I’ve been married for 21 years. Overall, they’ve been 21 good years with the typical sorts of hills and valleys, but I think Jean would agree that if we could go back in time and make the decision whether or not to get married we’d do it again.
But even after two decades of wedded bliss, I’m still learning things about how to make cohabiting work really well.
The number one lesson, I think, for any man married to any woman is that sometimes saying what you think is the right thing is never as wise as not saying anything at all.
A few weeks ago Jean and I were sitting on the couch watching television together. I don’t remember what we were watching, but we were relaxed, and she was kind of leaning against me and I had my arm around her, and it was a very comfortable sort of evening that you don’t always get to enjoy with your wife when you’ve got kids and commitments and whatnot. So I was really enjoying the moment.
A commercial for some kind of wrinkle cream came on. The woman on the commercial said something along the lines of: “Don’t love your wrinkles.”
Jean said something about how maybe she should pick up that wrinkle cream.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away here. We’ve been married 21 years. We’re middle aged. We have wrinkles. Jean, who is older than I am, has more than I do. But we both have wrinkles.
Because we’ve been married for 21 years, I knew that this was not the moment to point out to Jean that she is older than I am and has more wrinkles than I do.
And because we’ve been married for 21 years, I also knew that this was not the moment to agree with her and say, “Yes, you should use that wrinkle cream.”
I suppose I could have lied and said to her, “You don’t have any wrinkles.”
But idle flattery is no good strategy, because then sincere flattery falls on deaf ears.
So riffing off the commercial I made the poor decision of saying, “I love your wrinkles.”
It seemed like a sort of sweet compliment, a kind way of saying that even though we’re getting old I still like my wife.
But Jean sat straight up and said, “Did you call me wrinkly? Wrinkly Old Jean, is that what you called me?”
“No,” I stammered. “That’s not what I’m saying. I didn’t call you anything.”
“Wrinkly Old Jean,” she repeated. “I can’t believe you would say that to your wife.”
“No – the woman on the commercial,” I spluttered. “She said ‘don’t love your wrinkles.’ I was just saying that I do love your wrinkles.”
“Did you call me Wrinkly Old Jean again?” she asked. And then she started fake crying.
So, at this point I knew I had lost. There was nothing I could now do or say that would return us to the comfortable, relaxed, Jean leaning against me and just enjoying the television show together moment we’d been experiencing. So I gave in.
“Yes,” I said. “I called you Wrinkly Old Jean.”
And then to get her to stop the fake crying I started tickling her. Jean grew up with three older brothers. She hates to be tickled more than anything. If you want to get her to stop talking about you calling her “Wrinkly Old Jean,” then just tickle her.
Of course, Jean wasn’t really mad. She was just joking around with her faux outrage, her feigned offense. But for days – maybe even weeks – she didn’t let it go. She was constantly calling herself, “Wrinkly Old Jean,” and telling our friends and family that I had called her Wrinkly Old Jean.
You always see the advice on motivational posters in guidance counselors’ offices that you should learn something new every day, and it is sage advice. And that day I learned that sometimes in marriage you shouldn’t say anything at all if your wife can construe what you’ve said to mean that she’s wrinkly or old.
When the wrinkle cream commercial comes on, I just don’t say anything. I cannot win that situation, and so my lip is buttoned. I keep quiet anytime there is a commercial for any kind of anti-aging remedies or hair coloring or other sorts of personal grooming equipment. Say nothing. No comment at all. Don’t agree or disagree. Don’t try to be kind, and don’t be mean. Just say nothing at all.
Fortunately, I usually fast forward through commercials and so there aren’t a lot of opportunities for me to have to say nothing. But this morning Jean tested me.
“Don’t you like the streaks of gray hair I have?” she asked while looking in the mirror.
Immediately a joke popped into my mind. I couldn’t help it. The very first thing I thought of – and it was no reflection of my wife, it was just a thought that occurred – was that old sing-along song: “The old, gray mare she ain’t what she used to be.”
And – thank the Lord! – the second thing that immediately popped into my mind was: “Don’t you dare start singing that song!”
“It’s kind of like highlights,” Jean said, still talking about gray hairs. “They’re sparkly, and you know I like sparkly things.”
I didn’t agree. I didn’t disagree. I didn’t tell her that I like her gray hair, and I didn’t tell her that Revlon has a color that would make her hair look exactly like it used to before she started getting gray streaks. And I absolutely did not start singing any old sing-along songs.
If there is a secret to a long and happy marriage, I don’t know for sure what it is. But what I do know for sure is that sometimes in a marriage when you think you know the right thing to say – or think you know the funny thing to say – it’s best to forget it and just keep quiet and hope that your wife changes the subject soon.
Rob Peecher is author of “Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings,” and he loves his wife’s wrinkles and gray hairs.