OPINION: Till death do us part: Survival tips for a long-haul marriage

Maybe it’s too much time together –- the lengthening darkness that has my retired husband and me spending longer mornings and evenings with each other, on top of a pandemic that resulted in seasons of time isolated together. Whatever the cause, I’ve been finding that what used to be endearing idiosyncrasies have become annoyances.

I’ve heard and read that such reactions are common as a relationship gets long in the tooth. We’ve been together 33 years and married 25. That long partnering, compounded by more time together than we’ve been accustomed to, has presented challenges. Enough that it occurs to me that marriage has a lot in common with the North Slope Haul Road, later named the James W. Dalton Highway after the Arctic engineer and lifelong Alaskan.

Here are descriptors of the Haul Road from Atlas Obscura that, in my experience, also apply to a long-haul marriage:

• It’s gravelly.

• While approximately one-quarter of the road is paved, these sections can be rough from repeated freezing and thawing.

• It’s not designed for the average driver.

• Ruts in the gravel can make staying on the road a challenge, especially where it’s barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass.


• Driving on the road often kicks up rocks that smash windshields.

• While the road is mainly straight and flat, there are sharp turns –- one called “Oh S*** Corner” –- and steep grades.

• Just beyond the halfway mark is Disaster Creek.

My beloved and I are committed to our vows, so I’ve been thinking about ways to better navigate the challenges of our long-haul road. Here are three strategies I’m finding helpful.

There’s no such thing as a quail-elephant gun

In our first “relationship” talk, my beloved told me, “There’s no such thing as a quail-elephant gun.” Having not yet taken up hunting, I asked what he meant. He replied, “There’s no one gun you can use to hunt quail, elephants, and everything in between. I can’t be a quail-elephant gun. I want a partner who has her own interests and pursuits and doesn’t expect me to be everything.”

I’ve been reminding myself when I look at my beloved that he isn’t a quail-elephant gun. But he is my .30-06 rifle – well-oiled, consistent, dependable, sustaining me and seeing me through perilous times.

Treat each other like the dog

Our dog is sweet, loving and gentle. She also has chewed up socks, swallowed and regurgitated children’s mittens, had “accidents” and eats poop whenever she can. She is punished for none of this. She’s innocent because she has no bad intentions and is just being a dog. We chalk it up to our fault and work on how to avoid such mishaps.

My beloved and I are neither as innocent nor well-dispositioned. But most of the time we annoy each other, it’s without malice. Rather, it’s part of the cosmic joke of having two creatures who look very similar except for gender characteristics, making them attracted to each other even though they’re incompatible by nature, and then surrounding them with monogamistic expectations. What could go wrong? Try nagging neatness meets clutter and disarray, spontaneity meets compulsive planning, command meets control –- just to begin an endless list.

I’m going to try to treat my beloved like we do the dog, and assume his minor transgressions aren’t premeditated to aggravate me. Like the dog, he may not even view them as transgressions. I know I don’t mine.

Make a disarmament pact

My beloved and I have each come up with a phrase that disarms the other. Mine arose from a morning I found him cranky for no reason I could discern. I went to the kitchen cupboard, shook out four Cheerios, and held them out in my open hand. He said, testily, “What’s this?” I answered, “They’re happy pills, 200 milligrams each, a therapeutic dose. Take ‘em.” He laughed. I made him eat them. Now I only need to say, “Do you need some happy pills?”

He came up with his phrase after we’d lived together several years. One morning I opened my eyes and gazed at him sleeping. I was feeling the love. He woke up and returned my look, then said, “I love you… and I’m sorry.” Startled, I asked him what he was sorry for. He replied, “I don’t know, but I figure I’ll have to say it sometime today so I might as well get it out of the way.” I laughed. But later, I thought about what he’d said. I didn’t want to be someone that made her beloved feel like he was bound to mess up and must apologize every day. When I start to slip into wearisome nitpicking, “I love you, and I’m sorry,” is the “spoonful of sugar” that gets the message across.

A final note: As Atlas Obscura noted, Alaska’s Haul Road also features stunning views and places where you don’t hear another sound of humanity. So does my marriage. What an adventure.

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.

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Val Van Brocklin

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.