Marriage is a Joke – Keeping the last laugh, together.

Photo: Betsy Erickson, Essence Photography,  www.essencephotog.com

Photo: Betsy Erickson, Essence Photography, http://www.essencephotog.com

One person? For a lifetime? And complete fidelity? You’ve gotta be kidding. Well, yeah, you kind of do have to be kidding. Joking. Laughing. Delighting. At least, that’s what the scientists say…

My honeymoon was a disaster. We were two poor graduate students amazed at how cheap it was to stay in an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica at the end of October. It seemed too good to be true.

It was.

Jamaica in October is cheap because it’s hurricane season, and you never know what you’re going to get. We got a hurricane. For that week, the sun didn’t exist, the winds whipped sand like a loofa-by-God, and it rained incessantly. I suppose a honeymoon in the midst of a tropical storm can still be romantic, if you make all the right moves.

But my first move on the honeymoon was decidedly not the right one.

While eating our first dinner together as a married couple, I got a piece of food stuck in my teeth. Feeling uncomfortable, I excused myself to our nearby hotel room and flossed it out. Marveling at the size of it, I left it sitting beside the sink so my new bride could see it, too. (I know, I know.) And then I returned to dinner.

Unfortunately, the ant population in Jamaica at the end of October functions quite differently than their North American brethren. In October, Jamaican ants are hungry.

Six Decades of Laughter

How does anyone stay married?

What I mean is, once we really get to know our partners, once we spend our daily lives with them and get to know their real quirks and idiosyncracies, once we know how they look when no one else is looking, once we’ve lived in their mess and with their mistakes, why does anyone choose to remain lifelong companions?

My wife’s grandparents have been married for sixty-three years. Last summer, while dining with them in their home, my wife and I asked them, “What is the key to remaining together for more than six decades?”

This bride of more than sixty years became thoughtful and quiet. A short pause. And then she aged in reverse as a wide smile dawned on her face and she exclaimed, “Look at the two of us! Who else would have us?!” Through a gale of laughter, she added, “We couldn’t get divorced—we only have one car!”

Across the table, her husband of sixty-three years watched and listened and the corners of his mouth turned upward with fondness for his constant bride. And then he slyly offered his own opinion, “The key to marriage is learning how to dis-communicate.”

Another eruption of laughter as we enjoyed the joke that was no joke. Because although the words were a joke, the way in which the words were being shared was no joke at all:

They were laughing about life.

They were enjoying each other.

They were showing us the secret to six decades of marriage: laughter and delight in the one we have committed to love, for better or worse.

Why Scientists Say the Best Marriages are a Joke

Dr. John Gottman is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, and he has dedicated his life to studying marriage. When couples come to his laboratory, they participate in an interview in which they tell the story of their relationship. Unbeknownst to the couples, how they respond to the first questions in the interview is a strong predictor of whether or not they will stay together. Not what they say. But how they say it.

The couples who recall the early days of their relationship – the good and the bad times – with smiles and laughter and softness are more likely to stay married. Marriage is hard, but the success of a marriage isn’t related to how hard it is. Rather, marriages hinge upon how hard we laugh about them.

It seems “rose-colored glasses” have gotten a bad rap. Because the rose-colored glasses through which we first gazed upon our partner were not a distortion of the truth – they gave us a window into the whole truth. A window of grace through which we saw our beloved in all of their mess and delighted in them anyway.

It seems the key to a rich, enduring marriage is the daily choice to keep wearing our rose-colored glasses, to view our beloved through the eyes of grace.

Oftentimes, when it feels like our partner has changed, it’s simply not true. Oftentimes, they haven’t changed—we have: we’ve become more critical, more demanding, less interested in who they are and more interested in who we want them to be. If our spouse married us in part because we made them laugh and we’ve quit trying to make them smile, then we’ve changed the marriage contract.

We need to put our rose-colored glasses on again, to crack open the long shut window of grace and behold once again the good and beautiful parts of the person we love, to remember the reasons we fell in love in the first place, to remember the parts of them that now make us crazy used to make us laugh.

The Last Laugh

Almost twelve years after I left a piece of half-masticated food on our honeymoon sink only to return hours later to find a stream of ants pouring through the window and into our hotel room, my wife is telling the story of the debacle to friends at our supper table. And as she tells the story, she smiles and delights in one of my more disgusting moments. She thinks our honeymoon was a joke and, in her laughter about it, I hear the bedrock of a marriage.

When we stubbornly claim the eyes of grace and steadfastly enjoy the messy joke of life and marriage and our beloved, before you know it, sixty years have slipped by. You end up with one car and one person and one marriage and a lifetime of delight.

When that happens, marriage is indeed a joke. And two lovers get to have the last laugh. Together. 

Dr. Kelly Flanagan
About Dr. Kelly Flanagan

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a licensed practicing clinical psychologist who writes regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again.

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