Relationship do’s and don’ts: Lessons from 40 years of marriage

Paul Schoenfeld reflects on what he’s learned about relationships after four decades with his wife.

On Dec. 18, Diane and I will have been married for 40 years.

Wow! Where did all that time go? It seems like a lifetime ago that we got married in her parent’s living room, surrounded by family and friends. It was a small, inexpensive wedding by today’s standards, but everyone was as happy and as celebratory as if at a bigger one.

As I reflect back on these 40 years, I have learned important lessons that I’d like to share with you. As my wife would agree, I am a slow learner and I can be very stubborn. So anything I do figure out takes me a long time, after making the same mistake over and over again.

Here’s a few do’s and don’ts I’ve finally learned:

Don’t take your partner for granted. Over the course of your relationship, there are months at a time when family or work demand our complete time and attention. During those periods, it seemed like Diane and I passed by each other with barely a nod. But we always came back to each other, recognizing that we wanted and needed to connect. During those times, when you feel neglected, don’t get angry at your loved one. Instead, let them know how much you miss them and how important they are to you. Focus on your desire to be closer, not on your frustration about being distant.

Don’t go to bed angry. It always amazes me how something minor can turn into something big! We don’t argue about the important things, but we sure can get steamed up over the small stuff. These disagreements can go downhill when we we’re tired or hungry. But Diane and I stay up into the wee hours hashing something out until we find our way through it. Then we make up, apologize and go to sleep.

Don’t give up on the important things. Most frequently, couples argue about one or more of the Big Five — kids, money, sex, in-laws and housework. Diane and I often disagreed about the kids, having been raised very differently. That was our biggest source of conflict. When we had a disagreement, we didn’t give up on each other. It might take us weeks to find a compromise — but we persisted.

Don’t take offense. And if you do, be quick to forgive — so says my 98-year-old friend, Dixie. Sigh. Just because your partner does something that’s insensitive, thoughtless or selfish, it’s not necessary to take offense. We can, but we don’t have to. Most of the time, we do things that upset our loved one without the intent to hurt or frustrate them. Cut each other some slack!

Do celebrate the important stuff. What’s important in your relationship? For me, it was our family (we both loved having kids), our love, and our shared sense of purpose and meaningw.

Do accept your partner for who she is. Opposites attract — and then spend the next 20 years trying to make their partner into a mirror image of themselves. Love your partner for who they are, not for who you think they could become. That doesn’t mean that you have to like everything about them! Your loved one can change their behavior, with much difficulty, if they want to change. But we can’t change our basic personality.

Do know when to keep your thoughts to yourself. Our minds are chock full of judgements, comparisons and petty criticisms of others. But how important are most of those thoughts that pass through our head? Most of this internal dialogue doesn’t have to see the light of day.

Do connect every day. When you come home and you behold your loved one, stop what you are doing. Give them a hug, look into their eyes and connect — if even for one moment before you go back to peeling potatoes or responding to a text. Make that a ritual no matter what’s happening in your life.

Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found

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