Let’s stop celebrating wedding anniversaries

Who doesn’t love media stories of the wrinkled up couple celebrating their 83rd wedding anniversary?

I don’t!

No, of course I really do. Because like you, I tell myself that they were so happy all those years! They were each other’s champion and confidant and soul mate! And despite the arthritis and replaced joints and decades of familiarity, they still probably got it once in a while. What a fairytale.

But no one knows that. Nor do we know that he didn’t beat the crap out of her every single day, or that their children weren’t secretly sired by the farm hand she carried on with for most of those years. Or, maybe they simply hated each other’s bloody guts those 83 years and barely muttered a word to each other for decades. Where’s the success in that?

Let’s take a closer look at our expectations of marriage. Is sticking it out really the goal? Maybe yes, but I would suggest in most cases: No freaking way. What if we consiously chose more meaningful definitions of success? What if we identified milestones that inspire us work harder at our marriages — not just clock the days and years until the next anniversary?

I know plenty of long-married couples who have been through some tough stuff — affairs, life-threatening illness, addiction and general hating the very ground the other person walks on for no good reason other than you’ve been living with that body for so many years. Some of those marriages somehow survive and both parties swear they’re stronger and happier for it.

In some cases, I believe them.

But contempt is tough to overcome. Resentment from feeling wronged, and the contempt bred by familiarity can be impossible to shake off. Forgiveness — of yourself, others — is tricky business.

You try. You really try to make it better. You buy so many relationship books and spend so much on couples counseling. Retreats and toys and date nights. Listen more. Try to reconnect. But you hate him. You just do.

I say: That’s cool. It’s OK to hate your spouse.

The beautiful thing about life in this country today: You have a choice. You can stay and hate them and then hate yourself for wasting your life hating. Or you can accept that you needed that relationship for its term, and now it is over.

And then you can go on and define a successful marriage by your own terms. Maybe you had fantastic kids, or built a business, or had a really fulfilling social life. Or what if you had a successful marriage just because it was fun? Or you grew personally or it got you out of your miserable po-dunk hometown or made you believe in your dreams. Or any combination of these elements – including living until one or the other kicks off.

Or maybe, if we redefined what constitutes a successful marriage we would work harder at it. Maybe we wouldn’t be so complacent, and just wait until the next anniversary to celebrate a prescribed success. Maybe killing off the longevity factor would make marriages happier while they lasted — so much so that they actually lasted longer?

How could any of that be a failure?



**My 10-year marriage contract has been mentioned in:**



Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

29 thoughts on “Let’s stop celebrating wedding anniversaries

  1. I disagree. I think most marriages, especially contemporary ones, that last are the result of hard work and making tough decisions. Because it is easy to leave now. Those married-for-80-years folks had fewer choices and maybe they did fall into the traps you describe. But I think that yes, longevity should be a goal because if that’s not your goal from the minute you say “I do” then something is wrong from the get-go.

    1. Cynthia – that is an interesting point I had not considered. But I still disagree — I have heard from MANY now-divorced people who are so sorry they did not divorce sooner — and many unhappily married ones looking for the courage/money/balls to leave now. I appreciate there is much value in sticking it out — but a mere ticking away of years is a poor way to measure success. It is akin to collecting money in the bank for the sake of collecting money in the bank – but way worse, because you can always cash that money in for something meaningful. You can’t get back time — much less time miserably spent.

  2. I know a woman who has been married about 40 years. She has always says she “does not believe in divorce.” They have weathered affairs (from him), his alcoholism and his general complete insanity. Their marriage has survived, but she has become a very mean, very bitter, unhappy person. She is one of those people who actively tries to make other people unhappy because she is so miserable. Is that better? I think not. I use her as my example of a terrible, but long-lived marriage. There is no victory in that.

  3. But I wonder – maybe miserable people will just always find a way to be miserable, whether it is through an unhappy marriage, or by being miserably alone? Thoughts?

  4. I’ve been pouring over divorce sites almost everyday at work because I’ve felt that is exactly where my marriage has been headed now for the past three years. I read everything trying to know what to expect. My husband is such a douche that I’ve viewed my choosing him as a direct reflection on myself. He has relentlessly assaulted me verbally and emotionally. There was a physical incident where he may or may not have choked me. He has cheated on me and also tried to kick me out our home twice. All in all, I find your site encouraging about what I will face in the aftermath.

  5. Stephanie – I’m glad you found support here, and I’m sorry you’re in such a miserable situation. It is indeed abusive. How can you get out? More importantly, WHEN can you get out?

  6. But sometimes longevity IS a sign of good things. I’m celebrating my 30th this year, and celebrating is the right word. He’s my best friend, and we grew closer because we didn’t assume there was an out clause when life took a few dips. We realized we needed to help each other to survive them.

