In pop culture, happy, healthy marriages don’t exist. Apart from the “chick lit/flick” arena, most movies, TV shows, novels, videogames, you name it, ignore husbands and wives entirely unless A) they’re in the process of falling back in or out of love, or B) they’re in some supportive role – usually the worried parents of a younger, more dynamic protagonist.

This is especially true in sci-fi and fantasy; the only couple I can think of who started their story happily married and stayed that way are Hermes and LaBarbara from Futurama. All too often, happily married couples in these stories meet a decidedly unhappy fate: Take, for example, Star Wars’ Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, Shadow and Laura in American Gods or Firefly‘s Zoe and Wash.

Maybe it’s subliminal schadenfreude – authors and audiences alike acting out their personal miseries on fictional whipping boys. But I think the real reason is far more innocuous: Our society assumes that happy marriages are simply too boring to deserve any attention. Marriage, it’s implied, is a state that, if left uninterrupted, will continue on peacefully forever. Only with a little misery can things become interesting.

If that were true, the divorce rate would be much lower, as the sort of dramatic and epic violence that occurs in sci-fi and fantasy stories rarely mirrors real life.

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The truth is, an unhappy marriage is a lot easier to maintain than a happy one, as it requires less time, energy and emotional dexterity. Falling in love is easy. Staying in love is hard. And although the story usually ends as the heroes kiss and ride off into the sunset, that’s really just the prologue, after which the real work can begin.

***

Last autumn, I married my college sweetheart in a sunset ceremony at a nearby art gallery. It was a small, quiet affair with less than 35 guests, no receiving line or fussy chuppah and a wedding pie instead of cake. (The cake, after all, is a lie.) And yes, I did end up walking down the aisle to “Aria di Mezzo Caraterre” as I had so long ago planned.

A few months before the ceremony, I sat down for coffee with my grandfather, now married 54 years, in order to pick his brain about the ingredients for a successful marriage. I was nervous – terrified about the ceremony, but even more so about what came after. I knew my grandfather, who’d never lacked for advice on any subject in his entire life, would be able to supply me with just the right foolproof, 10-step recipe for marital bliss.

When I asked him how he and Grandmom had managed to stay married for so long, he squinted thoughtfully and took a lingering sip from his cup. “I’m not sure,” he said after a long while. “Sometimes I really can’t stand her.”

I stared at him, mouth slightly ajar.

“She really can be a pain in the patushka,” he said slowly. “And she was never what I typically considered beautiful. My type was more the tall, thin girls, the ones with small breasts.”

I nodded without looking at him, and set my coffee down in disgust.

“But I guess,” he mumbled, turning his cup in his hands, “I guess I just can’t stay mad at her.” And then he looked up at me with finality, as if that simple admission was some special Illuminati secret, closing this and all conversations on the topic for all time.

“That … that’s it? 54 years because you couldn’t stay mad at her?”

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “There’s just something about her – no matter how mad I get, I just can’t stay angry for too long.”

Something of my disappointment must have registered in my face, because he then added with a chuckle, “I think it’s because she always knows how to make me laugh.”

I’ve carried that conversation with me for several months now: She always knows how to make me laugh. The wisdom is obvious, I suppose, but easier said than done. The reality of life and of relationships is that knowing how to make someone angry is usually much easier to figure out.

In the intervening months, I have, however, figured out one thing that always works. (Okay, two things.) Sometimes when he’s Really, Really Mad – when he becomes eerily silent, the hairs on his neck stand at attention and he’s so flummoxed he can barely spit out a complete sentence – I’ll ever so quietly hum the first couple bars of “Ode to Joy” and accuse him of having “Extreme Fever.” That never fails.

