What is the secret to a long marriage?
Note, I did not say a happy marriage. Some happy marriages do not last and some long-lasting marriages are not very happy.
Anyone who is enthralled to the conventional wisdom will offer the conventionally correct answers: empathy, understanding, open and honest communications, and shared kinks.
We all assume that marriage is an expression of mutual affection and affinity. We believe that strengthening that affection and affinity will improve our marriages.
We also accept, unthinkingly, that what goes on in the privacy of our bedroom when our private parts are actively engaged determines how happy we will be and for how long.
The conventional wisdom has it that soul mates that have great sex are going to be happily married for a long time. We have been taught that social institutions are nothing more than outward expressions of private feelings and private actions.
That is why, when a marriage is in trouble, counselors tend to advise more good feelings and more open communication. See my Tuesday post on whether or not couples should share their kinks.
If the conventional wisdom is wrong, as I believe it is, then I recommend that we look at the problem differently.
Perhaps the secrets to a long and happy marriage does not involve how two people feel about each other but how they look to other people. Appearances count, much more than you think.
Yesterday, I read the story of a Nebraska couple that has been happily married for 64 years. Their names are Mel and Joey Schwanke.
Surely, the Schwankes have a certain level of expertise when it comes to what makes a marriage endure.
Apparently they are unfamiliar with the conventional wisdom, because they declare that the secret to the success of their marriage is: matching outfits.
That’s right. The therapy world wants to plumb the depths of both of your souls. Living in Fremont, Nebraska the Schwankes missed the lesson. They put together their own technique for improving their marriage: matching outfits.
Where therapy takes an inside/out approach the Schwankes have taken an outside/in approach.
Just in case you are tempted to think that I am peddling folk wisdom, I will mention in passing that their approach is more consonant with the views of the greatest twentieth century philosopher of psychology, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
But, what do they mean by matching outfits? Mostly, they mean that his tie matches her dress. Sometimes, they mean wearing the same Hawaiianfloral print shirts.
Obviously this takes some effort. It even takes some work. Let’s say that it gives new meaning to the idea of working on your relationship.
We would never think of it in those terms, but still… it has worked well for them.
Admittedly, the Schwankes run the risk of looking like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but they are making an important point, one that deserves respect.
We all believe that we dress to express ourselves. We believe that our clothing choices, especially women’s fashion, must express something unique and individual and personal.
When we dress ourselves we think that we are making a statement, especially a statement about ourselves.
Some people even believe that they have a constitutional right to dress exactly as they please, and that no one has a constitutional right to judge them for it.
Anyway, we believe that we are all individuals trying to self-actualize. And we see marriage as a connection between two well actualized individuals. .
The Schwankes seem to have missed this lesson. If their outfits say anything they tell the world that they do not want to be seen as two unique, independent, autonomous individuals who just happen to have signed a contract with each other.
When they go out into the world, they define themselves as part to a couple, as belonging to a marital unit.
Even if you only consider it a thought experiment, don’t ask how two married people feel about each other—in truth, it’s none of your business—but ask how they present themselves in public.
When they are out together do they look like they are together or do they look like they are separated?
Ask the question about couples you know. Ask the question about your own marriage.
I am not saying that a couple needs to look like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. I am not saying that his tie needs to match his dress.
Nevertheless, their outfits do need to harmonize and coordinate.
Grunge and preppy usually do not harmonize. They are disjointed and disconnected. If a woman looks elegantly cosmopolitan and her husband looks like he just jumped off the tractor they will look like they are unrelated.
If people perceive you as disconnected, they will treat you as though you are disconnected. If they perceive you as having nothing in common with each other, they will act as though you don’t.
There’s an important lesson here. If you feel one way and everyone sees you another way, eventually their way will win out.
We are so accustomed to thinking that how we feel defines who we are that we do not recognize that if we are married and we go out in public dressing as though we have nothing to do with each other this will affect the way people treat us, talk to us, and flirt with us.
If you feel that you are together and look like you are not, the behavior of other people will eventually undermine your feelings of togetherness.
If you want to know how likely it is that a marriage will endure ask yourself whether the two people conduct their lives in synchrony and in harmony or as two independent, autonomous individuals who go bump in the night.
Another way to improve your marriage is to create routines.
If you coordinate your outfits, why not coordinate your schedules. Why not develop routines.
By that I mean activities that you perform together on a daily, or near daily basis, together.
I do not mean weekly or monthly date nights. I do not mean an occasional family dinner. I do not mean quality time together.
All of the above are nice. But they are not the glue that holds a marriage together.
I am thinking of having a breakfast ritual or family dinner or an after-dinner walk that you both do together every day, without fail.
The conventional wisdom tells us that love is all we need and that love requires spontaneity and surprise.
It does not tell you that that kind of love usually lasts no more than six months.
If you want your marriage to endure I recommend that you practice the small rituals that constitute everyday routines. These affirm your commitment to each other, produce a sense of trust and security, and show that both of you can sacrifice a small part of your unique individuality in the interest of a higher truth… your marriage.