Saturday, 27 March 2021

12 Years On: Advice for Married Life

Actual spouse in hospital.

When, to my great surprise, someone splendid wanted to marry me and indeed did, a reader suggested that I begin to write advice about married life. My response was a mix of humility and trepidation, as I hadn't been in it long enough yet. Besides, that whole first year of marriage, Benedict Ambrose and I had a gin-and-tonic before supper and then half-a-bottle of wine at dinner, so I was drunk every night and in no shape to give advice. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. 

However, a young affianced person recently asked me to send posts about married life, and I realised that 12 years is probably enough experience to draw upon, especially when explicitly asked for advice. Also, I once asked a very wise Lebanese woman for marriage advice, and what she said at once was so personal, shocking and yet obviously sound that it stuck in my mind together.

The Lebanese lady advice was this: the bedroom door is shut; never discuss what happens behind it with anyone. I would temper that by saying "except when, at absolute need, the doctor, the priest, or the therapist." But yeah. 

That leads to my own first piece of advice, which is that your first human loyalty is to your spouse. If out rowing on the pond, and your boat sinks, and you have to choose between saving your spouse and your sibling, you have to choose your spouse.  What is more likely, fortunately, is that your dilemma will be between family time and putting in more time at work. Pick the family time; work through your lunch-hour if necessary. Go to work at 6 AM. Whatever. Spouse first. And yes, for heaven's sake, don't discuss bedroom stuff with the girls or guys. Of all the things not their business, that is at the top of the list.

Loyalty to spouse can take an unusual turn. When poor B.A. went back to work after his first brain op, his mental agility began to decline, and he would come home angry and frustrated. He was making many mistakes, and his well-meaning colleagues were covering up for him. He was very worried about his manager finding out.  Finally, I snuck into his work behind his back, knocked on his manager's door, and told her that B.A. was unfit for work and needed to go back on medical leave. I would call the doctor for a letter. The manager agreed at once. 

I'm very glad I did that, and so was B.A. when his manager told him to go on medical leave, but man, that was hard to do. 

This leads me to my next point: spouses get sick and sometimes they even die.  In my experience, men are especially prone to this illness and sometimes even dying stuff. So this leads to a whole sub-category of good advice, namely:

    If your spouse hasn't signed up with the doctor and dentist, sign him/her up yourself.
    If your spouse feels lousy but won't make an appointment, make his/her appointment yourself.
    If your spouse is very sick but is not getting adequate medical attention, call up the doctor and report      how sick he/she is. 
    If your spouse is hospitalised, visit him/her every day. If you can, arrive at the beginning of visitor hours, and hang on until the end.  
    If all this applies, get yourself the support you need: reach out to family, friends, your priest, the parish, the local caregivers association. Otherwise it will be much harder for you to fight for your spouse. And if he (or she) does die despite your efforts, you don't want to be alone. 

Meanwhile, here are three important things you need before your spouse gets sick: both of you need to make wills and the husband of a low-income wife needs either life insurance or to sign on for his work's death-in-service payout. (If the woman has such things at her work, she should sign on for that, too.) One of the worst moments in my life was getting half-loopy B.A. to sign onto his work's pension plan from his hospital bed, so that I would get his death-in-service payout if he croaked. 

My next point, drawn from experience, is also depressing but a fact of life in this vale of tears: God doesn't send babies to everyone. The question is, what are you going to do if God doesn't send babies to you? Learn the actual facts about adoption in your country. When I discovered that adoption is astonishingly inexpensive in the UK, I almost collapsed. But, sadly, adoption is not an option for us because, inter alia, B.A. is still technically a cancer patient. Fortunately, we have a niece and nephews, and kindly Polish Pretend Son sends me photos and videos of my quasi-divine god-daughter Godling. 

Childlessness can be absolutely devastating for your spouse, if not for you. I got the bad news (over the phone, thanks NHS! Clap, clap!) years ago, and the last time I cried over it was--last night. So have a plan. Hopefully you won't need it, but have it. 

But to go back to this "spouses get sick and die" concept, here is some excellent money advice: learn to live on half the family income, and bank/invest the rest. This way, if your spouse is no longer being paid for some reason, like illness, job loss or death, your finances will be okay. (This sense of okayness assumes, of course, that both spouses normally work. If not, life insurance is even more important.) This is also a good way to save for a down payment on a home--if you want to own a home--and to pay off the mortgage much faster, saving you thousands in interest payments.  

