Monday, November 12, 2012

The Secret to the Universe

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  It was hideous. Stuck. On on the world's narrowest airline seat o n American flight something-or-other to Chicago--for TWO AND A HALF HOURS.Delayed, plane broken, spirits low. I am basically not a chatty-with-strangers person, but in that sort of situation, fine, I'll talk.  And in this case, I learned something. Nothing less than the secret to the universe. 

What is it you say? Well.

The guy I was sitting next to, professorial, natty, was on his way to deliver a paper to the mucketys at University of Illinois. Turns out, he's the director, and has been for 10 years, of something like the world's longest running study of marriage. At Harvard.  They've interviewed hundreds of people about what makes a happy marriage. And what doesn't.

So I said to him--wow! You know the secret of the universe!

He admitted, he did.

What is it?( I of course asked.)

Forty-two, he said. (You'll recognize Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy.)

After he realized I got the allusion, we laughed, and I said, okay, but really, tell me.  

Now usually in a post like this, here's the time I would tell you what he said.
But first--what do YOU think?

It'a  form of blindness, said the woman married for forty-plus years. We find each other's maddeningly annoying traits adorable.
Plus he eats what I cook and laughs at my jokes. The perfect spouse.

RHYS BOWEN: I've also been married for forty plus years now and sometimes I think staying married is easier than getting divorced because we're so used to each other. But we're on the same wave length. We can finish each other's sentences, say the same thing at the same moment, laugh at the same jokes and enjoy doing the same things. And even better than Hallie's spouse, mine cooks and shops and makes me tea in the mornings. He's also great with money--generous but not wasteful. What more could I want?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: You're all so nice, I'm tempted to say, get 'em when they're old and they don't have enough juice to run around much anymore. But I won't.
We agree on the big stuff - politics, religion, money, sports - but we have a lot of different interests/opinions that we don't necessarily share and I think that keeps us from boring each other.

DEBORAH CROMBIE:Hmm. We've been married eighteen years, but have known each other for--yikes--forty-one years. Can it really be that long?
The big secret to staying together? Integrity, for one. It's hard to stay married to someone you don't trust and don't respect. We agree on most of the big things.
No matter how irritated we may be over little things, we generally get over it pretty fast. He makes me laugh. AND he fixes my computer.  Now if I could just get him to cook and to bring me tea in bed...
Then there's just the general ability to rub along together, which sounds so easy, but isn't. I can't wait to hear what Hank's expert said!

LUCY BURDETTE:  "Feelings, oh, oh oh, feelings..." The secret has to be sharing what you're feeling about life and yourself and your partner and your relationship, but in a kind way. What else could it be? Even John is trained now after 20 years tethered to me. When I ask him what he and his buddies talked about for 5 hours on the golf course, he says: "Our feelings of course. Especially, how we feel about our relationships." :)

HANK: Great guesses. It's pretty interesting. And turns out, there are a couple of secrets. (If I understood correctly!) One is--staying healthy. Healthy spouses have better marriages so stop smoking, eat right, exercise and watch  the drinking.  Also--there seemed to be a correlation in the perception that there were shared positive experiences. And there wasnt much fighting--spouses seemed to realize how the argument would eventually end, so they simply ended it sooner and were fine.  And there's one more thing. What do you think it is, Reds?

 (And as the author of The Other Woman, I can ask you--what do you think Mrs. Petraeus must have said? We'll give a copy of THE  OTHER WOMAN to a lucky commenter!)

( Happy Veterans Day to all, if that's what you say on Veterans Day. We are very grateful.)


  1. I think the other one he said was to stay faithful! Mrs. P probably said #@$%^ and then is going on to mend her marriage! Dee

  2. I've been married forty-three years, and we dated for four and half years before that. We have grown up together!
    All along, we have put our family above almost everything else, and we reap the benefits now -- our daughters (and now their families) love to gather together whenever we can.
    Part of the glue is definitely that old black magic of physical attraction, and another is shared values.
    I don't know the secret, but I once heard someone tell a bride that it was "low expectations"!

  3. I think the other thing might be to choose when to play deaf so you don't have to respond to the ill-considered comment your partner just made.

    As for Mrs. P.."Now I understand why she wrote such a glowing biography."

