We’ve Been Married for 20 Years and Don’t Hate Each Other. Here’s How We Do It.
Go to bed angry, appreciate each other out loud, and other lessons
Co-authored by Rob Cottingham
It’s our 20th wedding anniversary. This feels like both a blessing and an achievement, and we wanted to celebrate by sharing what we’ve learned — and what we’ve recognized in retrospect — about how to make a marriage work over the long haul.
The truth is, happiness in marriage is largely a function of choosing the right person in the first place. (It tells you a lot about our compatibility that we both thought that writing a marriage guide would be a fun way to spend our anniversary.) But once you’ve found that person, there’s still plenty that goes into the care and feeding of the relationship.
How to find the one
For those of you who are looking, here’s what we think matters.
Go for similar tastes, but opposite temperaments. We both love Star Trek, vivid colors, technology, and progressive politics. That makes it easy to decide what to watch, how to decorate, what to spend our money on, and which causes to invest in. But in terms of temperaments, we’re opposites: Alex is intense and high energy, while Rob is easygoing and relaxed. This combination means we complement each other, and don’t have too many things to quarrel over.
One thing those similar tastes can give you is a shared cultural vocabulary. We can express our feelings about a given situation with a reference to a Friends scene or a Battlestar Galactica character. (Why, it’s like that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Enterprise encounters a civilization that speaks entirely in references to stories from their past.)
Prioritize character. When Alex was young and single, she wanted to find a partner who was both smart and funny — “good person” wasn’t even on her radar. It was dumb luck that the smartest, funniest person she’s ever met also turns out to be the kindest and most decent person she’s ever met. But it turns out that in the long run, being married to a really good person is incredibly important — more so than any of that other stuff.
Lay out your intentions at the start. We were friends for several years before we got together romantically, but once we had our first kiss, we got serious about our intentions very quickly, and talked about the possibility of marriage and kids before we even had what you’d consider a first date. In part, that was because we were on opposite sides of the continent: It only made sense to start a transcontinental romance if we were both looking for the same things. But the fact that we put all our cards on the table right at the outset dispelled a lot of the insecurities that can lead to bad behavior, and bad habits, from the early days of a relationship. Neither of us had to wonder whether the other person was really serious, and that meant neither of us held back out of anxiety or insecurity.
Believe in the work that the other person is doing. Rob believes in the work Alex does as a writer, helping people understand and navigate this wildly changing world. Alex believes in Rob’s work for progressive political parties and labor unions, and loves that he’s still fighting the good fight. The fact that we understand the importance of each other’s work means that negotiations over who’ll work late or who will feed the kids isn’t just a matter of trading favors: We’re each trying to enable work we deeply believe in.
Pick a good roommate. Yes, a romantic partnership should be about love and sex and shared values, but if you’re planning to live together, you are also looking at a lifelong roommate. So much of our marriage is facilitated by the fact that we are compatible roommates: We are both pretty messy (though getting better) and most comfortable when surrounded by the maximum number of screens and devices.
How to make it work
We suspect that at least 80% of our happiness is due to just being well-suited to one another. But that fundamental fit has allowed us to develop and cultivate good habits that have sustained our marriage over the long haul. Here’s what we think makes a difference.
Make fighting the exception. We rarely have big fights. There are only two or three occasions a year when we actually yell at one another, and in the entire course of our marriage, we’ve had fewer than five really big, multi-day, extended conflicts. That’s because we rarely indulge in the little snippy conflicts that can snowball into bigger resentments, or fuel a habit of conflict. It’s not that we never have disagreements — we probably point out an issue to one another every day or so — but usually, we make it a point to quickly resolve them and move on. Most often, disputes are in the manner of, “Hey, can you please make a point of hanging the dog leash on the back of the door? It’s driving me crazy that I never know where it is,” followed by, ”Sure, I’ll try to remember.”
Go to bed angry. When we do fight, we don’t worry about the “never go to bed angry” rule. Often when we quarrel it’s partly driven by fatigue, so it’s better to go to sleep than to keep arguing. It’s a lot easier to admit we’re wrong once we’ve had a night’s sleep.
Keep your sex life private. We share so much of our marriage and family life on Facebook and Twitter — though always asking one another for permission before posting — that it often feels like social media is an extension of our marriage. But there’s one part of our marriage we don’t talk about online, or with anyone other than our closest friends and therapists: our sex life. Other than making it clear that yes, we still do get it on (something that people seem to find very reassuring in a long-married couple), we keep our sex life private. That’s because the most important role of sex in this stage of our marriage is the way it fosters a sense of intimacy, and it can’t do that if we’re sharing the details beyond the bedroom.
Recognize your roles. At some point, we realized that we were meshing well on the household front because we’d taken on very distinct roles suited to our strengths: Rob as director of operations, and Alex as director of special projects. Rob finds satisfaction in the clarity and regularity of, say, washing dishes and taking out the recycling; Alex finds a certain bliss in envisioning and realizing change and transformation, whether it’s a new deck, a road trip (remember those?) or puzzling through the intricacies of a constantly evolving home media setup. And crucially, we each see the value in the work the other does.
Appreciate each other. It’s rare that we go a day without each of us taking a moment to thank or praise the other person for some small thing: “Thank you so much for putting away all the laundry!” or “Hey, I overheard you on your Zoom call, and you were killing it!” This isn’t just about how nice it is to hear these things: The habit of appreciating each other out loud really reinforces the habit of feeling lucky to be together. And in those moments of self-doubt we all have, a few kind words are often all it takes to get back on track.
Rejoice in the unit. Many years ago a friend passed along the wisdom that to make a marriage work once you have kids, the parents’ marriage always needs to be the foundational, primary relationship in the family. As it turns out, that wasn’t the approach that felt right to us. The relationships we each have with the kids, and the relationship between the kids, feel just as fundamental to our family dynamic. We really feel like a tight four-person unit, but far from undermining our marital bond, that four-person unit feels like it reinforces our commitment to each other and our sense that we are in this together.
Make each other better. We fundamentally admire one another, particularly in the ways we’re different. Those differences have helped inspire each of us to work on the things we admire in the other person: Alex has become kinder and more patient, thanks to Rob’s good influence. Rob has become more emotionally open, a little less prone to second-guessing himself, and a lot more likely to ignore the directional arrows in a parking lot thanks to Alex. There’s nothing like knowing the other person makes you a better person to fuel your commitment to the relationship.
Have fun. In both the wonderful times and the hard times, humor has been an incredible way of reconnecting: Whenever we laugh together, we immediately feel closer. Whether we’re just goofing around with some silly puns or pranking our friends, humor is the lifeblood of our relationship. It’s a great joy of being together.
Make your marriage a community. From the day of our wedding, our relationship and our family have been supported by a community of wonderful people who make us feel like we’re doing something right. We feel so lucky to have a circle of friends who make us better people, and better partners for one another. We’re grateful to them for being with us through this first 20 — and onward to the next.