The Key to a Good Marriage? A Sense of Humor

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In The Marriage Book: Centuries of Advice, Inspiration, and Cautionary Tales from Adam & Eve to Zoloft, real-life married couple Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler offer a kind of compendium of marriage advice broken down into sections on things like sex, grievances, infidelity, and expectations. They draw upon wisdom through the ages in “the private, perilous, hopeful journey from I to we,” citing everyone from William Penn and Henry James to Jimmy Carter and Louis C.K in the process. Yahoo Style spoke to Grunwald and Adler about their first date, how you know it’s the one, and whether it’s okay to go to bed angry.

Yahoo Style: You write in the book that your own marriage started with a blind date and a kiss. Will you tell me more about it?
Lisa Grunwald: My oldest friend was getting married and she was being thrown a bridal shower in Scarsdale on a Sunday. All the women were asked to bring a gift, but we were also supposed to write a poem, which seemed like a lot. So I wrote this lengthy doggerel. It went over fine and I’m standing on the platform for the train to go home and this woman who was at the shower comes up and says, “Your poem was so funny, are you single?” I was 27 at the time. And she said, “I’ve got this guy for you. Would you ever consider a blind date?” The weird thing was she had this habit of setting people up and liked to double date with the couple. I showed up to the Boat House cafe and didn’t know which guy was Stephen. It was a little awkward. After dinner, by the time we got out of the park, I just had to say, “Do you want to come up for a drink?” because I hadn’t talked to him at all. The minute we were alone, we talked about how bizarre this experience was. In any case, we went back to my apt and went up onto the roof and we drank wine.

Stephen Adler: Scotch!

LG: Right, scotch. We talked endlessly, but I thought he was too nice. I usually went for people not so nice. It got really late and I walked him to the door and he kissed me and it was like, Ohhhhh, he’s nice but he’s not that nice. He left the next day for three weeks. He came back a month later and started dating and got engaged three months after that. Twenty-six years later and we can’t believe it happened.

YS: So now that you’ve thought so much about marriage, what is your very best advice?
LG: Marry someone you like, who makes you laugh. There’s a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson, you can read Kant all by yourself but you have to share a joke with someone else. If you can’t laugh together, I don’t see you having much of a chance. Marriage is a bit of a magic act. You do have to believe it and decide to have confidence in it. The advice we take most seriously is to try really hard to bring out the best in each other. We sort of made this promise to figure out what the other one really wanted from life and then be the one who keep the other one to it. He’s like the guardian of my better self.

YS: What advice is overrated?
LG: I know we’ve gone to bed angry many nights because the alternative was staying up all night. Leave it and it’ll look different in the morning. We realized we didn’t want to go out when our kids were little. All we wanted to do was have pizza in bed and watch TV.

SA: The babysitter would come at 4:00 and leave at 9:00 and we’d have a chunk of time to ourselves. It was date night at home. One piece of advice our rabbi gave us was, you guys are so into each other, I can see you’re so besotted, you have to let in more people, you can’t be too insular. Behind a lot of the advice is the very good thought is what happens is you become habituated with each other and see each other at your worst.

LG: The other extreme is greet him at the door in a cowgirl costume or wrapped naked in Saran Wrap. There’ mystery and surprise and there’s ridiculous. Friendship thing gets you through so much. What you feel in the 27th year I wouldn’t trade for anything—it’s just deeper and more meaningful.

SA: We’re not trying to say there’s one way to live, but if you can have both friendship and passion, that’s great.

YS: I’m not married. How do I know when I’ve met the person I should marry?
SA: I was 32 when I met Lisa and I had been out there meeting women for many years and there were lots of women I had liked and was attracted to. In my case, it was an absolute thunderbolt. It was like a different state of being. I just knew. It was the first time I had known.

LG: For me I think it was a calmer: Oh this appears to be my husband. Our marriage was the canvas on which everything in our lives would take place. We weren’t going to be the drama. Stephen would be the constant; he was never going to be the problem. The joke between us is I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. What’s the hitch? We’ll turn to each other like, how could we have possibly known after three months? It’s absurd. Once you are in your life and you have jobs or children or friendships or monkey wrenches with health, and lots of unknown, the notion we could have guessed then that we could have navigated everything is ridiculous.

SA: One thing I learned is the notion you have to believe in marriage, not just each other and the relationship. If you don’t see marriage as something worth nurturing and the right state for you, you’re more likely to bail out.

LG: It’s like failure is not an option. We did go into it assuming it’s for life and there’s no exit. We made a promise and we’re gonna keep it. I don’t think either of us has been tempted to think otherwise.

SA: But we’re not preachy about it. It’s not “stay together even if it’s horrible.”

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