    ~ Jim

  4. Thanks, Hank, this is a really thought-provoking post . . . .

    Hhmm . . . You’ve already listed good health choices, less drinking, sharing experiences, not fighting . . . . I’m going to guess that, along with all that, supporting each other is important. I think couples who have long, happy marriages understand that it’s important to “be there” for each other, both in the good times and in the not-so-good times that the world unexpectedly throws at you. Perhaps “being there” is a subset of “sharing the same values” but I think it also speaks to the way people interact with each other and with the world at large. Folks who remember that marriage is a commitment . . . and remain committed to making that relationship work . . . have marriages that last happily through the years. My husband doesn’t cook unless forced into it, but I don’t mind because I like to cook; he does, however, make coffee whenever the pot is empty, and [oh, joy of joys] wash dishes. We really do think alike, we don’t fight, we respect each other, we trust each other . . . .

    I cannot imagine what Holly Petraeus must have said . . . it’s really a sort of a kick in the teeth after thirty-eight years of marriage to find herself enmeshed the latest sex-scandal-brouhaha and have to deal, in large part, publically with her husband’s betrayal of trust, respect, and integrity . . . .

    Veteran’s Day . . . thank you for protecting our nation and our freedoms . . . we salute you as we honor your service, your sacrifice, your commitment . . . .

  5. Low expectations! I hope whoever said that, Denise Ann, was trying to be funny..because seriously, I think that's wrong. Do you?

    Yeah, and I'm thinking about the biographer thing. Think how much he must have felt she cared about him, and understood him. How much she listened to him. HOw it was all about HIM. (That;s not one of the secrets, by the way..)

    Off to work, more to come. I'll take off those annoying spam things when I get there..

  6. Playing deaf and selective blindness...good tips. I'm bad at both, but luckily my hubby is good at both. so it works.

  7. Not "stay faithful" so much as "don't get caught."

    And enjoy doing some things together and some things apart.

  8. Terrific Post!

    Donald and I have been married 26 years - he was 32 and I was 38 when we got married. A first marriage for him and not a first marriage for me. And I love my marriage. Love Donald, of course, but loving my marriage is different - I was NOT enamored with marriage at all prior to this one. He makes me laugh, he brings me coffee in bed, we enjoy the same life values and generally just enjoy being with one another. We also have some totally separate interests which we enjoy. What I love most is his postive outlook, his curiosity and his gentleness. And I have a huge amount of respect for him. I don't know what to say other than I'm still smitten after all these years.

    I couldn't begin to guess what Mrs. P might have said, but I know what I would have said and it would have been pretty. Sadly, I'm a vengeful witch when it comes to someone destroying my trust.

  9. Courtesy, simple courtesy. Saying "thank you", and "please", and "do you mind?", instead of ordering one another around or taking each other for granted goes a long, long way.

    Communication is important, too. If you never know what's going on with one another how can you help? Resentment builds, and then things get ripped asunder all too easily because of hurt feelings.

    I'm on my second marriage, nearly 31 years, after dating for 3 1/2, but it's not easy. We are fragile beings, we humans, with egos that need care and kindness.

    I totally feel for Mrs. Petraeus. My first husband cheated on me (probably the entire time we were married, looking back), and the betrayal was devastating. The media splashing this all over the place, plus the characterization of the biographer as a "mistress", and now the possibility of a second affair? Yow, that poor woman. She can talk to Hilary Clinton about how to deal with this stuff. Bet she has some tips.

    And isn't a mistress the same as a kept woman, ie, someone whose expenses are taken care of, at least in part, by the male cheater in question? I take issue with the press using that term, if that does not apply in this case. It makes me crabby, can you tell? LOL


  10. Respect. I think the answer is mutual respect.

  11. Respect, that's gottas be up there. It;s not the one he told me about...but close.

    Yeah, the Petraeus story keeps getting worse..seems like Paula Broadwell was sending threateneing emails to another woman she suspected/accused of being to "forward" with Petraeus? Sigh.

    And Hallie, "Dont get caught?" They ALWAYS get caught. I think--ALWAYS. Not necessarily on the front page of the New YOrk Times, but do we think anyone actually completely gets away with it forever?

  12. PaI think I'd have to say "don't sweat the small stuff." There's no reason to get upset over little things - and most everything is a little thing. However, I still get upset over things I can't change and have had to learn to let them go. I have a saying I TRY to follow that says "will this matter in ten/five years?" Normally, it won't. Not even in ten minutes! And it helps to marry someone who doesn't like to argue. And is EXTREMELY patient. I got married when I was 22 so there was a large learning curve to becoming a true grown-up.

