When my wonderful friend Gill Othen celebrated her 33rd wedding anniversary in August, she added this comment on Facebook: "It's funny — very few of my 'gang' at Durham have divorced, yet there seem to be very few people my age who haven't been otherwise."
I asked her for a guest post, then I clumsily never noticed it slip into my inbox until now, almost 3 weeks later! I am posting it right now, because I know lots of you read this blog over the weekend. Enjoy!
How did we do it?
Last month my husband and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary. That's amethyst, in case you're interested. We weren't. A solid amethyst tea service (we are English, after all) wouldn't suit our décor, and anything less than that would have been chickening out. In any case, according to Wikipedia, it's only a modern US thing, along with improved real estate for the 42nd and desk sets for the 7th, so we were excused participation. We had a meal out and one of our daughters was home for the weekend. What more could you want?
Well, lots more really, I suppose — wealth beyond imagining, a mansion big enough to hold all the books in the world, instant matter transporter so I could see my friends all over the planet. But none of those are going to happen, and our lives won't be impoverished without them. We know what we want by now, and what suits us. We know each other well enough to be aware when something material is important enough to fight for, and when it really isn't. Each of us has a quirk — I have to convince myself that I really want a particular purchase first. If I succeed there — and it's hard, because I argue back a lot — then I can persuade my husband, no problem. And vice versa. Each of us tends to see the mild wishes of the other as more important than our own, which helps a lot — except when we become fixated that our partner must have what was only a passing whim.
So, how did we get here? Firstly, we chose our families well. We had role models in front of us: our parents stayed married for 39 and 49 years respectively, ending only with the death of one partner. None of our relatives had break-ups either — not even our own generation of siblings and cousins. A presumption that marriage is for the long haul and that problems are there to be worked through is no bad thing to have, we've found.
We chose our friends the same way. Not that we knew it at the time — we were just a bunch of geeky students together in the magnificent cathedral city of Durham, with a lot of shared interests and shared senses of humour. We dated in different combinations, but, somehow, many of us paired off within the group, which has stayed close enough over the intervening three and a half decades for us to know all about key events in each other's lives. None of them have been divorces.
Am I sounding smug? I don't mean to be. We are very, very lucky as a group. I think I can identify a few common factors, though. We met each other through a common interest and found others. We were all in our late teens, hormones coursing through us like nobody's business, with single rooms in our colleges and precious little impediment to any activities we chose, when we chose. We lived in close proximity to each other; Durham doesn't have a campus as such, but colleges grouped together in two areas, with an enormous amount of traffic between them. We shared other things too — our backgrounds were different, sometimes very much so, but we all enjoyed learning, and not just about our own subjects. We shared knowledge, information, understanding as well as jokes. Sharing is important in any relationship, I think.
We all waited before getting married; all of us were "an item" for at least two years, in several cases more than four years before marriage. You can't keep parts of your temperament secret for that long. You are going to lose your temper, make a fool of yourself, get stupidly drunk — you will reveal something of the worst of yourself as well as the best. If a relationship survives several years of this before marriage it has a good chance of surviving many years longer.
We stayed in touch — we always had friends at the end of a phone who had known us as singles, who knew both of us, who could listen without judging. And when the children came along, as they did, we stayed close still, with holidays en masse and offspring who grew up as extra cousins of each other. When my father died, these friends gave me the space to talk — and not to talk. The same when my father-in-law died. We could share the burden with a spouse but also with a friend. A support network, even online or on the telephone, makes a heck of a difference when things are rocky.
It's not been a serene idyll. There's been unemployment, more than one, mental and emotional issues, worries about parents and children, money and housing. We had to move house, away from friends, jobs, networks, once with small children to protect through upheavals. What got us through the rough parts? We talked. A lot. And, even more important, listened — not just to the words. The set of a shoulder can tell a story if you observe closely enough, and so can the curve of a back. Sometimes silent presence or a hug is all that is needed, sometimes gentle questions. Sometimes, because we are far from perfect, a blazing row was needed, before apologies from both sides and a halting start on talking it through.
We talk about lots of things, though. Shared TV viewing — "Dr Who" or "Torchwood", my regrettable love for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", the science and history programmes we both adore. Politics and the news; our summer holiday in Italy this year was enlivened by fascination with scandals in the media. Our shared passion for history and travel; he knows way more than I do about castles and fortifications, but I know about the people who lived in them and the languages they spoke. It works for us. We both still enjoy learning, though we do it in different ways. And share what we have learned, what matters to us, why we want to know.
So, after just over 33 years, I consider myself incredibly lucky. I am that cliché — married to my best friend. Wish us luck for the next 33 years!
Much to learn from Gill, her husband, and their gang of college friends, whose marriages have all weathered many storms. Please join me in wishing them another 33 years of mutual support and friendship.