Wedding season is upon us. But, what about marriage?


For those of us who think of spring as the sailing season, the golfing season, the gardening season, or the house-painting season — we’re wrong. On Martha’s Vineyard, it’s the wedding season. And a good thing too, because weddings are big business, and big business is just what we need. Along with the advice about flowers, caterers, lodging and the rest — all of which is available in spades — how about an observation on the circadian rhythm of married life?

As time wanders on, mixing treats, rewards, failures and punishments, marriages change. The balance of forces in the house shifts. Imbalances occur, only some of which revert to earlier equilibriums. Some rebalance in fresh new ways, as when one spouse figures out that the other is not the prince he once seemed to be, or that he is not the brilliant renaissance man who long ago dazzled her. It’s not that at these occasions there is no balance in a long, successful marriage, but instead a fresh, operating disequilibrium establishes itself. I do not suggest that this is an unfortunate or unwarranted change.

One simple illustration I can think of is that at the beginning of a long marriage, a wife, her expectations dashed by some perceived failure of attention or performance in the husband, is inclined to lower the boom.

The years go by, the memories, fun filled and frightful, pile up, and a wife, faced with some silly lapse on the husband’s part, recognizes that the time has come to lower the bar.

I’m not saying that this is a bipartisan achievement, inspired and embraced by both parties simultaneously and adopted by a filibuster-proof majority but, examining the husband’s position for a moment, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. A genius of a sailor I know, a man whose engineering and aesthetic judgment — albeit about the one narrow, and narrowing, slice of life that, alone, possesses his interest — often asked, Why not strive for perfection? And when he did, I often said to myself, wouldn’t a more forgiving standard do?

And, although I’ve come to these positions on the fly, wonder of wonders, actual academic research confirms them. “The results [of a study by Ohio State University researchers] showed that participants who had high expectations for happiness at the beginning of their marriage — but poor relationship skills — showed steep declines in marital satisfaction over the first four years of marriage. Those with low expectations and low skills didn’t show equivalent declines in satisfaction.”

I’m just saying. Aim low may be the best advice one can give a Vineyard bride to be.

“Over the long term, it is important for marriage partners to have accurate knowledge of their relationship’s strengths and weaknesses,” James McNulty, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State, said. “Satisfaction goes down when a spouse’s expectations don’t fit with reality.”

There has been research that takes a different line, but Mr. McNulty insists, “There’s been a lot of emphasis on the idea of positive illusions in marriage. Sure, it may make you happy in the short-run to think your spouse is better than he or she actually is, but if the reality doesn’t match the image, eventually your satisfaction is going to decline.”

So, for example, in year two, you’re driving to an inn in the wilds of Vermont — this is pre-GPS and you forgot a map — and she says, I think you turn right here, but you say, Nope, it’s a left. The outcome is that you are lost, arrive at the inn too late, your reservation has been set aside and your room given to another, you sleep in the car. The bride says, Oh well, those things happen.

Thirty years later, driving to the same inn, this time using the GPS, you nevertheless miss the turn. Your wife turns her mild eyes on you, a mixed, knowing look of controlled alarm and determined affection in her eyes, and she says, You’ve forgotten the way haven’t you. I’ll drive.

What I’m saying is that, despite what you think, there’s no cause for alarm. It’s like what happened when you kept ruining clothes by persisting in washing the colors with the whites or the dungarees with the delicates. She made a realistic assessment of your skills, and you were ultimately relieved of laundry duty. If you don’t let pride get in the way, you could look at it as a kind of blessing. No more impossible expectations, no more laundry to do, no more long drives with you at the wheel. It’s all good.