Last August I shared a vignette about honeymooning with my wife, Jolie. It started as a camping trip and wound up with her in the hospital due to food poisoning. But everything ended happily. Correction. It didn’t end because it’s not over yet. We’ve been continuing happily (more or less) for 59 years if we make it to tomorrow.
Our first Christmas together was the first bump in our road. Neither of us anticipated it. Jolie’s Christmases had always been full of love, with an abundance of relatives attending family functions. My Christmases were something to suffer. Any Christmas magic disappeared when I was 12.
Following our annual Christmas Eve dinner, I, the only child, got to distribute presents among a small extended family of adults. Dinner invariably deteriorated. Voices rose as alcohol inflamed festering resentments into loud, outspoken mutual accusations. No one noticed when 12-year-old Santa quietly slipped from the table and went to bed. I was not yet asleep when the family missed me. It was time for Christmas gifting! They cajoled me into participating, but I’d lost any remnant of Christmas joy.
Fast forward 13 years. My bubbly bride and I approached the first Christmas of our life together, a special event for her; for me, a ritual to be endured. Jolie planned and shopped early. I shopped for requisite presents on Christmas Eve. Jolie wrapped and hid all the presents. I found them, guessed what they were, and gleefully confronted her.
“Don’t bother to get me anything,” she said, tears welling.
“Aw, come on. I was just kidding.”
“Don’t bother to get me anything,” she repeated, now crying.
This was new. I hadn’t known, she hadn’t known, the wide disparities that separated our Christmases past. But we soon learned and used that knowledge to create a stronger bond.
Some years and three children later in a class on marriage and family, we listened to a woman who had been married for 37 years respond to a question: “There is no such thing as a perfect marriage. All marriages have problems. A good marriage is one that faces and deals with problems successfully.”
The following year a major crisis arose between us. I was working temporarily in Colorado. Jolie had the kids in West Virginia, where we were living. The issue threatened our marriage. Emotions ran high.
But we were lucky. Unrelated circumstances had separated us. This allowed us to implement an unusual method to resolve the problems. Face-to-face discussion would have been difficult, especially with young children near. We used the phone, of course, running up huge bills. But the trick that worked was putting our thoughts on paper. Email didn’t exist, thank goodness! Hand-written letters require energy, especially when further energized by deep emotions.
Back and forth we wrote, each waiting for days while the Postal Service delivered the letter. Then there was the phoned response. Each wondered, during the inevitable wait, what the other would say. Long-distance conversations clarified misunderstandings and uncertainties, often raising other questions. Then back to pen and paper.
It worked so well that for years afterward, living under one roof, we’ve used it to resolve issues. One of us might hand the other a letter: time for another serious consultation. Once you’ve established mutual trust built on shared love, you’re more willing to listen to a partner wanting to discuss a less-than-enjoyable topic.
When emotions run high enough that you might blurt out something you immediately regret, it’s better to put thoughts to paper first and let them age for a day or two. Then you can reconsider. Do you really want to say what you wrote in the heat of anger? The energy spent in committing thoughts to paper allows you to calm down and rethink what you’re saying. Then you can discuss it dispassionately with your partner.
The principles that underlie our dialogues include honesty, courtesy, agreement on facts, and agreement on shared values, principles we both live by. It’s cathartic. It’s also the conflict-free conflict resolution that has kept us together, as we dodder through our eighties, for nearly six decades.
We recommend it highly. No guarantees, of course, but we’ve even reconciled Christmas.
Pete and Jolie Haug have been writing and editing together since he edited her master’s thesis and almost broke up the marriage. Now she exacts draconian revenge by editing his writing. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.