    Maybe the problem is that we’ve turned weddings into “princess for the day” events that girls want so badly, they make poor partner choices to get it. My rule of thumb: If you would hesitate to commit your life to a spouse wearing what you have on right now on a random Tuesday, then you need to examine whether this is a party choice, or a marriage you’re entering into.

  7. Thanks for the comments, Julie. No one is suggesting that long marriages CAN’T be successful. Only that the years ticking by is NOT an automatic indicator of happiness — and I’m defining success as happiness (among other things the individuals and couples can decide for themselves). Sounds like your marriage is both happy and long, and that is wonderful to hear about.

    And of course, ho would argue about the (freaking!) princess day? But how do we turn that around? I want some real suggestions here, people!

  8. My idea? Let’s do away with the traditional “vows” and what marriage means. Let’s actually define our own marriages. Want to sleep with other people? Let’s agree to that up front. Want to travel alone every year of your marriage for a week? Write that in, too. If I had to guess at the most common reason marriages fail it is that both parties were not completely honest about why they were marrying and what they wanted up front. We need to stop collectively defining “marriage” and let each couple define their own. I think we would see a lot more happy marriages.

  9. I don’t understand why you’re suggesting that the institution of marriage has to be changed–can’t people get married and make their own arrangements pretty much as they want? I think they do it all the time. There was a book written called The Secret Lives of Wives by Iris Krasnow (I think) that explored how women found ways to find their OWN happiness and stay married long-term. Each story was distinct and unusual and I was surprised and touched to read about the happiness of a woman in an arranged marriage. The point of the book, and my point here, is that none of us should be looking for anyone else to create our own happiness. Whether you’re married or single, it is YOUR responsibility to find your way through this life. The minute we depend upon someone else to do that for us, we’re in trouble. And honestly Emma, I think the glorification of divorce, particularly when children are involved, is irresponsible and dangerous. I have friends both married and divorced and I am a product of divorce. Divorce sucks for kids–even amicable “good” divorces. There’ve been books and studies about that too. So while I would never tell a woman to stay in a miserable relationship, I think she owes it to herself and her family to figure out WHY she’s miserable and be sure that it’s not something she can address within the marriage. I tell young people I know getting married all the time that it is a ton of work to be married, emotional and physical work. But you know what? I’ve been married almost 23 years. I still like and love my husband. And sometimes he makes me crazy, as I’m sure I do him. Doesn’t matter. We share similar life goals, we are proud of the life and family we built together, and we have fun together. When we’re having a rough time we figure it out. Don’t you have to do that in any relationship anyway??? I’m not talking about situations of abuse or substance abuse. But I see too many of my peers (I’m in my forties) leaving their marriages because “they’re just not happy anymore.” Seriously? That’s it? They don’t seem much happier to me when they’re out. Wherever you go, there you are.

  10. Emily and the other happily married readers – Good for you! I’d love to learn from you. But in the past half-century we’ve been suffering a marriage crisis and “I’m happily married! Just do what I do!” is not going to solve this. I’m suggesting shifting our paradigms from time being the sole goal of marriage, to setting out goals that will actually make us happier and work HARDER at marriage. As I wrote:

    >>Or maybe, if we redefined what constitutes a successful marriage we would work harder at it. Maybe we wouldn’t be so complacent, and just wait until the next anniversary to celebrate a prescribed success. Maybe killing off the longevity factor would make marriages happier while they lasted — so much so that they actually lasted longer?

    And Emily, your “irresponsible” comment didn’t speak to the issue at hand, wasn’t backed up, and struck me as an off-hand jab in an otherwise thoughtful comment.

    1. I think that some of the comments are trying to point this out to you Emma, but you are not acknowledging it: TIME or LENGTH of a marriage has never been “the sole goal of marriage.” It is one of many elements and possibly and indicator (or not) of a successful marriage, but it is not the goal of the marriage.

      I think that it is unreasonable and dangerous for anyone to think that they should be happy at all times (and obviously I’m not suggesting that people stay unhappily married for years). But, be real: life is full of ups and downs whether you are married, divorced, single, married filing separate etc. People who are constantly searching for happiness outside of themselves or depending on another person to make them happy are setting themselves up for failure. Period. A good partnership enables people to weather these ups and downs together.

      Maybe I am a contradiction, but I believe in marriage. And the first question I ask anyone who wants a consultation is: “do you feel you have done everything you can to save the marriage?”

  11. Interesting. I am all for leaving a marriage when necessary, and recognizing the goodness that it had before it was over, but I am not sure how to square that with the idea that marriage’s uniqueness and beauty requires some kind of greater commitment than “as long as this might last.” We all *know* when marrying that it does not have to be forever, which I am thankful for. And maybe we should redefine our conception of “success” or “failure” so that it is rooted in the power of the love when it was there, or the creation of amazing children, or some other measure, and stop calling divorce “failure” because that certainly is depressing and blaming, …but still…there is something in aiming for forever and celebrating when you do work through tough times or boring times or changing times and grow together. Maybe we shouldn’t call divorce failure, but (as you also say in your post) anniversaries are sometimes (often maybe?) successes. I say pop the champagne.

