Back when we became engaged, our news was also greeted with baffled curiosity. It was the ’70s, after all, when the freedom to be able to hop from one relationship to the next was as essential as anything in the Bill of Rights. Our friends were profoundly perplexed; nobody, they thought, could want a fondue set that badly. We had already been together three years at that point, pretty much ever since I turned around at the orientation meeting for new history graduate students and saw her in her granny dress. (As I say, it was a long time ago.) Our feelings about marriage may have been shaped by our pursuit of such a traditional area of study. Perhaps our attitudes would have been different had either of us been in gender studies.
Of course, back then no one had heard of gender studies.
The surprise that now greets us at the fact that we’ve managed to stay married so long — as opposed to having shaken hands at some point and decided who kept the ice cream maker — is even more extreme. Friends you haven’t seen for a long time often inquire delicately about the spouse you had when they last saw you.
Being single is all about the future, about the person you’re going to meet at Starbucks or after answering the next scientific compatibility questionnaire. Being married, after a certain point, is about the past, about a steadily growing history of moments that provide a confidence of comfort, an asset that compounds over time. What you share is what you’ve shared, and measuring your communal property in decades puts you in a freakishly high bracket.
So this is what we are looking forward to. Our albums include pictures and letters from war zones, disaster areas, question and thoughts on dealing with risk. Questions about our careers. Engaged and sharing in the toil of our chosen paths. Learning to endure/appreciate/experience each others patterns, reactions and language (spoken and not).
And somehow we take each other. With both of us having edges adapted for environments with little tolerances, somehow we manage.
I am somewhat better with words than my wife is; she is infinitely better with people. In different ways, we translate each other to the rest of the world, and admire each other’s contrasting language skills. Being married to someone you respect for being somehow better than you keeps affection alive. That this impressive person chooses you year after year makes you more pleased with yourself, fueling the kind of mutual self-esteem that can get you through decades.
The other part, about how those decades change over time from obstacles into assets, is something my wife’s student will have to figure out for herself. It could take awhile.