a virtuous cycle that leads to both spouses on average being happier in the marriage.”
Yet generosity contributes more than happiness to a marriage. Simple, unexpected gestures of love create the conditions that delight our souls. Like a good mother’s love, the unexpected hug or compliment validates a partner’s worth. Few of us feel lovable all the time and most of us carry a sense that at least parts of ourselves are unworthy of being loved. A good partnership gently and consistently sweeps away the doubts that keep a person from feeling unconditionally loved.
In all families, as well as all cultures and societies, there are constraints not only on certain acts, but also on which feelings can be felt and expressed. Such are the inevitable limits on membership in any group. One outcome of honoring our first family’s and communities’ rules is the lifelong habit of ignoring our personal needs. Often unknowingly, we split off parts of ourselves so we can belong. Such self-denial can instill a desire for that special someone—the soulmate—who can open the doors to those split off parts of the self, even if just to peer at what might be in the hidden rooms of our psyches.
If we assume development across the lifespan is about reintegrating split off parts of the self—an idea originating with the likes of Pierre Janet and C. G. Jung—then sticking with the same person means not only making space for inevitable change and growth, but also fostering integration. And generosity keeps the process going. Think of generosity as jiggling the doorknobs of your partner’s soul. You’re curious what’s behind those doors (and sometimes a little afraid). Habitual generosity makes it safe for both of you to take the risk and look. Enough years of this kind of love and you forget about time altogether.
© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).