Saturday, September 10, 2016
How to Stay Married for Fifty Odd Years
Katja and I had our fifty-sixth wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago. We celebrated by going out to dinner at our favorite seafood restaurant on the river. When I made the reservation, I told the maitre d’ it was our anniversary, and our twentysomething waitress, Ricki, wondered which number it was. She was very impressed when we told her. She said she’d never met anyone who was married for fifty-six years. In her family, she said, everyone gets divorced by age forty, and she’s always wanted to learn the secrets of long marriages. We were stumped for suggestions at the time, but, now that I’ve had more time to think about it, I’ve come up with a number of tips that I could give to Ricki if we see her again.
(1) Show your affection with gifts
Giving gifts is a good way to show love and affection. Katja is actually much better at this than I am, though I’ve shown signs of improving. My best success was last Valentine’s Day. When I heard the doorbell ring, I looked on the porch, and there was a long box from the florist addressed to Katja. She opened it up, and there were a dozen red roses and a card that said, “Happy Valentine’s Day from David”. Since I had no recollection of ordering flowers, this was sort of upsetting. Katja explained that the roses were a gift from our public radio station in response to her donation, and she’d requested that they send the Valentine’s Day roses in my name. Katja thanked me enthusiastically, but I felt uneasy about claiming credit. Guilty that my wife has to send my Valentine’s gifts to herself, I went down the street and bought a frilly card and a $20 box of dark chocolates from Graeter’s. This time Katja was truly surprised, and she said it was the best Valentine’s Day ever. Thanks to N.P.R. for getting me on the right track.
(2) Act more like a boyfriend than a husband
When you go to the Olive Garden and see the gray-haired couples who’ve been been married for fifty years, they usually don’t look that great — gloomy, mute, avoiding eye contact. It’s much better to pretend that you’re still dating. I realized this a couple of weeks ago when Katja and I went to the grocery store. Our usual routine is for each of us to take our own carts and get our own respective stuff (e.g., for me, three bottles of Merlot, 6 oz. of rasberries, a box of high fiber cereal). On this particular outing I finished first, went through the checkout line, put my purchases in the car, and then returned and joined Katja as she was completing her purchase. She was in the same checkout lane that I’d used five minutes earlier. While Katja paid the bill, I took her groceries out to the parking lot. Katja later recounted that the cashier had asked her, “Am I hallucinating, or did your boyfriend already go through my line just a while ago?” Katja confirmed that I had and that I usually finish more quickly than she does. The cashier said, “Yeah, my boyfriend and I are the same way, only he takes longer than me.” At first I was flattered that the cashier had mistaken me for Katja’s boyfriend. Then I wondered if she is a little coo-coo.
(3) Celebrate your special married holidays together (maybe even twice)
Along with Valentine’s Day and birthdays, you can also celebrate your marriage on World Marriage Day (mid-February), Wife Appreciation Day (the third Sunday in September), Husband Appreciation Day (the third Saturday in April), Mother’s Day (late May), Father’s Day (mid-June), Sweetheart Day (mid-October), and National Grandparents Day (mid-September). When I woke up on June 12 this year, Katja said that she was going to make Swedish pancakes for me in honor of Father’s Day. I’d just been dreaming about breakfast at Frisch’s, so we went there instead. Normally I order the #1 breakfast (two fried eggs, etc.), but I decided to celebrate Father’s Day with a Spanish omelet. We sat and read the newspaper and had a leisurely time. As we got up to go, I commented that it was strange that the newspaper didn’t make a single mention of Father’s Day. Katja said it’s because it’s such a low-key holiday. Just to be sure, I called Siri on my iPhone and asked her the date of Father’s Day. “Sunday, June nineteenth,” Siri replied in her pleasant voice. June nineteenth? We were a week ahead of ourselves. At first I felt foolish, but then I felt good about getting to celebrate Father’s Day twice. On the real Father’s Day I opted for Swedish pancakes.
(4) A little jealousy is a good thing
Even after fifty plus years you shouldn’t take marriage for granted, and it’s a good sign to be a little jealous once in a while. I was getting ready to leave with Katja for our Tuesday morning “Learning in Retirement” class at the University when I noticed her attire. She was wearing her black T-shirt which said “Take a Chance on Romance” and was decorated with hearts and kissing lips. She’d actually gotten the shirt several decades ago from her Romance Languages department who were using it as a promotional device for their major, but you’d only know that by reading the fine print. I asked Katja if she thought it was a good idea to wear a T-shirt to our classes which invited romance. She said yes, that our classmates were so old that they wouldn’t know the difference. Then she described how a woman and a man in our class had met there recently and now were dating. I wasn’t thrilled about Katja promising Romance to the public at large, but what’s a husband supposed to do?
(5) Be good money managers
Money, of course, is a major source of conflict and strain in marriage. We settled that problem long ago by having Katja take charge of all major purchases. Except for the grocery store and the gas station, I rarely spend more than two dollars at a time, mostly at the thrift shop. Lucky for us, Katja is excellent at scouting out bargains. For example, a while back I decided to go to the antique mall to take some photos and asked Katja if she’d like to come along. I finished in about half an hour and found Katja just as she was leaving a booth with 9 or 10 cookbooks in her arms. The sign said 20% off if you buy two or more. We already have shelves full of cookbooks at home, and I asked Katja how much these were. She said they were 20% off. “20% off of what?” I asked. She said $20 apiece, though some were $10 or even $5. In a mild state of shock, I protested that she had picked out $150 of used cookbooks. Just then the dealer walked up and explained what excellent cookbooks these were. Embarrassed, I wandered off. As we left the mall, I asked how much she wound up spending, and she said $46. I was very relieved. I figured that my protest had saved us over a hundred dollars, and Katja had saved an additional ten dollars with her 20% discount. That’s practically like making money.
