On December 17, 1955, Harriet Eskenasy and Ed Reitman, both University of Miami students, got married.
On December 17, 2005, we celebrated our golden anniversary in a small, romantic restaurant in Christchurch, New Zealand. Earlier that day, I went skydiving over the city.
Seven years later, we slept on a bamboo floor covered with cheesecloth netting in the middle of the New Guinea jungle.
This year, we spent three weeks in Indonesia with one of our granddaughters, in order to see Komodo dragons in the wild.
Almost sixty years have passed since we first married and we would both readily agree that we have been very fortunate. We have had successful careers. We don’t reside in assisted living, need wheelchairs or breathing aids. Of course, we’ve had our ups and downs. Everything cycles in life, even the level of happiness that you can share and enjoy. So, it’s not surprising that two months prior to our 59th anniversary, I would wonder, after all these years, what are the primary lessons I’ve learned, regarding what it takes to make a marriage work? I had no idea that I’d have to dig beneath the surface to identify three primary lessons we had to learn in order to make our marriage last successfully. When the answers did emerge, they didn’t seem romantic or sweet enough. They consisted of three practical steps, not at all similar to the feelings in the movie, “On Golden Pond”. Nevertheless, I believe they can help each of you to celebrate your 50+ anniversary in a romantic trattoria somewhere in the world. So, let me try to share my three R’s for a long term, successful marriage.
1. Take Responsibility.
When I recall the arguments I engaged in during my marriage, I realize that many of them occurred because I found it too difficult to accept responsibility for my own actions and feelings. Instead, my
behavior was designed to help me avoid being a bad, weak, scared, or inadequate guy. I didn’t want to see the real me and I did everything I could to avoid having my spouse see him. As a result, I couldn’t be honest with her. It was more important to ensure that I had her love and approval than it was to speak my mind or express my honest desires. I couldn’t risk hurting her. On other occasions, I compensated 180º. I attempted to control her through manipulation and persuasion, in order to have her agree with my opinions. I was too emotionally weak to take responsibility for who I was, what I believed, or what I wanted. The end result; I wasn’t proud of myself and my partner never realized that my behavior, whether it was capitulatory, hurtful or controlling, was really designed to have her love and view me as worthy of her. It will be the same for you, unless you learn to take responsibility for who you are.
2. React Out of Your Desires, Instead of Your Fears.
Letting your desires instead of your fears govern your behavior is difficult to do. It’s easier to hide behind the facts as long as they’re your facts. That way you’re never wrong. What you say is what you hear and what you hear is what happened. Consequently, you rarely deal with the real issues. Instead, you argue about whose reality is right. Your arguments are similar to a soldier fighting a war without any knowledge of why the war he’s engaged in is being fought. Think of this example: You get upset at work, see yourself as a failure, and fear that you’ll be fired. Then you go home and search for every flaw you can find in your spouse. The battle is, “You didn’t clean the house”, or “You forgot to pick up my laundry”, etc. It has nothing to do with your real feelings or fears. Your criticisms are viewed by your partner as put-downs and are interpreted as “He doesn’t love me”, when, in fact, it’s your way of saying “I need help. I feel inadequate and unworthy of your love and I’m afraid you’ll reject me. I’m trying to show you that you’re not perfect, either.” That’s what the war is really about. Only when you can take responsibility for yourself and live in your own reality can your relationship truly thrive. You see, no matter how clean that house is, or what she cooks, it won’t make you feel better. What you need is reassurance that you’re loved and cared for in spite of your fears. You also need to be aware that this love is forthcoming in spite of your unacceptable behavior. The rule is: you can never know if you’re truly loved for who or what you are unless you can overcome your fears, accept responsibility and share your reality with those you would have love you.
In a paper I wrote years ago, I said that the greatest gift we can give our partner is reality; our own and theirs. When you live in a marriage either too frightened to reveal who you are or to tell your spouse who you feel they are, you can’t help but live with resentment and anger towards them and yourself. The end result is you can’t live with either of you. The only alternative is to invite reality to be your constant companion.
3. Rid Yourself of Anger and Resentment.
When you harbor either feeling, it obliterates any feelings of warmth. The only way you can ever reach a point where you’re no longer mad at yourself or your spouse is when you are able to see your reality, own it, accept it and say “In spite of my weaknesses, my fears, my inadequacies, I deserve to be loved. Because of that, I don’t need to hide. I can risk sharing me with my spouse, partner and friends and, hopefully, they will accept me for me.”
By taking these steps, you’ll come to see that, before you can effectively live with someone else, you have to learn to successfully deal with yourself. Accepting that axiom will lead you to a second realization. That marriage, like life, is not an event, it’s a process. You must live it, remembering every day, that you can’t always do it perfectly. Thus, you must learn to take credit for today’s successes and try to correct yesterday’s mistakes. Think of it in terms of making a commitment to stop drinking, start a diet, or exercise. Imagine that you begin the process and initially you do beautifully. Then the holidays arrive and you blow it. From then on, you say “the hell with it, it’s over”, and you eat or drink yourself into oblivion. It’s the typical reaction. However, a healthier alternative is “I really blew it yesterday, but I’m going to do it right today”. It’s the approach you must follow for your entire lifetime. One that, almost sixty years later, will help you to recognize that your spouse and your marriage are still worthwhile.