Since our personal relationships affect our careers, I added and updated this old blog post about marriage as a preview to next week’s post about divorce. I specialize in career transitions, and many of my clients are going through other transitions in their lives when they hire me.
Almost two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting this lovely couple; I’ll call them Fred and Jean. Fred was 96 years old; Jean was 92 years old. Except for some missing teeth, Fred was physically fit, and his mind remained sharp. He looked 20 years younger than his age. His wife Jean had all her teeth and maintained a lovely physique, but she had the beginning stages of dementia. They celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary in 2015.
Throughout their marriage, Jean went to the beauty shop every week to have her hair done. She always wanted to look her best for Fred. Now Fred took Jean to the hair salon every Thursday even though she didn’t know what day it was. When she arrived, she usually understood where she was and why she was there, but if Fred didn’t drive her, she would not remember to ask. He could view this task as a chore, but instead, he enjoyed himself. He flirted with the staff. He flirted with the customers. Along with a handshake, he gave me a wink and a smile. He reminded the stylist how Jean liked her hair. He bragged about his great grandchildren and his plans to take out his boat and fish that summer. Fred had a full life, but his number one priority was his wife Jean. His actions aside, you could tell just by the way he looked at her.
When I think about the longevity of their marriage, I remind myself Fred and Jean are from a different generation. They are not Millennials or Gen Xers like me. They are not even Baby Boomers or the Silent Generation. No, they are from the GI Generation (born 1901 – 1924) aka The Greatest Generation. Fred and Jean grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. They have seen and experienced more changes in our country during their lives than I ever will. They were married in 1941. Can you imagine what that must have been like? I can’t.
Today, I believe our expectations of marriage may be unrealistic or dead wrong. How many times have you heard that marriage is work? That’s crap. According to my father, marriage is understanding. According to Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus, marriage is compromise. In his book Marital Myths Revisited, he states, “Marriage calls for adjustment and readjustment, which is different from work. All good marriages are based on compromise.”
My (now) ex-husband and I read so many books about marriage. In addition, we went to counseling both separately and together. The announcement of our decision to divorce stunned many people. How I wish someone had given us Dr. Lazarus’s book as an engagement present. Some of the myths I believed were:
- Husbands and wives should be best friends.
- You have to work at a marriage.
- Don’t have sex when you’re angry.
- Be satisfied with what you’ve got.
Though I won’t list them, I know my ex-husband believed several other myths.
I’m willing to bet Fred and Jean never went to marriage counseling. I’m sure they have never heard of Dr. Lazarus’s book, which was first published in 1985. In fact, I doubt they have read any books about marriage. I am not saying their marriage has been perfect. I have no idea, but few marriages are. But given their age, I imagine they went into marriage with more realistic and simpler expectations than I did. They love and respect each other, but perhaps the longevity of their marriage is a product of their time.
Generation X aka the MTV Generation is considered the first generation of divorce. When asked by his Gen-X daughter Gwyneth how he and her mother Blythe Danner stayed married for 33 years, Bruce Paltrow replied, “Well, we never wanted to get divorced at the same time.” Both Bruce and Blythe were born in 1943, members of the Silent Generation. Bruce and Blythe’s marriage ended when he died in 2002.
I find Bruce’s response poignant because in any relationship, especially marriage, words matter. Like a dumbbell, they carry weight. My dad once warned me about saying the word divorce during an argument. Once you’ve said the ‘d’ word, it’s nearly impossible to take back. The problem is my parents divorced. My ex-husband’s parents divorced. Even though we both witnessed and suffered from being children of divorce, we understand it. Divorce is normal; it happens. I’ve been in three weddings, and all three couples are divorced. All three couples are Gen Xers like my ex-husband and me. Four out of six of them are children of divorce. Though divorce peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, lately it seems like every couple I know is getting a divorce. No matter how long they have been married, they all have two things in common: they are close to my age (i.e., Gen Xers), and one or both spouses are children of divorce. Yet, divorce has been declining for many years for many reasons.
After I met Fred and Jean, my head flooded with questions.
- Do they believe younger generations expect too much from marriage?
- Is their marriage a product of their time?
- Has the word divorce ever been said by either one of them?
- Has their marriage set an example for their children? Their grandchildren?
- If they could give one piece of advice about marriage, what would it be?
I wish I knew the answers.
The next time I’m invited to an engagement party, my gift will be Dr. Lazarus’s book.
P.S. Thoughts on marriage originally appeared on my old blog on 7/29/15 as my divorce was being finalized.