Greg Bean


Sometimes, it’s the small

things that save a marriage

Last weekend, my stepfather got married to a wonderful woman, and I couldn’t be happier.

This is a guy who came into the lives of me and my brothers after my father died, and not only loved our mother, but nursed her through her last years of illness. We’ve maintained a close relationship since her death, and as far as we’re concerned, he is our dad. We support whatever makes him happy, including this marriage.

Still, I was a bit surprised when – in the same conversation we were discussing wedding arrangements – he asked a question I didn’t expect.

“Do you have any advice?” he asked.

“What kind of advice? Clothes? Wine?”

“No,” he said. “Advice on marriage. I want this to work.”

To tell the truth, the question, coming from someone who is almost 25 years older than me, left me speechless, and that’s almost impossible to do. I mumbled some smart-alecky comment about never leaving his underwear on the bedroom floor and putting the toilet seat down, then changed the subject.

But I’ve been giving the matter a lot of thought since that conversation, and it turns out I do have some advice (although maybe not for an old hand like my stepfather, who knows this stuff already). And that advice boils down to talking about all the things that are important to you, and your expectations, before the wedding so there are no bad surprises afterward.

Many a marriage has failed because couples blithely rush into matrimony only to discover after the honeymoon that they have completely opposing expectations and desires. They fail to discuss the big questions beforehand, and are unpleasantly surprised to discover that they don’t know their new spouse very well at all. In fact, that spouse is a completely different person from the one they thought they married, and one they don’t much like.

What are those questions?

Most of the “experts” agree on the biggies. Kids or no kids? Who’s going to take care of them? Do we agree on spending and saving money? How much does each of us owe? How are we going to pay it off? Do we like each other’s friends and parents? If there are children from previous marriages, what are our expectations regarding the relationship of the new spouse to those children? What are we prepared to give up for the marriage? Would we be willing to move if a job or life circumstances require it? Have we fully disclosed our financial and health histories?

There are lots of other questions of major import, and you can find them online or in one of a thousand self-help tomes available at the local bookstore.

I have found, however, that sometimes the smaller questions can be as important, cumulatively, as the larger ones.

Sometimes, it’s the avalanche of annoying minor detail that can throw a marriage into a tailspin, a spin that could have been avoided if the matters had been discussed before the wedding. For example:

+ When you watch television, will it be tuned to the History Channel or Home and Garden TV? Many a new bride has been appalled to find that the only thing besides sports her new husband wants to watch on television are World War II battle re-enactments and programs about marauding Vikings on the History Channel. Many a new husband has been driven to distraction by a new bride who insists on watching yet one more interminable program on H&G about how to rearrange your closet. Marriages have broken on this rocky promontory, partnerships that could have been saved if only a compromise had been discussed and reached before the vows. Hint: the Home Shopping Network is not a compromise, nor is Spike TV.

+ Paris or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Will we take our first expensive vacation at the Indy 500 or Fashion Week in New York? Prior discussion on this important subject is imperative.

+ How many pairs of shoes can one own and still be considered normal? Are six pairs enough? A hundred too many? What is the outside limit that can be paid for new shoes without consulting each other or an investment counselor?

+ Buster’s All-You-Can-Eat Barbecue or Le Petit Poulet? Self-explanatory.

+ If you both work, who is responsible for food shopping? For making dinner? Who does dishes? If you are a man and it’s your turn to cook, is mac and cheese (Velveeta) and boiled hot dogs an acceptable entree? Will you put ketchup on that entree? Is ketchup a vegetable? If you are a woman, can cereal and skim milk ever be considered an entire meal? Even if there are Oreos for dessert? And how do we feel about leftovers? Or wine from a box?

+ How about cabbage? This is particularly important on St. Paddy’s Day. My advice? Never marry anyone who doesn’t eat cabbage with their corned beef. Ditto anyone who does not appreciate cream gravy. Ditto anyone who likes turnips. Turnips, as we all know, are just plain disgusting and people who eat them (or sneak them into the stew) cannot be trusted.

+ Who drives? Under what conditions? Who’s responsible for getting the directions? Is backseat driving allowed?

+ Norah Jones or ZZ Top? What will we listen to on the road, which at home? What if your new spouse prefers talk radio, or God forbid, doesn’t like music at all? Can the marriage be saved? Is it even worth saving?

+ Valentine’s Day: imperative observance or Hallmark nuisance? Are flowers and chocolates sufficient, or are we talking jewelry?

+ For those who celebrate the holiday: Christmas trees, real or fake? The answer to this question is often a deal-breaker, and well it should be.

+ Toothpaste: cap on, or cap off? Top-of-the-tube squeezer, or bottom? Additional bathroom dilemma: at what point do we change the toilet paper roll and who’s responsible for changing it? Do we agree on what constitutes a clean bathroom?

+ Is dusting necessary? Who dusts? Is it ever acceptable to use an old sock for a dust rag?

And the most important question of all: dogs or cats? Men, never marry a woman with more cats than she has thumbs. Women, never marry a man who thinks a Yorkshire terrier is a real dog. Trust me on this. Marry one of those guys, and you’ll be very sorry. Instead, look for a guy with a Lab. Labs are good judges of character.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at