    After 38 years I still remind himself that he's only my first husband. :-)

    As for Mrs. Petreus, I can't imagine what she's feeling. Just as I couldn't come close to imagining what Elizabeth Edwards was going through. (And it still galls me to know that I supported him!) It must be a horrid punch in the gut.

  13. Soooo thankful to be on husband number three. First one was amazing, but was killed at 26. Second was all passion, then he pulled the Petraeus. Thankfully he wasn't someone of national import--I didn't have to see it on TV and try to ignore it in the newspapers and magazines.

    Then came number three. Wasn't looking for a spouse, didn't need one, and so he appeared. Coming up on anniversary number twelve. He makes me laugh. And it's almost scary how much we're on the same wavelength.

    Yes, long marriages appear as marvelous things. All the tips mentioned do seem to help two individuals rub together over the long run. But in my infinite wisdom (don't laugh, folks) I believe that things that are meant to be, are. Those that aren't, are a learning experience.

    And yes, my favorite pin-on badge says, "Oh no, not another learning experience."

    A shout out for all our veterans. I'm partial to them, as the two best husbands I've had were both Marines; my brother and brother-in-law are retired Navy. And, may the Navy gods forgive me, I went Army. You can imagine how that went over with my Navy relatives. Does make the Army/Navy game interesting, though . . .

  14. Marianne, "Will this matter in five years" --I think about that all the time. In every realm of life. I think it's a life-changing realization..

    Diane--"not another learing experience!" Hilarious. Yeah, enough is enough. We've learned plenty, right?

  15. I vote for mutual support as one of the musts. I see lots of folks in the literary community here whose spouses have NEVER attended one of their readings, even when they were winning an award. Ben and I support each other in what we're trying to do with our lives. To the point that when I went to my first-ever Malice for the Malice Domestic first novel competition, old friend Nancy Pickard asked "Where's Ben?" (He was emcee at a big program in KC at the same time.)

    Another that's important is that we love to talk with each other. After 24 years together, we can still carry on enthusiastic conversations for hours. He's smart, funny, and witty--and the nicest man.

    As for Mrs. Petraeus, I can't imagine what she said. I just know I'd have said, "Don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out." Trust is absolutely vital to marriage, and for me, betrayal is the unforgivable.


  16. I once surveyed happy couples among my storytelling friends, to answer the questions my students had about successful marriage (since so many of their parents were divorced).
    Most of them said what Hallie Ephron said... enjoy doing some things together and some things apart.
    . . . and added the part about respect for each other and for each other's interests.
    Karen, I looked up mistress because your comment intrigued me "a woman having an extramarital sexual relationship, esp. with a married man." I always wonder at the "blame the mistress" phenomenon, as if these poor men have been somehow tricked into breaking their vows.

  17. Forty-five years this past June. Knew him 3 1/2 years before that. Our secrets:
    We both wanted the same things. Marriage and family always come first. Even today, our grown kids and spouses know this. We always have each others backs.
    We both have interests together and apart.
    Now retired, he bakes and makes pasta which is great for the mouth but not for the waistline. He does dishes, his own laundry, the food shopping. He keeps my car tires filled.
    I cook, do the house laundry as well as my own, and we clean together. He gardens and take care of my herb pots, I cook the harvest.
    We used to have a travel interest together and did a lot of it in our mid-years, but that's not an option anymore. Now we travel to the dock two miles away for date-lunch, even on nice days in winter.
    Love, respect and trust are there and always have been.

    As to Mrs. Petreus, I feel for her but have no clue what she'd say. She's hurt and the media doesn't help that hurt it makes it worse.

  18. I did hear someone say it ("low expectations") and I did think it was funny -- I took a humor writing class this summer (Gina Barecca).
    But, seriously, it also means not expecting the spouse to be "the all."
    As someone else said, we are all human.
    I don't think I would put up with Gen. P, but I know people who have adjusted to all sorts of behaviors.
    When it comes to intimacy, it is all so private -- and we are all just doing the best we can.

  19. Denise Ann-that is so wise! And I think it's also each person realizing that the marriage is not all about YOU--that honestly wanting the OTHER person to be happy is a good thing.

    As for "putting up with"--yeah, we never know, right? Remember Hilary CLinton's 60 Minutes interview?

  20. A sense of humor is imperative. Life can be funny all on its own, and if you cannot laugh together, you're in trouble.

