Discover more from Fern and Joe
Fern and Joe: Mawage is wot bwings us togeder today...
Fern: Let’s talk about marriage.
Fern: Yes our marriage. But also marriage in general. Like what makes a marriage work?
Joe: Mawage! When you repeat the word like that, I think of “The Princess Bride” and the phonetically challenged bishop: Mawage! That was a great movie. I must have watched “The Princess Bride” a dozen times.
Fern: So what do you think makes a successful marriage?
Joe: Successful? Well, staying together, for one thing. Which my parents managed to do. Although I did not think they had a particularly good marriage.
Fern: Why not?
Joe: It’s a long, complicated story, an arranged marriage without a whole lot of romance. I have way too many memories of lying in my bed as a kid, listening to them quarrel. Mom was poor, one of seven sisters in the old country when she was married off to my father who was twenty-five years older.
Fern: My parents fell in love, married young. To hear my father tell it, he knew she was the one on a very first date. On their fifty-fifth anniversary I asked my mother what she thought made their marriage work and her answer was interesting. She said: “Daddy always let me do exactly what I wanted.”
Joe: He let her do what she wanted?
Fern: Well, my mother usually did what she wanted. She decided where they lived, what house they bought, where they went on vacation. But it was the 1950’s. So she consulted with my dad. And made it like he was the one making the decision. I remember that from my childhood. “Let’s ask your father.” But in retrospect it seems like only a formality. Also he adored her. That helps.
Joe: In my parents’ marriage, my mother didn’t have a lot of say. In fact, their marriage as a whole didn’t really show me a successful pattern to follow in my own first marriage. I think we also come with built-in expectations or roles from our place in the family. Birth order, for instance. This may sound a little weird, but it’s an idea that immediately clicked with me the moment I read about it. There’s a theory that your birth order—eldest child, middle child, baby—plays an important role in the expectations you bring to marriage. Two eldest children, for example might find themselves in a constant struggle around who’s going to run things. My first wife was the baby in her family, and I was the baby in mine. I think, on a psychological level, we were each expecting our marriage partner to treat us like the baby of the family. So when grownup duties arose, our inner “babies” resented having to assume responsibility.
Fern: As a second marriage for both of us, we learned some things from our first marriages. But I was not wary about getting married again. Were you?
Joe: Not for a second.
Fern: Should we have been?
Joe: By the time we got together I’d been single for seven years. During those years I spent a lot of time in therapy, where I was exposed to practices I ought to have learned as a child. When you and I met, I knew myself much better than when I met my first wife. So, the answer is no. I had no doubts at all. I felt lucky to find someone who really “got” me.
Fern: And I thought: here’s a really good man. Kind. Funny. I knew you’d never cheat on me. That was a biggie for me. Also you were a good cook.
Maybe I should have been daunted by the fact that you had custody of the kids. But I wasn’t. I had confidence: “We can do this.”
Joe: My girls were ten and thirteen when we got married. For seven years it had been just the two of them and me. So there were times in those first years of our marriage. . .
Fern: I’m not saying there weren’t some rough times. Being a step-parent is hard. And I wasn’t used to being the strict one. Parents often play good cop/bad cop. That was the scenario in my first marriage. Believe me, it’s a lot easier being the good cop.
Joe: I’ve always had trouble saying no. I still do. So in that sense, you were the boss.
Fern: I remember Katie taunting you. “Oh, you’ll always do whatever Fern wants.”
Joe: That sounds like Katie. But she was right about that. I told her, yes I go along with Fern on most things because she has good ideas. I think you still do.
Fern: Ok. That’s really what I wanted to bring up. About how a good marriage works. I recently found an article we read a long time ago. The title was: “Want the key to a long marriage, men? Ask your wife, she knows.”
Joe: Yes. I remember you liked that article quite a lot. You put it up on the bulletin board in the kitchen.
Fern: The gist was that the one thing in common that good marriages had in common – beyond physical attraction, financial stability, being a good listener was . . . You remember?
Joe: Well I’m looking at it again now. Where’d you find this? It came out in the Los Angeles Times more than fifteen years ago. When we still read real newspapers.
Fern: It quoted a study of over 130 newlywed couples over six years in an effort to find ways to predict both marital success and failure. Being a “good listener” of each other – listening, being something that marriage counseling always stressed -- was not even one of the predictors. But the study showed that marriages that worked well all had one thing in common.
Joe: And that was?
Fern: That the husband was willing to give in to the wife. That the autocratic husbands who “failed to listen to their wives, who greeted them with contempt or belligerence were doomed from the beginning.”
Joe: So the wife is the boss? That’s your paradigm?
Fern: Not that alone. It says that “women who couched complaints in gentle, soothing ways” or were even “humorous in their approach” were more likely to have happy marriages.
Joe: In other words: these wives weren’t harpies.
Fern: I don’t even know what a “harpy” is. Where does that word come from?
Joe: Greek mythology. They were half-woman, half-bird.
Fern: And so could peck to death some poor schlub?
Joe: That is the image.
Fern: Let’s not end this discussion with that. Especially when we’re talking about happy marriages. The article said that the best advice from psychologists is really simple: Just do what your wife says. Go ahead and give in to her.
Joe: I agree.
Fern: I thought you would.
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