  12. Emma, I’m sorry. It was not intended that way. I was specifically referring to the over-glorification of divorce. I wasn’t directing it at you. I do think that the tide has turned towards, “what the heck, I can just get divorced!” And as we’ve chatted elsewhere, I’m concerned about the lack of awareness (or acknowledgement) of the impact on the kids.

  13. I’m not sure why celebrating anniversaries means that time is the goal of marriage. Surely people set out together for other reasons apart from longevity. But when it happens and you build a life together, it’s a beautiful thing. As for working hard at it? You have no idea how much time I put into this relationship. It’s not just “do what I do and you’ll be happier.” I am constantly re-evaluating myself and how I relate to my husband. The unexpected benefit is that I’m a happier, more self-assured person in those moments when I can see things from his perspective and not just from mine. It gives a person tremendous freedom and clarity when that happens.

  14. I don’t think that the purpose of marriage was ever to make us happy. I think the purpose was stability — 2 adults working together, often to protect and raise children. I don’t think that means that one needs to stay in a miserable marriage, but I think that putting too much focus on the elusive goal of “happiness” is wrong too.

  15. Emma,
    I don’t believe that there is any one goal, no one size fits all for marriage. I also think goals evolve and change as the people in the relationship do. I was 24 when I got married. The ideas I had about life and marriage were distinct from those I have now at 47 (yikes!)

  16. lets face it, within the 10 yr marriage contract, the women will bear a child or children. After pregnancy, her body will eventually changed (heavier, fatter, wrinkles and so forth). After completing her two terms 10 year marriage contract, she will be having difficulty finding new man for her next 10th year marriage contract. The result, she will be left alone, lonely, old and probably unemployed. For those woman out there, this 10 year marriage contract is unfair to you.

  17. Edward, you assume that this model will lead to more divorce. Divorce is already prevalent. I suggest that this model will REDUCE divorce, and at the very least force people to live within the realm of reality that divorce is very likely — thus taking care of their careers, finances and physical selves to prep for life outside of marriage. In other words, it can’t get worse than it already is — this model only stands to make marriage, divorce and life after divorce better for all parties involved — women especially.

  18. Why even have vows then from this logic. It’s all in the vows. For better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sicknes and in health… what do you suppose this means? It’s going to be all easy-going, no work involved? I think most people enter into marriage thinking that if things don’t go exactly the way they think it should go, they can just throw in the towel and get a divorce? Then they have kids with that same logic, without really thinking. Now they’re involving children..

    So make smart responsible choices. Think about what you are doing. Who your are marrying. It’s a life decision that you should not enter into lightly. Then when you make a pledge, as you do when you take Vows, MEAN IT! Take the Vows seriously! Do the work! Especially if you then make another decision and have kids with the person you should have never married in the first place and screw up their lives forever!

    No relationship is easy! Yes there are real reasons to divorce but so many could be avoided if you Read THose Vows and believe them!

  19. OK, Karen, but couples have been hearing lectures like yours for decades. Nothing is changing. What can we do differently to turn this divorce ship around?

  20. Maybe it’s time couples start listening and being accountable. Pre-martial counseling is a good idea. When my son got married, he & his fiancé went to pre-martial counseling. It was actually a weekend retreat through her church. My family not being particularly church-going, found this to be an excellent idea. They said they discussed what their concerns with marrying one another would be. For example: My son expressed anxiety over maintaining his own space.

    So if not through a church, seek pre-martial counseling through a professional. As a parent, you can insist if you are helping pay for the wedding!

    Marry your best friend! Lead by example. Listen!

    That’s all I got!

    1. :) Karen – I agree that is all good advice (including the paying parents insist on counseling, but you can lead a horse to water …). Again, this is all lecturing, which has been done since forever — we need something institutionalized to improve marriage chances.

      1. Honestly, premarital counseling while great, doesnt guarantee anything. I did premarital counseling with my soon to be ex. It was a success, supposedly. But my spouse had an underlying personality disorder that got worse after my kids were born. Some of these things are things you can’t always prepare for.

        One thought I had was actually maybe classes in school that went beyond the regular curriculum. Classes that dealt with conflict resolution, red flags in dating, signs of disordered behavior including how to see control and manipulation. Maybe self development courses/program for teens that are gender specific geared towards self respect and self responsibility. The idea here is that you would prepare teens to renegotiate better partnering based upon healthy self respect and true wants and needs vs. out of an unhealthy dependency. You choose who you really want when you feel okay being alone….you’re less likely to settle for deal breaking behavior. I personally made bad choices out of a poor self esteem and lonliness. Now that I have a better self respect, I will choose better. I would rather be alone than settle for another Mr. Wrong For Me

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