    Mutual regard and respect is a given. No matter how ugly the moment, in the darkest recesses of your heart, if you can wish your mate nothing but happiness, you've got a shot at making it; if you think that much of one another, you can work things out. When the anger degenerates into pettiness and vengeance, you're in trouble.

    The old saw, "Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?" was never so applicable as it has been the past 27 years. In my past life, for reasons not worth going into, I was going to be Right. Make that *RIGHT*. I always was, too. Usually ended up with a cross between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but by God I was RIGHT. (I look back and think "What a waste of time and energy." But I was RIGHT.)

    I knew I was toast on our second date. I asked outright, "What do you want in a relationship?" She thought a moment and replied, "I don't know. But I can tell you what I won't put up with." I thought, hell - I can work with that...:) The genuine blessings of meeting later in life...:)

  21. ...all this makes me want to go hug my husband..must go..

  22. Ah, you've all said so many wise things. I'll add this: you're together in part to help each other out, to help each other deal with life's changes and challenges. Be part of the support team, not part of the problem.

  23. Okay, here goes. Really a different take. I've been married for 32 years and my husband drives me crazy. He leaves a big "footprint," has anger management issues, dresses like a rag-picker, is demanding, and alternately talks too much or clams up completely. So what keeps us together (happily, I might add)? I can't stand to be bored or to be joined at the hip. With this guy, I'm often surprised and never bored, and we are both very independent. The anger management problem led me to seek counseling where I learned the phrase "radical acceptance." He's who I married and I want to stay married to him, so I have to accept the parts I don't like--not ignore or try to change them, just accept them. Oh, yeah, and we laugh a lot. So a sense of humor helps, too.

  24. Yup, that's it! Support. (For those of you who have mentioned it!) Many of the most-happily married couples apparently described their spouse as being reliably supportive of their thoughts and decisions and actions. That they know they could tell their spouse anything..and the spouse would be on their team.

    How many times have you been with another couple and see see the insidious snarky diminishing of one spouse by the other one? "oh, he never gets that right," "Oh, she's always so picky..."

    That's got to be SO destructive.

  25. Are you seeing now that apparently Paula Broadwell sent threatening emails to another woman she thought was flirting with General Petraeus?

    How do you think this all should be handled in the media?

  26. Yes, William, the genuine blessings of meeting later in life. I'm with you. Sometimes, it works that way. Whew.

  27. Nearing a half century of marriage I would say Passon. I have enough passion to fight, enough passion to let it go. But when he is not near I feel bereft. Even at times when we are in the same room and are silent I feel that everything is right with the universe. And luck in an integral part of my life.

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  29. I would add, don't save your best for other people. Sometimes our spouses get all of our bad behavior and the rest of the world gets our best. Say please and thank you as some people have already mentioned. Pay attention. Be kind. Wear your best knickers.

  30. Roberta--I laughed at John's comment about discussing feelings. Kevin always says he agreed to marry me so we wouln't have to have state of the relationship talks anymore. And we don't. I think a happy marriage means you accept your partner for who he is and don't try to change him. Once I accepted that Kevin loves me even though he's not romantic, and once he accepted that I'm a good woman even though I never recconcile my checking account, we were both a lot happier!

    On the radio I heard Petraeus quoted as saying of Holly, "Furious would be an understatement." Looks like she won't play the good little woman who stands by his side.

    I think Paula Broadbent is great material for character development. One article described her as a female version of Petraeus: driven, competitive, over-achiever. Is that why she picked a fight with this other "other woman"? I'm reminded of that woman astronaut a few years ago who drove across country in her astronaut diaper to clobber the girl she thought was stealing her man. Is this something super-competitive types do? How would you ladies react if you thought a woman was coming on to your husband?

  31. A little late for me to answer. However, to answer your next question, as to how this should be handled in the media....

    I think it's been handled fine. The story came out, it's been reported on, and Petraeus has resigned. I have to admit when I first heard the story, I thought the investigation was unrelated. But if Broadwell threatened Kelley, well then, Petraeus showed even worse judgement than he might have.

    Also, see this (the second item) from July:

  32. I thought of the diaper woman, too!

    If I thought a woman was after Jonathan? Huh. I did have that, once, with a young colleague of his. I told him I thought so. He was baffled. He'd be so--uninterested, you know? (Is that silly to say?)

    But what I'd do first--is say so.

  33. I've known women who dumped their unfaithful spouses instantly. And some who calculated the plusses and minuses--and decided to wait it out.