***

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Like many people, I’d always feared that marriage inevitably destroyed the individuals who participated in it; that, as time t approached infinity, “I” and “me” must evolve into “we” and “us.” Creepy, staged Christmas photos would invariably sprout on the walls like mold, I’d start involuntarily using endearments instead of real names and all of our sweaters would eventually begin to match. It’s one of the reasons I waited so long to get married to the man I’ve been dating since I was 19: I didn’t want to be assimilated into the Borg.

But as I’ve been pleased to discover over the past year, a healthy marriage doesn’t demolish your individuality – it improves it. I’m happier and more confident in myself and my abilities, as if a weight I didn’t even know existed had been lifted.

In a large part, that feeling of freedom depends on preserving clearly defined boundaries, explicitly demarcating what is mine and his. We expect each other to maintain certain privacy standards: to close the door when using the toilet, to never share a toothbrush and to refrain from touching the other’s electronics.

This last rule came into focus in the first months of our marriage, when he bought me a new DS Lite as a replacement for my first-gen DS Phat (which he later claimed for himself). My new DS was wonderful to behold, a thing of slender beauty and gaming grace. He’d even bought it in hot pink, because “hot pink makes it go faster.” I loved it and him all the more because he’d thought to get it for me without even asking.

One night, I walked out of the bathroom to find him propped up in bed, clutching the DS Lite and scribbling furiously on the touchpad.

I felt suddenly, inexplicably angry, as if I’d caught him drinking straight from the milk carton or wiping his butt with a hand towel. “What are you doing?” I tried not to shout.

“Playing Professor Layton,” he said, gesturing with the stylus. “You weren’t kidding; this is really fun-“

He trailed off, noticing I was still standing by the bathroom. “What’s wrong?”

I felt so intruded upon I could barely speak. “That’s my DS.”

“So?”

I frowned, fumbling for the right words. What about this situation did he not understand? “That’s my DS.”

He stared at me for a moment more, then shrugged. “Sorry,” he said, closing the DS with a slightly petulant snap. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Realizing I had perhaps overreacted, I slipped into bed, pulling the covers tight and nestling in close. “Do you,” I asked in a low, coy voice, “do you maybe … want to watch me play?”

He laughed deeply and slid an arm around my shoulders. “Of course,” he said. “But I’m not telling you the solution to that puzzle you were on.”

***

Any armchair psychologist will tell you that the secret to lasting marital success is strong communication. My husband and I have gone a step further, cobbling together over the years our own distinct lexicon of obscure references and incomprehensible metaphors based largely in part on the games we’ve played together. Our speech is littered with Legend of Zelda quotes and Resident Evil idioms, with Secret of Mana metaphors and puns ripped straight from Grim Fandango. In many ways, our common language is so deep-end-of-the-pool geeky that I can’t even begin to distill the geek from non-geek parts: When you name your car “Tifa” and your goldfish “Dogmeat,” where can you even begin the translation?

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I realize that to outsiders, we may sound like toddlers or excited chimpanzees, endlessly amused and infatuated with the sounds coming out of each other’s mouths. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter, because my husband understands me and I him, no matter how thick and unintelligible our Geek Speak becomes.

And here’s what I think my grandfather was really getting at: Laughter is more than just marital glue; it’s a signal that you’ve successfully established a new language, a new culture – the family unit – out of two separate and disjointed lives. Marriage isn’t just a partnership, but an act of creation, with laughter as its crowning achievement.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went out to a bar with some friends. Although I can’t remember the exact reason now, I kept whispering select Monkey Island quotes into his ear. And even though he hadn’t touched his beer, the poor guy couldn’t stop laughing.

Finally, one of his friends leaned over to him and asked for his keys.

“What? I’m not drunk,” he insisted, red-faced and weak.

“C’mon, dude,” said the friend knowingly. “Nothing is that funny.”

He looked at me, tears rolling down his cheeks. “She is,” he said. “She’s goddamn hysterical.”

Lara Crigger is a freelance science, tech and gaming journalist and contributor to The Escapist. Her email is lcrigger[at]gmail[dot]com.

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