August 7 marks the 50th wedding anniversary of Karen Lorraine Major and Roy Peter Clark. We were married in a small chapel on the campus of Providence College in Rhode Island. We had our honeymoon in Montreal. We have daughters born in New York, in Alabama and in Florida.
The rest of this essay is a kind of fiction based upon the idea that there are “secrets” to a long marriage and enduring love. I began compiling these in 2011, on the lead-up to our 40th anniversary. I published 100 of them on Facebook, mostly for fun.
They are framed as tips for straight men in traditional marriages because that is who I am and what I know. But I imagine there are a few gold coins in the mix for any person in any kind of committed relationship. If not, I invite you to write your own.
Here are the first 25. I hope they work for you, make you think or make you laugh.
Secret No. 1: She may not be right, but she’s never wrong. Your male competitive juices may drive you to tell her she’s wrong about where to take your vacation. This is a huge mistake, which is to be avoided at all cost. The more she thinks that you think she’s right, especially if you validate her position, the happier she will make you feel.
Secret No. 2: She wants you to listen to her. But more, she wants you to demonstrate you are listening. Guys can read, watch TV, check their phones and listen at the same time. Women don’t buy it. Have a protocol for listening. When she asks a question, say, “Wait a minute, honey,” put down the cellphone, fold the paper, click the TV off, turn and look her in the eye and say, “Now what were you saying, sweetie?”
Secret No. 3: When she comes to you with a problem, don’t fix it. That’s a guy thing. Women don’t need you to fix their problems. They want you to listen, and they need for you to validate their feelings. So when Karen would complain about a boss, I’d say, “Oh, man, he said what? That sucks! I can see why you are so angry.” Validation, not solutions.
Secret No. 4: Praise her in public. It’s one thing to say, “This lasagna is delicious” to her. That gets you one point. But to say at a restaurant table of 10: “This is good, but not half as good as Karen’s” gets you 10 points. My worst hubby moments were when I blurt criticism of her in front of others. Bad, bad, bad. Tell stories that cast her in the best light.
Secret No. 5: Send flowers to her workplace randomly, not just on obvious special occasions. Have them delivered midweek, so she can show them off till Friday. Include a warm message, but don’t sign it. Leave a little mystery. Any schmo can send her flowers on Valentine’s Day. Better to send them ... just because.
Secret No. 6: Call this one the Jim Naughton rule, after a beloved friend: “If she shows interest in it, even if she doesn’t buy it, buy it for her.” Of course, don’t break the bank. But there will be many times when she will deny herself something in the cause of being sensible. If you can afford it, buy it and surprise her with it.
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Secret No. 7: I’m an expert at this one because I suck at it. Karen has always done too much of the work around the house. I’m trying to help more, but I’m a slug. So I’ve started with a couple of absolute chores: Never see a pile of clothes on a bed without folding them, never walk past the dishwasher without unloading. And a magic question: “How can I help?” She seems to appreciate that. I know I gotta help more.
Secret No. 8: Neutralize little gripes with humor. The best lubricant in marriage is the ability to laugh with each other and at yourself. Karen can’t refrain from telling me what to do while I’m driving. It angered me until the day we decided to just assign numbers to my mistakes: “47” meant I hadn’t turned my blinker off. When she barked “17,” it meant I was driving in the middle of the road.
Secret No. 9: She gets the cool new stuff. If my car, which is older, dies, we’ll go shopping for a new car — for her. I’m happy to inherit hers. Same with our big-screen TV. It goes up on the wall where she likes to watch. I take the old TV and move it into my “man cave.” Now that our daughters are out of the house, Karen has her favorite space. I have mine.
Secret No. 10: Her enemy is my enemy! Karen got fired in a cruel way many years ago after she raised an ethical issue. Every time we drive past the house of her former boss, I fake-spit out the window: Ptooey! Now that’s the name we call her: Mrs. Ptooey. Mean to Karen? Dead to me. Good to her? I’m your new BFF.
Secret No. 11: Seek credit for your thoughtfulness. You can’t just do stuff for her, you’ve got to do stuff and tell her what you’ve done. “Honey, just put gas in your car to save you the trip.” Simple as that. Anytime she tells me about a little chore that she has to do, I do it for her if I have time and it’s something I can handle.
Secret No. 12: Praise her appearance every day. Pay special attention when she looks in the mirror. If she looks at herself with disapproval, make a preemptive strike. Focus praise on a single feature, her hair, her pedicure, her new sandals. Be careful responding to the most dangerous question: “Do you think this makes me look fat?” One response that works: “You always look prettier than anything you wear.”
