The Secret to a Good Marriage

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We have all read the standard advice about how to have a good marriage. Strong communication, scheduling date nights, and not going to bed mad are some of the most frequently cited. I agree that these are excellent ideas. However, I have recently discovered what can be described as the purest display of love and devotion, an act that says, “I really care about you.” This pearl of wisdom, this key to marital harmony – leaving a spare toilet paper roll on the back of the toilet when the current one is perilously low. It’s really that simple.

I don’t know when this paying the roll forward started in my house. We didn’t discuss it. We just quietly started doing it. Nineteen years into our marriage and we’ve figured it out. A small act of kindness goes a long way. We’ve all experienced being stranded without a roll. It’s a horrible feeling of helplessness and extreme vulnerability. That spare roll is saying, hey, I’ve got your back – both literally and figuratively.

I was discussing our acts of bathroom kindness with my sister.

She said, “Yes, that is what that Love Languages theory is all about. You feel loved by acts of kindness. So do I. It must be in the genes.”

Gary Chapman, a marriage counselor, came up with this theory. He says each person has a primary love language that we must learn to speak if we want that person to feel loved. They are: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. My sister proceeded to tell me that her husband has been doing the dishes lately, a task that she usually took care of. When she asked him why he was so eager to do the dishes, he told her that he knows it makes her happy when he does things around the house without being asked. Flowers and perfume aren’t her thing. Hence, he shows her his love by doing the dishes. What an interesting concept.

So many people routinely test their spouse to see if they remember the right occasions, buy the right gift, say the right things. This is a set-up for failure and disappointment all around. Everyone wants to be a good spouse. Maybe it’s as simple as stating what makes you happy, and meaning it. No hidden agenda or test.

I read an article by Sally Quinn several years ago that stuck with me. She was talking about seating at dinner parties. She suggests that you seat partners apart from each other. It allows each spouse to have a conversation with someone else, to learn something new, which makes for interesting conversation on the ride home. More importantly, it allows you to watch your spouse across a room, engaged in conversation with other people. Perhaps it reminds you why you liked him/her in the first place. We get caught up and focused on the things that irritate us about our spouse. We forget to look at our partner as we first knew them – adorable, witty, funny, personable. Or whatever traits drew you to the person in the first place.

Years of marriage build a bond that can’t always be seen. A look passed between you can speak volumes. You can read each other’s minds.

It’s the small gestures that help build big relationships. One roll at a time.

Sultry Housewife

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Lauren Bacall died recently. The NY Times banner that came over my phone read – Lauren Bacall, Sultry Movie Star dies at 89.

Sultry, I thought, what an awesome word. Then I thought, what are the chances that I would be remembered as “sultry?” Sultry housewife? Sultry blogger? Unlikely. A girl can dream though.  If I’m not sultry, how will I be remembered? And no, nothing is wrong with my health. I’m just speculating, something a blog allows me to do.

Funny? I’d like that. Authentic? Yes. Earnest? Definitely not. Kind? Most of the time. Smart? About some things. Outgoing? Most certainly. I never married a Humphrey Bogart-ish celebrity but I did marry Brad Stillman – a legend in his own right. Yes, he proofread this and allowed it to stand as is. He too has a sense of humor and is very humble about his greatness. He thinks I would definitely be remembered for having excellent taste in men.

People don’t use the word sultry often. I think it’s a great word. It’s sexy, but in a classy way. It also makes me think of another word not frequently used – slatternly. Sultry means “attractive in a way that suggests or causes feelings of sexual desire.” Slatternly, on the other hand means “untidy and dirty through habitual neglect” or “of, relating to, or characteristic of a slut or prostitute.” The line between sultry and slatternly…where is that line? I just hope I end up on the right side of it.

Don’t worry, I’m not in danger of sliding to the dark side.  Been there, done that, in my younger days. No, like Lauren Bacall, I’m deep down just a nice Jewish girl.  While “sultry” may be the word most associated with Lauren Bacall, her friend Sally Quinn also described her as “funny, razor sharp, mischievous, iconoclastic, self-deprecating and openly vulnerable. She shared her life with her friends and radiated a feeling of trust that was always returned.” Wow, she sounds like the kind of person I would like to hang out with.

Does sultry housewife have to be an oxymoron? Must these words be mutually exclusive? I don’t think so. I recently heard a lecture on relationships. The speaker talked about how women (and men) put their best self forward whenever they go “out.”  Out to work and out with friends. Yet often we wear our least attractive, most comfortable clothes when we are in our homes.  What a novel idea – to look as nice in the house as you do when you go out?  Put your best self forward for your spouse or partner. Not in a June Cleaver, pearls and formal dress kind of way, but in a way that says I’m in this relationship and care about nurturing it and keeping it fresh. I can get with that notion.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ll hang on to my sweatpants. I’m not crazy. But I will wear them sparingly.  Just like Lauren Bacall probably did.

“Not Guilty”

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My husband is a very competent, caring person. While I was away on a recent trip to Israel, he managed to successfully get all four of our children off to camp. Although this is an impressive feat, let’s be real – yours truly made the fifty trips to Target and did the actual packing prior to my trip.

I called him on my last day in Israel as he was driving our son with special needs, the remaining child at home,  to sleep-away camp.

“Ben had a bad day yesterday,” he reported.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s not your fault,” he replied.

I appreciated his kindness. I felt sad that my son had a bad day and that my husband had to deal with the unpleasantness for several hours. Usually I am the one at home who has to deal with these episodes.  I am thankful he’s a hands-on dad. And that he didn’t try to make me feel bad for being away from home.

I hung up the phone and told my friends what had happened.

“I don’t feel guilty,” I explained, “I just feel badly for them.”

“What a novel concept,” one of them said, as if a light bulb had gone off over her head.

Feeling guilt, like so many other things in life, is a choice, and it is one that I don’t often choose to make.  I come by a guilt-free disposition naturally. My family doesn’t do the stereotypical “Jewish” guilt. In fact I hate when people act like guilt is part of our heritage.  Am I perfect? No. Do I make mistakes? Yes. I try to learn from them and do better the next time. Done. Let’s move on people, there is nothing to see here.

Women often feel self-centered or selfish when they do something for themselves or not with their families. I say nay-nay. In the blink of an eye my kids will be gone. I want to keep growing and enjoying life in ways that are sometimes independent of my family. I don’t want to get mired in feeling badly for what I have or have not done.

When I got home, my husband was quite proud of how he managed all of the household duties and challenges on top of his job. It reminded me of the time he came home from a business trip and my chest heaved with pride having fixed a broken toilet, as if it was a major engineering feat. We both praised each other even though I’m pretty sure each of us was secretly thinking, “Do you want a freakin’ medal?”

I returned from my trip energized. A whole week of being Susan, not someone’s wife or mother, was refreshing.

Selfish? I don’t think so. Self-preservation is more like it.