For Valentine’s Day: “So, What’s the Secret to your being Married 49 Years?”

Valentine’s Day is more of a pressure than many people think. And it’s not only a pressure-ridden day and night because of whether we have a Valentine and one that will give us whatever the “right” thing this year. It’s a pressure because people are mixed about those they love.

Years ago when I worked in a residential treatment center with very emotionally disturbed kids, the newer staff was always surprised that the most provocative and triggering holiday, was not Christmas at all but yes, Valentine’s Day. The people these children loved they also hated and often felt hated by as well. There was a love-hate relationship glossed over by the larger culture, that hit these children in an unavoidably intense way.

This past year, 2019 was the year of our 49th wedding anniversary, and we got several glowing, awe-filled queries as to how we managed to stay together all this time. And it fell on Thanksgiving to boot, so it seemed like an extra gift. It seemed apt to add to the literature on the subject in general with a nod to ambivalence, and attention to some of the mixed factors present in many relationships that are thought of as love only too much of the time.

A short time ago a friend who was to me married told me she was reaching out to all her friends and relatives whose marriages had lasted a bunch of time, to inquire how they did it. My thought at the time, which I iterated out loud, was “Do you really think anyone will tell you the truth?” And besides I thought some days later, “Who’s to say if longevity in marriage is always such a good thing anyway?” In and of itself that is.

As fate would have it, Lino and I had a doozy of an argument just that past weekend, in time for me to reflect on a more truthful assessment of the question itself. The answers are multiple and they are not as poetic as I might have liked, once upon a time (like, say, last week or so), to articulate.

Carl Jung, just to lighten things up a bit, said the best prognosis for wellbeing, both personally and politically, is the modesty of admitting one’s flaws and imperfections. This, in and of itself, can sound poetic but it turns out that modesty can actually feel a lot like a slap in the face to be avoided at almost any cost.

Of course you will understand, or I hope you will, that I will be a bit summary in my assessment as I still practice psychotherapy and am respected in some parts for my writing and speaking. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be honest, but that I still am apprehensive about sharing the stuff of the too personal for fear of being judged in a culture that — to say the least — tends to be trendy and branding and critical and competitive and very appearance oriented. Then there is also a sense of privacy, for me and for Lino, the spouse I still live with after all these years.

As such I have decided to enumerate a few factors I don’t think are singularly atypical. So here goes something:

1. Codependency. Yes, I know, it’s not that healthy, the “love isn’t ever having to say sorry” thing or the fantasy of being completed. I, as it turned out had a big time rescuer fantasy, looking — if unconsciously for the most part — for a man resembling James Dean as much as possible. This would mean a sad, yearning, even despairing man, with good looks and potential that would seem to be realized only through the efforts and charms of a damsel capable of waking up the prince inside. The prince, as my fantasy had gone, would in turn save me from bad memories, a bit of trauma and self-doubt all in one.

The other side of this fairy tale with a twist was that I really, underneath the fantasy of being the rescuer, really wanted to be rescued. So my expectations were, shall we say a tad unrealistic.

2. Stubbornness. This should never be underrated, and for the most part can be also a positive component. Both Lino and I don’t give up very easily. In fact my only superior conduct mark in grade school was in perseverance. Sometimes I hang on too long, as in staying in some friendships where the respect and caring weren’t really mutual. Even in some family relationships I could stay wanting things to change where they weren’t going to — ever.

3. Sadness. I’m using the word instead of depression only really because depression feels too pathological, even if it may not be inaccurate. Never underestimate the acute sadness, loneliness, fear and feelings of abandonment inherent in separation and divorce. Neither Lino nor I have any religious convictions against divorce as an institution, and I kid you not in saying that when I was about 12 I begged my mother to do exactly that. She didn’t but perhaps because of this I have never glorified long marriages, just because they lasted many years. Often I thought that lasting was a big mistake.

4. Growing up. Of course neither of us are completely grown up (surprise, surprise). That would seem preposterous what with so much chaos in our world and tough times in our smaller worlds. However, the courage, the need, the perseverance — all of it to keep shifting inside — has made our marriage become newer as it has become older, something really beautiful.

5. Routine. Routine has become a lovely thing, really. The days we spend during our summers in Italy have physical exercise, rest, intimacy, reading and Netflix, along with gorgeous food and the intermittent company of friends.

6. Complementing each other. I am more of the drama queen who needs stimulation and whose creativity can burst or become irritability without some expression. Lino is a bit lazier, and this is not always a bad thing. He is more comfortable with ease and without busy activity. He is also a great editor and a fan of my work. We sometimes even stop each other from going overboard, like me in spending too much and him in getting too angry (something I can excel in also), but that is only when we are calm enough to listen to each other.

7. Having more realistic expectations.. Codependency will never end permanently, and that notion, though in and of itself a bit gloomy, allows us to lessen our unrealistic expectations. Expecting less may be like the gift that never stops giving but it keeps us working our stuff. The growing is never ending also because and the memories and the hardships of being together and our own personal traumas never completely stop visiting and re-visiting. And facing the need to lessen our way too high expectations needs to be revisited, also because it is hard to let it sink in.

8. Humor. There are no doubt more than 8 but you know, we don’t have all day. I know Lino will admit I’m very funny and even hilarious, when I’m not either very serious or a serious pain. When we’re not hyper serious together, we can really laugh a lot, becoming at times pretty silly. And by the way we both cry easily, though I’m not going to let me get this to an extra number, just because.

9. Luck. Well, I guess I changed my mind. Aside from the multitude of things and people that sustain us, thrill us, and drive us crazy, there are our kids and grandkids who keep us on our toes with love and challenges, and evoking our love and dedication. We’re also lucky to have the same, or similar taste in movies and tend to want to walk out on the same shows.

We are lucky to have the material resources to have access to therapy (that would be me), a roof over our heads, and more than enough stuff to feel safe on the material sides of life. Without luck, I wouldn’t be able to be here to write about this.

I do wonder if the answers I have suggested so far will change if we should be lucky to make it to 50 years of marriage. I do feel lucky to be hoping that we get there.

At the same time this is not a feeling of superiority to any people who trip and fall too hard along the way. We have simply done so, so many times with the fortitude or stubbornness or fear, or luck, to stay together. It has often felt more like many marriages, sometimes to different people. And it is important to add that the mixed feelings that were part of our not leaving, need to be appreciated as much as anything else.

A psychotherapist, a New Yorker living between Colorado and Italy (in good times) I am passionate about the role of emotions and awareness for evolving,sanity

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