When is a piece of advice about marriage an empty cliché, and when is it profound -- and practical -- wisdom? In interviews with hundreds of long-married older people, one prescription for a happy marriage was offered by almost everyone.
So before I go any further, go out and find someone over 70 who's been married a long time. Now ask him or her: "Give me three pieces of advice for having a happy marriage."
Okay, I know you didn't do it. But if you had, I can almost guarantee you what one of the pearls of wisdom would be. As if there is one shared data bank of marriage advice all of America's elders can draw upon, I'll bet this was in the top three:
Don't go to bed angry.
Again and again, that's what people married 40, 50, 60 and more years told us in the Legacy Project: resolve your differences before you wind up in bed at the end of the day. By the two-hundredth or so time I heard this statement -- often worded in identical terms -- I found myself nearly obsessed with what this seemingly all-important advice actually means.
Why? Why, of all the things we can do to keep a marriage strong, is it so important to make sure anger is put to bed before we are? I had to admit that yes, there might be a special problem about going to sleep still stewing over a marital argument. Although one can muster the energy (and sometimes the perverse satisfaction) to spar and quarrel throughout an entire day, there is indeed something about experiencing disappointment, resentment, even fury in the most intimate of spaces. It just feels wrong.
As we probed our interviewees, I learned that there was in fact a deep meaning born of long experience behind this advice. What does going to bed angry symbolize, and how can understanding this advice help your marriage? There are three morals of this particular story.
Lighten up. First, the elders are telling us something extremely valuable: Namely, most things that couples disagree upon aren't worth more than a day's combat. Gretchen, 71, explained:
You do need to put things in perspective. There are things that we would be arguing about or annoyed about early in our marriage, but now would be like, wait a minute, is this really critical, is this really something we should be worried about in bed tonight?
And Max, 85, noted what he and his wife had learned:
At night, work out all those little irritations and learn to let it go. Let it go -- it's not worth it, you know? There are certain things you sit down and discuss. If you can't come to a positive answer or conclusion, then you just agree to disagree and let it go.
So based on decades of experience, the elders urge you to feel the pressure of the end of the day and let it push you toward a resolution whether you feel ready or not. Among their suggestions for "getting over it before you go to bed" are these. Decide for whom the issue is most important and allow that person to win. Write down your feelings out in a letter that is never sent. Establish that the issue is really "small stuff" and let it go. Accept that there is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with and at the end of the day agree on a plan for future discussion. If you are religiously inclined, say a prayer together. Whatever can be done, do it before the lights go out.
If you fight until the end of the day, it means that very soon, someone is going to have the last word and someone will be deeply hurt, and there will be nowhere further along the road to travel. The elder suggest you ask yourself: Is it really worth it?
Don't hold grudges. For long-married elders, going to bed angry is a warning sign of an even greater danger: holding grudges in a marriage for long periods of time. They told me that there are few things more damaging to long-term marital happiness. Arguments and bad feeling that linger over days are something to be concerned about. Barbara, 79, put it this way:
One thing I always said, don't carry it overnight. Don't carry any argument, any difference overnight. Talk it over before you go to bed. And if something that you carry over and over for several days, I think that is a big red flag for your marriage.
Many of these sages about marriage learned not to hold grudges through their own experience. Martin, 87, and his wife began their 65 years of marriage keeping fights going for long periods of time. Then he had a revelation:
I woke up one day after I hadn't talked to her for a day or two and I said: 'Why am I doing this?' I mean it's over, it's done with. I can't change it. She's done or said something that I don't agree with. But, that doesn't mean that I can't talk to her or I don't want to talk to her because of what she did. We aren't to die over the fact that we're disagreeing. It's actually just an obscure event that occurred. And, it's over with. Forget it.
Renata's advice comes from her unusual marital experience. Her first marriage of 30 years was stable but unhappy. Her husband was a poor communicator who kept resentment smoldering rather than dealing with it directly. When she moved into an assisted living facility several years after his death, the last thing she expected was to fall in love again. But that's what happened, and at 86 she's in "the happiest marriage I could ever imagine."
Thinking of two very different husbands, she told me that going to bed angry is often part of a larger dysfunctional pattern:
When you wake up, first of all you may not even have a good night's sleep if you're both angry, you know, you'll be tossing and turning. But then you're starting out another day on the wrong foot. If it drags onto the next day it goes onto another and another and then people find themselves entrapped that they can't change, you know? They feel like they're in a spot where they just can't change and they've got to stick to the anger. And if the other person has the same feeling? They've gotta stick to the problem. That's the end of that marriage.
So even though you don't agree, you can say, "Well gee honey, maybe we can work something out in the morning, let's have a good night's rest and then talk about what the differences are and see how we can come together in the middle somewhere." I really think that's important -- leave it until the morning.
Life together is precious -- and uncertain. There's something that older people know that younger people don't -- and it's the third reason why they believe people shouldn't go to bed angry. Wilma, 75 opened up my understanding when she said:
Never go to bed without saying "I love you." I don't care if you have to grind your teeth and say, "I love you." But you do it. You've got to do it. You never know what's going to happen during the night.
You never know what's going to happen during the night. That statement is something elders know in their hearts, and younger people should too. The night, when we are unconscious, is an uncertain time; who knows what will happen? Marta, 84, pointed out the uncertainty: "You don't go to bed angry, if you have a difference of opinion you talk it over, but you never go to bed angry because you don't know if you'll have that person in the morning."
Depressing? That's not at all the elders' intention. In fact, the joy that many of the oldest couples express on waking in the morning next to a partner of decades is the flip side of this insight; each additional day together a gift. The end of the day means the end of hostilities, the recognition that the underlying shared values and commitment to the relationship trump the need for one last dig or self-righteous justification. In part, it is because the end of the day could, of course, be the end. But much more important, in the eyes of long-married elders, is that life is simply too short for you to waste a possibly joyous morning on the hostilities of the night before.
I'll give the last word to Janet, age 92, who is still grateful for waking up next to Mark, 93, her husband of 71 years:
Remember not to go to bed angry at each other. And that's hard to do when you're young, especially if you've had an argument or something. But remember before you go to bed, to say, "I love you" and you know, the next morning things are a lot brighter. Not to carry things over into the next day. Clean out each day as it comes along. Try to clean each day so when you shut your eyes at night, you've cleaned up everything.
(Interested in sharing your advice for marriage? Contribute your marriage lessons at the Marriage Advice Project.)