Secret No. 13: Touch her — a lot. Touch her 10 times a day. Touch in public. Touch her hair, the back of her neck, down her spine. Rub her feet. Hold hands in the park, at the mall, in church. Squeeze her knee under the table. Scrub her back. Wash her hair. Touch her wherever she wants to be touched. Massage her shoulders when she’s reading. Couples who drift apart are the ones that don’t touch.
Secret No. 14: This is a tough one, guys. If you want her to know that she is No. 1, bite the bullet and share the remote. Women hate it when guys are channel promiscuous. You will need an escape hatch: at least two TVs in the house. We’ve got five!
Secret No. 15: Climb into the dumpster. Karen once threw away a letter in a dumpster and then needed it back. In I went. While I was digging around, someone tossed a can of garbage on top of me. I am no macho man, until it’s time to kill spiders in the tub, or pick up dead snakes in the yard, or separate crazed dog from the nasty possum. I found the letter! Let’s just say she was grateful.
Secret No. 16: Adopt a dog. A dog will make you laugh. (You can blame that bad smell on the dog.) A dog’s presence can be distracting in a good way. A pooch can fill some empty moments, bring you together in caring for it, lick your face and sniff your crotch when your spouse won’t, greet you at the door and look genuinely glad to see you.
Secret No. 17: Learn to cook something. I notice how gaga the ladies go over guys who can cook. I can see the look on women’s faces the first time they bite into Dave Angelotti’s Bananas Foster. Tonight, I cooked up a bunch of eggs with a yogurt parfait. It’s not the food, its the gesture that counts.
Secret No. 18: Say “thank you” — a lot. It took me a long time to learn this, and Karen taught me by example. I’d do some simple chore, like taking out the trash, and she’d say “Thanks, hon.” So now I’ll thank her for a meal, or for picking up my meds, or for some clean laundry. She seems surprised and delighted, and the “thank you” habit is the antidote for the poison of taking each other for granted.
Secret No. 19: Punish yourself! A bad hubby moment. My birthday. Request a coconut custard pie. She gets it wrong with a coconut cream. I pouted like a 2-year old. Doghouse. Next day: “I’m sorry. You have the right to be mad. Go ahead. Hit me in the face with the pie.” She got me good, with full twisting hand motion. Out of doghouse.
Secret No. 20: Sing to her at karaoke night. A woman told me: “Chicks dig confidence.” Forget talent. Sing for her. Dance for her, and with her. The more shy you are, the more powerful. Women can fake certain things. But men can fake confidence. So step up to the mike, cowboy. Song choice helps: Try “You are so beautiful ... to meeeee.” The more public, the more props you get.
Secret No. 21: At least once a year, come out of your room wearing a pair of her underpants on your head — at a jaunty angle. If she doesn’t laugh, file for divorce. You get extra points if you do it in front of company, say at Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve heard of guys who added a bra as earmuffs, but sometimes less is more. Come on, kids. If it ain’t fun it’s never gonna last.
Secret No. 22: Take care of her in every way you can so she has the energy to take care of the children in the best way she can. Of course, help with child care, but moms still tend to be primary caregivers. She is not your mother, she is the mother of your children. Don’t make her take care of you as an extra kid. Stay alert to when she needs a timeout or a day off, and not just on Mother’s Day.
Secret No. 23: Help her embrace imperfection. (After all, she married you!) Pretty good is good enough. Most families — ours, too — are profoundly dysfunctional. Pain comes not from messing up, but from maintaining the illusion that things are perfect. You wind up using your loving energy trying to keep secrets, rather than celebrating those moments when you do find the way.
Secret No. 24: Keep a lid on it! Guys need to keep secrets, lots of them, especially about what you are thinking. If women could turn our thoughts and memories into movies, no man could stay married. Here I prefer the Jewish to the Christian ethic. It should not be your thoughts that get you into trouble, only your actions. So zip your lips. What she can’t know won’t hurt her — or you.
Secret No. 25: Don’t fight about money — it’s not worth it. Good reasons to break up: abuse, addiction, infidelity. Money isn’t one of them. Karen and I can’t remember a single argument about it. We started off with a kid, an old car and about $1,000 in the bank. My first job: $11,400 a year. We’d rather be richer than poorer. But the rich are not like you and me: They worry more about moolah.