(6) Support the finer things in life
Having a happy marriage includes enjoying and contributing to the finer things in life. Katja’s parents were classical music devotees, and she grew up attending the Philadelphia Orchestra and the opera. I myself am pretty much a low culture type, leaning more toward country singers and boogie-woogie. Nonetheless, we have been going to the Cincinnati Opera since we came to the city fifty years ago. I was surprised at a performance of Tosca this summer when I noticed that the program’s list of “Opera Patrons” included our names. I’d never imagined myself to be a patron. Apparently it involves giving a donation larger than all of my personal expenditures combined for the last five years. I asked Katja about it during the intermission. She said not to worry about it, that it all adds up — e.g., her Opera Guild membership, tickets to the Opera Gala, various other donations, perhaps even the price of our season tickets. After recovering for a few hours, I decided that it was quite something to be an Opera Patron. I would never have accomplished that on my own.
(7) Be generous toward the less fortunate
It’s admirable to contribute to the arts, but there are many other deserving charities as well. I’m always amazed when we get our income taxes done because Katja routinely brings along a couple of single-spaced pages listing donations that she’s made during the year. Katja recently gave me some stamped envelopes to take down the street to the post office, and I noticed that one of them was addressed to the Paraplegic Firefighters of Ohio (pseudonym). I asked what it was, and she said it was a check for her yearly donation. I said, before we mailed it, I’d just like to look up Paraplegic Firefighters on the internet. It turned out that 80% of their donations go to administrative and fund-raising expenses, only 20% to firefighters. Katja was taken aback and tore up her check. Two weeks later she asked me to look into “Homeless Iraq War Veterans”, another favorite charity she’d given to annually in the past. It was worse. The top four administrators paid themselves $800,000 a year. Homeless veterans received zero dollars, and Congress was currently conducting an investigation. Katja agreed that it was good practice to check out charities. If we’re lucky, our income tax charity list might drop to a single page.
(8) Be competent around the house
When Katja goes out of town, I’m always pleased that I’m so self-sufficient in the house. During her most recent trip I cooked my own meals (using my well-honed microwave abilities), put most of my dirty clothes in the laundry bin, and fastidiously sorted out recyclable items from the rest of the trash. I wasn’t able to make coffee in the morning, but solved that by going to the United Dairy Farmers store. Everything else went well until the last day when I set about to do the dishes that had accumulated in the sink. Unsure how to operate the dishwasher, I decided to do them by hand. Much to my chagrin, it appeared that we had no hot water in the sink. I pushed the vertical faucet handle all the way back as I always do, but, even after I let it run for several minutes, it didn’t get any hotter. I decided to wash and rinse the dishes in cold water. Once I’d finished the job, I fiddled with the sink faucet a little more. When I pulled it forward, lo and behold, the hot water started coming out. It seems I had just gotten the faucet directions backwards. I guess this means that, after forty years of living in our house, I need a refresher on how various things work. I’ll definitely be ready for Katja’s next vacation.
(9) Balance one another out
Marriages are more lively when spouses are different from one another, and that’s definitely true of Katja and myself. I’m more inhibited, Katja’s more expansive; I’m stingier, she’s more extravagant; I’m more cautious, she’s more adventuresome; etc. The trick is to balance one another out. I’m reminded of this each morning when I go upstairs after breakfast. First I go in the bedroom and turn off the radio, the fan, the ceiling light, and the bedside reading light. Likewise for lights and fan in the bathroom, the ceiling light in the hallway, and sometimes the TV in the den. Then I turn the air conditioner thermostat up from 70 to 73. A while later Katja will come back upstairs, turn the air conditioner down, and turn all the electricity back on. She’s a turner-onner; I’m a turner-offer. It’s a good balance. If it were just up to me, we would live in a silent, dark space in stifling temperatures.
(10) Be prepared to sacrifice
Stable marriages require self-sacrifice. Some time ago I complained to a childhood friend via email that Katja doesn’t seem interested in camping any more, and my friend explained to me that, unlike men, most adult women don’t enjoy camping. This was a surprising idea. Needless to say, I was delighted this summer when Katja suggested that we follow our Menominee visit with a camping trip in the U.P. That’s exactly what we did. The first night went well, and, with the help of an Ambien, we enjoyed a good night’s rest. The second night, Katja’s sleeping bag slipped off the air mattress, and she spent most of the night on the ground. The third night her air mattress leaked, and she wound up spending another night on the ground. I exchanged mattresses with her on the fourth night, but, even so, we both wound up sleeping on the ground on our flat air mattresses. The fifth night, Katja took charge and we stayed in a motel. I was amazed that she didn’t complain that much about our sleeping circumstances. At the end of our trip I asked if she’d like to go camping again sometime. She said she would, as long as we go camping in Jamaica or southern France.
All in all, I think these are some very good tips for Ricki and would help her to stay married for at least fifty years. I do realize that Katja’s been better at almost all of these things than I have, and she deserves most of the credit for our longevity. However, that gives me something to work on for the next decade.