Until 1993, for 16 years I taught international relations at Georgetown University. In the concluding lecture of the year I used to share with my students some personal reflections to help them as they embarked upon their careers. Many were especially grateful for my advice about how to have a successful marriage. In this regard, I have always advised people to heed only marriage advice from those who are happily married. I consider myself especially well qualified as I have been exceedingly happy with my wife Joan for over 30 years. Here is what I told my students.
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Above all, you must deeply feel that this is truly the person for you. In addition to all the marriage criteria mentioned below, mutual physical attraction and overall compatibility are essential.
Only marry a true friend. This is essential. I have seen far too many marriages where couples only tolerate each other. This is beyond sad. There is a widespread, if mistaken, belief that genuine friendship can only be platonic. In fact, a true friendship can evolve into deep and abiding love to which I can attest, having married my best friend. It is, in any case, absolutely essential both to like and to love your spouse. Normally, good friends have the same values, basic beliefs, tastes, goals and much the same background. (This may seem politically incorrect, but it’s true.) Also a mutual sense of humor can add joy, harmony and balance to a marriage.
Age differences are not important. Most Americans marry someone in the same age bracket. This is generally an excellent idea, but there are other approaches. An ancient adage is that that a man should marry a woman half his age plus seven. I have found this to be quite valid in practice, since women generally mature earlier than men. Actually this rule applies to my marriage which could hardly be better or more harmonious. On the other hand, I have known very successful marriages where the wife is older than her husband, and in this country there have been countless millions of successful same-age marriages. Be open-minded.
Marriage is not a cure for unrequited passion or loneliness. Passion passes. A couple can have fantastic sex, but still have a bad marriage. For this reason, couples who are serious about getting married should forgo the distorting effect of sex. As to loneliness, this can be intensified in an unhappy marriage.
Cosset your spouse. Once married, pamper your spouse with little favors, which, even though they might be prosaic, are much appreciated. Treat your spouse with kindness, consideration, courtesy, and respect. Whenever you can, compliment and build up your spouse. Never ever criticize your spouse in front of others, as I have so often experienced in other couples.
Observe traditional common courtesies. My wife and I still say please, thank you, you’re very welcome, and begin requests with would you mind doing …Though out of style, these courtesies have always been a lubricant of society. Their demise represents a certain social impoverishment. (It is significant that during China’s murderous Cultural Revolution politeness was denounced as “counterrevolutionary.”)
Listen. Listen. Listen. Communication is of transcendent importance in a marriage. There will be times when the most compatible couples will disagree. But friends can resolve differences amicably. Don’t fight. Some marriage counselors suggest that fighting is healthy for a marriage. This is harmful nonsense. Fighting implies trying to settle disagreements in anger. When angry one can, and often does, make hurtful accusations which will not soon be forgotten and which can gnaw at and undermine a marriage. Harsh words are arrows which cannot be recalled once they have left the bow.
Cohabiting is a mistake, especially for women. I always pointed out to my women students that moving in with a man before marriage is simply stupid, quite apart from the moral factor. I have heard time and again two popular myths in this regard. First, a marriage license is only a “piece of paper” and unnecessary. But to this I always respond, wars have been fought over “pieces of paper” called treaties. A marriage license is a contract that above all protects women.
The second myth is that you have to live with someone in order to learn whether or not you’re compatible. But life doesn’t work this way. People who have cohabited before marriage have a significantly higher divorce rate. Why? Marriage is to living together as poker for millions to poker for matchsticks. Superficially, the game is the same; psychologically there is a vast difference. When one knows a relationship may be temporary, differences are swept under the carpet, whereas engaging in an anticipated long-term contractual relationship can lead to a magnification of previously ignored differences that can ultimately destroy a marriage. It happens all the time.
Furthermore, there is no equality in cohabiting. A man always has the advantage since he knows that the older he gets the more women are available for dating and eventually marriage. But a woman’s fertility and her chance of finding a husband shrink with every page of the calendar. It is the height of foolishness for a woman to take herself out of circulation for the sake of a man who can’t commit. My advice to women is that if, after a year, a relationship is not heading for the altar, with at least an engagement, they should break it off, as painful as it might be.
Have children. Throughout human existence, a prime, if not the prime, function of marriage has been the procreation and raising of children (hence the absurdity of oxymoronic same-sex marriage which has never existed in any culture or country). I strongly advise couples not to forgo this great gift. (I had one daughter by my late first wife.) On the other hand, I also would caution them to wait until they are quite certain their marriage is solid. I have known many troubled couples who believed that having a baby “would bring them together.” The opposite is more likely, since new babies, and children in general, put a strain on a marriage. For one thing, women often, at least temporarily, lose interest in sex after having a baby.
Those who cannot have children naturally resort to a number of solutions, among them adoption. It is nothing short of grotesque that Americans feel compelled to travel all around the world to find children to adopt, when in this country, over a million babies a year are aborted. Why can’t we have a nationwide adoption-before-birth program to help rectify this sad situation?
Dr William Lloyd Stearman served on the White House National Security Council staff under four presidents. He is a former Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and the author of An American Adventure: From Early Aviation through Three Wars to the White House.