  34. I do find myself wondering why the FBI was investigating this. They compete with the CIA for funding--they're not buddy-buddy at all. Tons of men and women send angry and even sort of threatening emails (which is what these were, it seems) to people they see as rivals in love, and the FBI is not involved. In fact, the local police usually can't get involved unless something else is done in real life. And the FBI wound up going into Petraeus' private emails???

    I don't cut him any slack for what he did, but it looks suspiciously to me like one competing arm of the US intelligence community spying on and deliberately embarrassing another arm of the US intelligence community. I find that more troubling than the infidelity, which is unfortunately common and more to the point personal and private.

  35. Darlene, I so agree. I think being polite is extremely important!

  36. What a great post today. Such interesting perspectives and stories from all of you, and especially nice to hear from the guys.

    Linda Rodriguez, having met Ben, he is just the way you describe him! But support, I think, comes in lots of different forms. After nearly twenty years of being married to Rick, it still hurts my feelings a little bit that he doesn't like to go to writers' events. But then he doesn't mind ME going and spending endless hours talking to my writing buddies about things he's not interested in. And he has designed and built my web page, fixes all my computer problems, helps with research, etc., etc., etc.--and brags about me to everyone he meets.

  37. We're friends, Lillian and I. We started off friends, and we've kept the friendship alive. So often that gets lost in the passion, but you've gotta *like* the person as well as loving them. And that leads into support as well as sometimes being the voice of reason.

    "Furious would be an understatement" I believe sums it up. It's bad enough to have it happen, but to have it played out not only in the media but under Congressional review? I can't even imagine, but yeah, furious wouldn't begin to cover it.

    Thank all who served, even you, General. I'm as grateful to you as I am to my wife; everyone who served deserves recognition, including the canine corps.

  38. Debs, yes, there are spouses who are tremendously supportive who don't attend their mates' writer events. And that's the key, that kind of support, I think, whether it's joining them at their events or fixing their computers or helping with research, etc.

    A new wrinkle in the Petraeus/Broadbent tale.

    And in reply to what I'd do if someone was after Ben, nothing. I have had that happen before. Like Hank's Jonathan, he was totally oblivious. I don't worry because my feeling is, if he's stupid enough to walk away from me, he deserves to lose me--and Ben's absolutely the opposite of stupid. ;-)

  39. Yeah, Deb, Jonathan used to go to Malice, and Bouchercon, but then at some point he said--you know, this is kind of..boring to me. Would you mind if I didn't go? I LOVED that he was honest..and it all turned out for the best.

    So--it's about--acknowledging support...but I think you don't need to be joined at the hip. (Or..anywhere else...)

  40. I'm coming in kind of late, I think. I've been married for 16 years. I was 22 - but he is almost 10 years older than I am. So at the beginning I would worry about other women because he was 30, he'd been in the active Army, a paratrooper, fought in the first Persian Gulf war and I'd -- graduated from college? LOL

    We do support each other, and we agree that family comes first - but that has to include us. I watched my mother put her four kids ahead my father - always - for almost 20 years and it nearly destroyed their marriage. Probably because my father didn't exactly feel supported. =)

    And I have no idea about Mrs. P - but I once said that if he thought he could find better not to bother going behind my back, or coming home for that matter.

  41. Should I have put words into Ms. Petraeus' mouth, they probably would have gone something like, "Don't worry, David. He're a $20. This one's on me." [Happily married 45 years...or as we like to say it, 3 years + 5 years + 10 years + 2 years +....]

  42. Never been married, but I think people need to try to get along and be there for each other. Shared hobbies help, but people need alone time, too, so separate hobbies can be good.

    Regarding Patraeus, I think it's stupid that they put stuff in the paper about the affair. That's his private business and shouldn't be splashed all over the media. It's between him, his wife, and the girlfriend. Wouldn't it be weird if your local paper published something about your affair and you were the head of a company, even just a local one? And I don't understand why he quit his job over the affair or why others in similar situations do that. Then again I don't understand all that stuff. Who's gonna hire him now? I think a person would think twice before hiring someone enmeshed in a scandal, so it would be best if they didn't quit their job. It must be extremely embarrassing for all involved, especially his poor wife, to go on with their daily activities. Then they wouldn't know what to say when someone asked them about the situation.

  43. SO lovely to see you all today!
    (Happy Marriages to all...)

    Tomorrow, an insider's look at..well, you'll see. But you won't believe some of the questions this salesperson gets asked!

  44. I think the other one is to talk to each other. (And to have married the right person for you in the first place.)