One of the most enduring of traditional female beliefs is that once you get married, your financial future is assured because husband. No disrespect to BA, who worked day in and day out at the same challenging job for 15 years, but HA HA HA HA! My advice to all wives--including stay-at-home mums--is to find some way of making even just pin money, as a way of bringing in extra income and having something to put on the CV if/when their husbands get sick/lose their jobs/die. My full-time job--snagged between BA's operations--came thanks to 9 years of paid part-time column-writing. The lockdown wiped out BA's job, but mine remains. How like the 1980s British horror films about male unemployment that haunt my nightmares.

Another weird but enduring female belief is that married life looks anything like the adverts in bridal magazines. In bridal magazine world, you go from eating pizza on unopened crates in your sunny, hardwood-floored apartment (or even house) to your parents' level of upper/upper-middle/middle-class comfort in a twinkling. This is a lie. There is no twinkling. There is scrimping, saving, budgeting, and self-denial. You're not getting diamonds-by-the-yard from Tiffany & Co. until you're 45, if even then. As it happens, Tiffany stuff keeps its resale value, but when you are 45, you might be more interested in socking as much as possible into investments, so your husband can semi-retire at 55 and live until 80 instead of working a stressful job until 65 and dying at 66.

Have I mentioned that husbands get sick and sometimes even die? Yes, I think I've covered that. 
To continue on a more cheerful note, always remember why you fell in love with your spouse in the first place, and ponder that you knew his or her bad points in advance, probably because kind friends told you what they were, or he or she confessed to them to you in a moment of conscience-stricken candour before you got married. Presumably, in the fog of love, you nodded and gave your assent to living with whatever it was. Therefore, you have no right to resent the overwhelming ambition (or lack thereof), the neat-freakery (or sloppiness),  and the placid disposition (or frequent bouts of hysteria). Also, ponder how difficult it may be to live with you.  The devil sends you bad thoughts about your spouse, and the quickest way to get rid of them is to think about your own very real faults. Do that. 

Next, remember that men are not women, and women are not men. If you're the kind of woman who loves female companionship, don't expect your husband to be a woman substitute. When you vent to your husband about something, and he just gives you advice or (worse) tells you not to exaggerate/sees it from a contrary point of view, instead of killing him, find the phone and call a girlfriend. If you're a man who routinely insults and one-ups his friends, don't be surprised if your wife bursts into tears when you do the same to her.

Finally, really celebrate all the great times. Memories of the great times, thoroughly celebrated, will get you through the bad times. In the long cold night before BA's first operation, we discussed the wonderful holidays we had had in Italy, and we planned the wonderful holidays we hoped to have in future. 

Finally finally, there is nothing like a brush with death to make you understand how really loveable your spouse is and how lucky blessed you are to have one another.


  1. Nine years married here, and I think this is all very sage advice. If I may add a little from the perspective of someone who does have small children in the house --

    1. In addition to spouse coming before friends, work, extended family, etc.: your spouse comes before your kids. One of the best things you can give your children is a stable, reasonably happy marriage. This can be hard especially when children are very young (and very needy) but cultivating time to enjoy each other and nurture your marriage is critical.

    2. Do not make any big decisions in the first year of an infant's life. If you are the birthing parent, your hormones will still be totally wackadoo. Both of you will be running on not enough sleep for a long time. You will not be rational. This is just a fact.

    3. I once heard years 1-5 of a child's life described as "the dark tunnel of parenting". These are the years when your kids' demands/needs are highest and frankly, feel neverending. But once a child turns five it really is like a switch flips in terms of their independence and capability. If you're in the tunnel right now, stay the course. It gets easier.

    4. This particularly to mothers: it is very, very easy to accidentally disappear into parenting and get completely subsumed by your children and their needs. Hold on to your hobbies and other things that make you feel like yourself; motherhood will be a huge part of your identity but it's not the only part! Having outside interests and such is healthy for you, and a net positive for your marriage and parenting as well.

  2. Thank you! That's the part I couldn't add myself. I hope other married Catholics chime in with advice from their lived experience. I'm also interested in advice about bi-cultural marriages. I could talk a bit about that, of course, but from Scottish-Canadian to Scotland is not THAT big a jump. (It is, but in the most important ways, not, thank heavens!)