Do any of you grown-ups ever stop in the middle of your day to wonder, Who’s in charge here? I do: all the time. Because even though I am an adult in full possession of a mortgage, who votes in most elections, and has 3 teenagers, I mostly still feel about 16 years old. Like…I’m making payments on my daughter’s college bill, and thinking, Shouldn’t I be in study hall right now?

To my surprise, last November, I celebrated 21 years of marriage to my husband Tim. I don’t feel old enough to even be married, let alone have done it for over 2 decades which, face it, is longer than I have ever stuck to anything in life, except for the act of drawing breath. This may be why I have a nose piercing and hair the color of red velvet cake. In many senses, I suppose I am still waiting for the adults to show up and tell me to shape up or else.

But suddenly, when it comes to knowing how to stay married, I find that I AM the adult here. I have beaten the odds and stayed [mostly] happily married to the same person on purpose for a long time. All at once, I have something to say on a subject that does not include the words, “Buy L’Oreal: you will regret the red-box brand every time.”

Ah, staying married! How I could (and shall) wax eloquent. It’s not something that happens on accident, lemmee tell you. Once, I remember an oft-divorced friend telling me mistily, “You’re so lucky you found your Mr. Right the first time around.” I nearly snorted coffee out my nose in indignation. Seriously, since when has staying married ever been about finding Mr. or Mrs. Right?

Staying married is about becoming Mr. or Mrs. Right.

 Married 21 Years

See, this is a beef I have with romance novels. And my halfhearted apologies in advance to those of you who just love you a good Harlequin or Silhouette, but to me, those 250 page books end just when the real story’s beginning. They tell about the easy part! Following your hormones and primal mating urges, and all that… Anyone can fall in love. But I always close the cover of that kind of book thinking, And then what happened the first time she was attracted to another man?

Or when his temper became detrimental to their relationship?

Or when his drinking got out of hand?

Or when she couldn’t get along with her mother-in-law and family dynamics ignited into all-out war?

This is what happens when two imperfect people, who have had the luxury for awhile now of being self-centered, try to meld their lives into one. It can get really ugly. You can kind of hate each other sometimes. Or often. Or whatever.

Back in the days when I devoured Harlequins like Corn Nuts, I remember being especially enthralled by stories with the “Arranged Marriage” theme. You know: the millionaire sheik who marries the reluctant nanny for the sake of….whatever benefit such an arrangement could possibly offer a sheik. The Gentlewoman of Reduced Circumstances who agrees to a discreet, platonic marriage in order to save the family farm. (Forgive me if I have my have my genres crossed.) I think I connected with them so strongly because I believe this:

Ultimately, every marriage is an arranged marriage.

No matter how long you’re married, at some point you’re bound to wake up some day thinking, Oh no…what have I done? And at that point, you can either spiral downhill fast, or you can start to work really hard and maybe make something beautiful happen.

So, although I’m not an expert (okay…I lie. After 21 year, I do get to be called an expert,) I would like to share with you 5 things I’ve learned about what it takes to stay [mostly] happily married for a long time:

5. Just be nice to each other. Why is it that we can be so polite and thoughtful toward strangers, then turn and treat our own spouse like a wet dog with fleas? Don’t we want our home lives to be as pleasant and as peaceful as possible? We’re all capable of speaking kindly, giving a sincere compliment, and living thoughtfully alongside another human being. And while we’re on the subject, do try to remember that the person you’re married to is, in fact, an adult who should not be nagged, henpecked, or bossed around. Try asking yourself, “Is this the way I’d talk to a co-worker, or a guest in my home?” Then apply that same level of respect to the person you live with 24/7.

4. Decide that you’re a complete family before you have children. The two of you together are enough. If you decide and are blessed to have children, your relationship with them should be secondary to your relationship with each other. I have not always done this one well, but I recognize the value of it. Kids grow up and move on to their own lives. And who do they leave behind in the house? Two people who started out with only each other, and will continue on together. How sad it is, if they have forgotten their own family-hood along the way. How beautiful if they’ve sustained it.

3. Don’t give the silent treatment. No matter how you grew up, please grow out of this one fast. There is absolutely nothing good to be gained by subjecting your spouse to 2 days of Punishment by Silence. Learn to fight quick, get it out of the way, and get on to the making up part which, after 21 years, is way more fun than it was way back when both of us were skinny, but neither of us knew a thing.

2. Choose each other over your family of origin. Do you seriously still hate his mom? Are you still vying with her father for her respect? Listen to me: both of you sit down; have a talk. Agree to have each other’s back; to be on Team Us and not on Team Them. The best thing my husband ever did for our marriage was to take my side in the early years, when his mother was doling out hefty helpings of unsolicited child-rearing advice. Choose each other first, and make your loyalties known.

1. Be best friends. If you are married, you should be your spouse’s best friend, and your spouse should be yours, period. There is no reason for a married person to have a different best friend who is the same sex as the spouse. That is just nonsense: It is wishful thinking; an escape route; it is a denial of the life that is set before you. If you are not best friends with your spouse, then become so. Work at it. Play Cribbage. Watch British television together. Eat cake for breakfast. Read poetry. Go snowshoeing in the moonlight. Being married to your best friend is so much fun that the work it may take to get there and stay there is worth it.

 My hope, on this Valentine’s Day week, is that if you are single, you will pin your hopes less on finding the right person than on becoming the right person. My wish for couples is that they might realize how much of love really is a choice. Hourly, daily choices to be the right person; to call out that right person in your mate. If you’re committed to this, you may wake up one day to discover, “I feel like I should be in study hall, but somehow, I’ve been married for over two decades.”

That’s a good thing. Long love is the greatest thing.

*This is an edited version of a post I originally wrote for Rachel McMillan at her brilliant blog. Rachel, a native of Toronto, is a film and book critic. Her first novel, The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Murder will be released in early 2016. Pop on over to her brilliant blog and say hi to her!

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