I’ve been married for a good month now and we’re still going strong—only a lifetime to go. When I got married the first time at twenty-five, a lifetime together seemed rather daunting. Second time around, I’m a lot older so that lifetime together looks much more manageable.
The School of Life’s nifty Marriage Box, a pretty blue box filled with 20 cards, has so far proven to be a hugely helpful guide on how to have realistic expectations about marriage. I ordered mine online, although you can also go to one of their international flagship stores.
Alain De Botton, the man behind the box, is a widely respected philosopher and author on everyday life issues and the founder of the “School of Life”. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries. And yes, he is my current hero.
“Our society typically devotes huge attention to the start of a marriage, and particularly to the actual wedding ceremony. But the real challenge lies beyond the wedding, with the long years ahead,” the writing on the box says.
For Stretch and me, “the long years ahead” should total about thirty years or so, which, if you like math, is the same as fifteen times two. Anyone can do 15 years, and I’ll probably be senile by the second 15, so this marriage should whiz by.
This marriage feels different in another way; Round I: I was a daughter with a lot of people fawning all over me. Round II: I am a mother with no one fawning.
On the day of the wedding my twenty-seven-year-old son didn’t own anything but blue jeans. Another needed a massage, and not simply a chair massage. And the third, an interior designer, upon organising a work related-photoshoot at our house the week after the wedding weekend, announced, “You guys are going to have to leave the house Tuesday, and I mean first thing in the morning, no dawdling. And you can’t come back for two days.”
Those same kids don’t hold back when it comes to giving me marital tips: About five days after our wedding when Stretch and I were allowed back into our house, we were sitting on the terrace with Kate and Julia—being alone with your new spouse isn’t part of the deal, round two. I asked Stretch to please get me a glass of water. He ignored me. So I asked a few more times, claiming bridal fatigue. Finally, he got up.
Maybe with some ice and lemon,” I called over my shoulder.
What about groom fatigue?” Stretch called back from the kitchen.
I ignored him. My friend Marc, who I should add is single, had told me to be tough early on. “You don’t want a slacker. Set the rules early.”
Oh my God, Mommy,” admonished Kate as soon as Stretch was out of earshot, “you can’t treat him like your butler.”
I’d fire him if he was my butler”
Do you ever bring him a cup of tea in the afternoon?” she went on.
Do you ever make him a surprise cheese plate?”
A surprise cheese plate??? Who have I raised? June Cleaver?
What about turning some music on when he comes home from work?”
I didn’t know how the stereo worked.
Or making him a gin & tonic?”
I didn’t know how to make cocktails.
Ingredients are stated in the name, Mommy,” piped in Julia. “Stop being so helpless.”
Yeah, but the quantities can be confusing,” I protested.
They both gave me a withering look.
You’ve been divorced once, married twice. Let’s keep that ratio,” commanded Kate.
My favorite card in the blue box is titled “Pessimism”.
No one can ever disappoint and upset you as much as the person you marry,” the card says. That’s you Stretch. “For no one else do we have higher hopes.”
It resonated for me. Since Stretch was my choice for a life partner, he better be pretty close to perfect (just like me, lol). The card goes on to say,
When it comes to marriage a dose of pessimism is one of the guarantors of success. The only way to make a marriage work is—curiously—not to expect anything from it.”
I somehow found this suggestion comforting. I found this dose of pessimism relaxing. These cards were way more valuable than that Elsa Paretti cheese knife I got in a different blue box at wedding numero uno (Natalie, I love that cheese knife.)
After tying the knot, Stretch and I flew to San Francisco to toast our wedding with our respective parents who had been too unwell to travel. Towards the end of our stay, I was walking into my mother’s house with Stretch, when suddenly there he was flat on the floor, holding his head moaning. He’d walked into one of her wall sconces. I was worried he had a concussion and felt very sorry for him.
When I told my daughter Julia what happened, she asked,
The sconces by the front door?”
Yes,” I replied.
He did the same thing yesterday,” she said, “He’s a very loud groaner.”
So I married an absent minded professor. Thankfully, I’d read de Botton’s Pessimism card. I have come to understand that we’re all flawed humans, some maybe more flawed than others—and nursing a small bump on the head.
After San Francisco, we flew to London from where we would begin our honeymoon.
What I didn’t grasp is that while London is my second home, Stretch is still a newbie. Before moving to the States, I lived in London for 30 years. I still keep a flat there, and all of my children call London home.
How does the microwave work?” Stretch called out from the kitchen.
I’d just shown him where the garlic press, the salad bowl, and the olive oil were all kept.
You know,” I called back as I was setting the table, “you could just figure it out without asking. Get to know your kitchen.”
I will admit, I had tone.
Elena, you need to teach me how to fish.”
I rolled my eyes. Stretch liked to speak in parables. That’s when I remembered my least favorite card from the Marriage Box: Being a Good Teacher.
Teaching is a skill,” the card said. “It requires patience,” tell me about it, “an ability to put oneself in the shoes of another. Love can and should sometimes be a classroom.”
Things reached a climax when we arrived at the subject of our honeymoon. I immediately thought of the Amalfi Coast. I could picture us sunbathing by the Med, sipping one of those Italian orange cocktails, with handsome Italian waiters asking me if I’d like them to adjust our umbrella or bring us some nibbles.
I wilt in the heat,” Stretch replied when I told him about my dream honeymoon. “Can’t go there. Plus we’ve been eating and drinking so much lately, I’d like to go somewhere and exercise and detox. How about a hiking trip in Austria? There might still be snow-capped mountains.”
I hated snow, the idea of seeing it in February was bad enough. And did he say, detox. Luckily, Austria’s Covid rules stopped Stretch in his tracks.
Looks like we can really only go to southern Europe,” I said, still harboring my Amalfi fantasy.
How about we do that Spanish pilgrimage?” he replied.
The one where you walk all day and sleep in hostels?” I asked shocked.
Who did I marry?
Yup, it’ll be great. I’m sure we can do better than hostels,” said Stretch, as he opened his laptop with glee.
Looks like there are only three star hotels along the route,” he said a half hour later. “But good news, looks like we won’t have to share a bathroom with strangers.”
I called our travel agent to ask,
Do couples ever take separate honeymoons?”
I flipped through my marriage cards again, searching for something to help me through the latest crisis. The cards did not disappoint.
For the Darkest Days:
No one really understands anyone else. That your spouse doesn’t grasp you in central ways is entirely unavoidable…Your anguish is very real at this moment. But later it won’t seem quite so bad. We get used to things. We can cope better than we think.”
There’s a card on compromise that I should probably pay closer attention to, but for now my plan is to make Stretch a surprise cheese plate on our honeymoon. I think this is going to be a fabulous marriage.