The little things are the big things: Finding dating wisdom in a poem about marriage

Illustration: Diana Nguyen

As they were happily married for 50 years, it’s safe to say Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward knew a thing or two about the art of marriage —making it even more poignant that Newman gave Woodward a poem by the same name on their wedding day in January 1958. It’s wild to consider that marriage advice from the 1950s might still be relevant in 2021, but even without the Old Hollywood cachet, the Wilferd Peterson poem emanates wisdom that still resonates (making it one of the best love poems ever).

“The Art of Marriage”

Happiness in marriage is not something that just happens.

A good marriage must be created.

In the Art of Marriage, the little things are the big things…

It is never being too old to hold hands.

It is remembering to say “I love you” at least once a day.

It is never going to sleep angry.

It is at no time taking the other for granted;

the courtship should not end with the honeymoon,

it should continue through all the years.

It is having a mutual sense of values and common objectives.

It is standing together facing the crowd.

It is forming a circle of love that gathers in the whole family.

It is doing things for each other, not in the attitude

of duty or sacrifice, but in the spirit of joy.

It is speaking words of appreciation

and demonstrating gratitude in thoughtful ways.

It is not looking for perfection in each other.

It is cultivating flexibility, patience, understanding

and a sense of humor.

It is having the capacity to forgive and forget.

It is giving each other an atmosphere in which each can grow.

It is finding room for the things of spirit.

It is a common search for the good and the beautiful.

It is establishing a relationship in which the independence is equal,

dependence is mutual and the obligation is reciprocal.

It is not only marrying the right partner, it is being the right partner.

It is discovering what marriage can be, at its best.

— Wilferd Peterson

Little Things Mean a Lot

“The Art of Marriage” manages to strike a delicious balance of pragmatism and romance. From the outset, it rejects the overly-saccharine and unrealistic notion that if you marry the right person, you’ll be happy. And yet, the idea that parties are going to have to work has always sounded so bleak. Work doesn’t necessarily jive with the idea of fun and dating.

But “The Art of Marriage” calms these anxieties. The poem breaks down the components of what this work actually means: holding hands, remembering to say “I love you” once a day, not going to sleep angry (implying the importance of communication and not allowing problems to lurk beneath the surface), and not taking the other for granted. To work in this context means to be more effortful in love.

The poem transitions into this theme of teamwork—exploring the mutual sense of values, common objectives, standing together, and facing the crowd. There shouldn’t be an imbalance of power; rather, there should be a pure sense of togetherness. It encourages partners to have an attitude of, “I’ve got your back…even if it means going to dinner with that one obnoxious coworker.”

Like many of the best love poems, “The Art of Marriage” suggests that having someone to navigate the nonsense of the world with is one of the best feelings a human can experience.

Cultivating Joy

The poem moves seamlessly from the idea of togetherness to responsibilities of the individual: “It is doing things for each other, not in the attitude of duty or sacrifice, but in the spirit of joy.”

Peterson prescribes a powerful tool against a refrain that is as common as it is insipid: “Why am I the one who always does x/y/z?” His advice suggests doing the unsexy day-to-day maintenance in the attitude of giving rather than cynically assuming that your work is going unnoticed or unappreciated.

If your work truly is overlooked, Peterson might suggest having a tempered conversation. Maybe in 2021 he’d include a Love Language reference or two, as he does mention “speaking words of appreciation” and “demonstrating gratitude in thoughtful ways”—i.e. words of affirmation and receiving gifts. (Pretty prescient stuff considering this was written way before Love Languages became the phenomenon it is today.)

Finally, the poem ends by addressing the essence of a lasting relationship: “cultivating flexibility”; “the capacity to forgive and forget”; “giving each other an atmosphere in which each can grow”; “finding room for the things of spirit”; and “a common search for the good and the beautiful.” These ideas suggest that relationships are always evolving. These shifts are natural and should be embraced and celebrated.

Above all, “The Art of Marriage” is about shared happiness, love, communication, and reflection. In times when speaking optimistically about marriage might be seen as woefully uncool and naive, it’s refreshing to hear a judicious and unabashed defense of—and playbook for—a happy marriage.

What are your thoughts on the poem? Do you think the tenets still hold up in 2021? Drop us a line at community@lovekeepler.com and let us know!

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