At Large

“Yes, Dear”

The secret to getting along in married life.

By 6.30.06

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In the 1970s, I visited a friend of mine who was married and who had two infant children. I was a little in awe of him that he could start a household so young.

While we sat talking in his living room, the phone rang.

"That's for me," said his wife, springing to her feet and dashing to the next room to answer the call.

"Hello?" I heard her say. "Hi, Flash, this is Skipper. I'm getting discouraged. I need a pep talk. Okay."

My friend's wife was not named "Skipper." I gave my friend a quizzical look.

"She's playing 'Airplane,'" my friend said, explaining quite frankly that this was a pyramid scheme wherein the "players" sold first seats, then sections, then entire flights on an imaginary airplane -- but had to buy those seats, sections, and flights first. At the end, when you had assembled a "flight," you were supposed to receive a tremendous payoff from all the prior players. Huge checks were supposed to start arriving in the mail.

"Airplane," it turns out, had swept Southern California at about that time and had even been the subject of a number of newspaper reports. I wondered at my friend's wife's participation. Pyramid schemes were illegal. And I knew they couldn't afford to pay out money they'd never see again.

To that point, my friend said, the game had cost them $600. My friend's wife knew full well it was illegal -- that's why the pseudonyms for game players -- but had bought in anyway. She had also bought the con, a fact my friend, who was a newspaper reporter himself, knew all too well.

"Why don't you stop her?" I asked.

My friend explained to me that when you were married, there were certain things you did not do.

THIS STORY CAME TO MIND because, while we were cleaning up dinner leavings the other night, I heard my wife explaining to our son Bud what the secret was of having a good marriage.

"You have to learn how to say, 'Yes, dear,'" she said.

New paint scheme for the living room? "Yes, dear." "I think I'd like to take up fly fishing"? "Yes, dear." Dave Barry wrote a whole column about his wife's forbearance when he decided to take up electric guitar in mid-life. Archie Bunker made a joke out of Edith's going through menopause, but, if you stay married long enough through the appropriate age, you will find out it's no joke.

So what is the import of "Yes, dear"? The wedding vows go on about such things as "in sickness and in health," but you do not really know what that means until, two years after your marriage to a perky young Midwestern girl, she is felled by polio, and must spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. That woman, my mother's cousin, just died this past spring, almost 80 years old. Her husband had died just a few years before -- still her husband.

You say, "Yes, dear" not only to your spouse but to God who dispenses all things and sometimes hands out inexplicable suffering. You say, "Yes, dear" to blessings, like windfall salary increases or lottery winnings, and you share without a thought.

I HAVE SAT IN ON A GOOD MANY THERAPY GROUPS in the past, and I have heard a great many men and women give a great many reasons why they could not say, "Yes, dear." They made something or other a dealbreaker, and the deal they broke was their marriage.

Sure enough, if you go into marriage determined to protect your territory and your rights, determined that this or that transgression will break the deal, not only is the deal very likely to be broken, but you and your spouse know that the deal is likely to be broken and never really commit to one another. You will never know the joy of unconditional love, because you have entered into love with conditions attached.

So my long-ago friend kept mum about his wife wasting money on a fraud, and breaking the law, and buying into a con. They stayed married until death parted them, at the beginning of the '90s, when my friend died all too young -- still married, with his infants then very nearly grown up. I'm sure his wife had long ago forgotten about playing Airplane. More important, so had he.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.