Here’s a man we need to hear more about: happily married for forty years, still engaged in his kids’ lives, and able to balance work with exercise, family, and community. In our interview, he shares how he and his wife overcame a marital crisis, how he learned to cultivate balance and time for reflection, and how he transformed a potential career disaster into the mentoring opportunity of a lifetime. Rob is sixty years old and lives in Colorado. He and his wife Martha have three adult sons.
Please read to the end for a summary of life lessons based on the interview, and resources for further learning and practice you can try yourself. Please leave us a comment and share this with your friends.
— Marriage and crisis —
Andrew: You’ve been happily married for forty years. By contrast, only about half of American men who married when you did are still married after even thirty years. What would you like to share about marriage?
Rob: Part of being a good father is being a good husband. It’s pretty tough to raise kids on your own, and I know a lot of people have to do it, but it sure is easier to do as a team. I don’t think everybody could have all the skills to do everything that you need to do. I’ve been fortunate that I partner with someone who covers for my weaknesses very well. There are some times when I have to say, “Martha, you’re just going to have to decide” – it’s not that I totally abdicate, but she’s the expert on relationships – sometimes she helps me view a problem from a totally different point of view. In a lot of ways I feel very fortunate for my wife; I feel lucky.
I know there are a lot of separated couples but I think you still have to work together. I see it regularly that the parents aren’t agreeing on what’s best for the child, the child picks up on it, and that usually results in a bad situation for the child. And sometimes the parents do that almost to get back at each other, it seems. I think it’s okay for the parents to disagree, but they need to go into the other room and talk it out and then present a united front to the kid. I’ve seen some separated parents who still deal well with presenting a united front, they say, “There are some things we don’t agree on, but on you [the child] we agree.”
There was a time when we would divide up tasks. It may be that we have more time now, but I am finding some benefit in doing errands together. That can be difficult with kids and we didn’t do it as much when we were younger. But really, spending more time together, whatever the activity is, brings us closer together.
I think it’s also healthy to have individual activities – you do need some time apart. Martha is in a women’s group. I’m in men’s breakfast group at church. And sometimes I just have a repair project, and “I’ll be gone for a while,” – you know – and I just go do that. It is a balance, like everything else, but doing time together is important.
Have you ever had a crisis or real challenge in your marriage?
Well I don’t want to talk specifics, but yeah we had a crisis type of situation, twenty to twenty-five years ago. I wasn’t quite sure if we were going to stay together. It probably took about eight months to get back to some normalcy. We did counseling. I think when we got married, it was for the long haul. Even before that crisis hit, I was telling people, “It’s not an easy thing to be married. It’s work. You don’t just find the right person and go skipping down the road.”
We did have a program at our church called Marriage Encounter. It was for couples, to teach them communication techniques and to help them talk about the things that sometimes it was just better to agree not to go there. Whether it’s your in-laws that drive you nuts, or race, or money, or whatever it is. It was a methodology for teaching couples how to discuss and disagree and reach some sort of resolution. They taught that you don’t attack each other. Whatever the issue is, it’s out there in front of both of you, but it shouldn’t come right between you, it shouldn’t lead to a lot of cheap fighting.
Divorce can be a definite quick fix sometimes, rather than the hard work of trying to stay together, forgive, and all that. Divorce used to have quite a stigma that it doesn’t seem to have anymore. People don’t immediately shun you if they find out you’ve been divorced. They say, “me too.”
I do think there are some awful marriages, just really awful people you find out you can’t stay married to – but I think there are way more divorces than those types of relationships. Sometimes people rush too quickly into marriage…and then into divorce.
If you picture marriage as two rocks being put together, they might fit together, but there are still a few things that need to be ground down for them to fit better, and that can be a painful situation.
— Juggling roles —
What are the chief roles you play in life, and how do you juggle them?
Husband, father, son, mechanical engineer, church member. Husband I think is fairly self-explanatory. That means setting aside time for me and my wife to do things. Not just running the household, doing errands – but doing some activities together. For instance — Martha likes to garden. I do the soil preparation and heavy lifting.
Father – feels more like a support role, an encouragement role. Probably responding to their needs more than regular phone calls. I don’t want to impose on their time. But I always want to be available when they want to talk or invite us to do something. With Jeremy – it’s supporting him by going to his concerts, hosting him when the band comes here to perform. Sometimes just providing a listening ear. With Nick and Tim – we went backpacking for the first time together last year. We’re going to do that again this year. I helped Tim finish his basement. I helped Nick and Jeremy move into their houses.
As for work — I usually bill forty to forty-five billable hours a week. That doesn’t include commute time, which is about hour and a half per day. And it doesn’t include lunch either. So probably another 15 hours I’m away from the house. There’s been a couple of times when it was more than that, when there was a special project. Even now I’m at the refinery and there are scheduled turnarounds, they’ll shut down part of the refinery for major maintenance, and it’s usually a 30 or 45 day period, in those instances I’m usually working more.
Juggling has been a challenge all my life. To set my work aside and say that’s enough for today, as opposed to staying another two hours to get everything really finished. Sometimes I do that, but it can really affect the whole rest of the evening. You feel good about work, but you miss some things at home. It has led to where I am now, career-wise. I have a lot of experience in several different areas but I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily an expert in any one area. I think that sometimes that level of expertise comes from putting in the extra 15 or 20 percent in an occupation or profession. But at the same time, I know that I consciously sacrificed work time to support the family by going to games or events, and by supporting Cub Scouts and marching band.
— Reflection and emotional awareness —
How do you reflect?
It’s not like I meditate, or sit quietly, or try to assume a certain posture or environment – but when I have something that I need to work on, I use my spare time. It might be when I’m at home mowing the lawn, doing the dishes, sitting in the hot tub. I don’t use a journal. Sometimes I’ll drive to work without the radio on so I can work on a problem. It’s not an automatic reflex to crank up the tunes. Sometimes I give myself time to think, and to not be accosted by advertising or entertainment.
I’d say for a lot of problems, it’s a two to three week process. It’s almost like a little item on the side there that I open up and see if I’m realizing any other aspects of that problem. Then I put it back again and let it sit for a while. A lot of times, I have to identify why something is a concern for me. Time is a big factor.
— Discipline —
What does discipline mean to you?
Well, it evolved. That is, our approach improved with son number three as compared to son number one. In the beginning, actually there were some spankings. That left a bad feeling when I did that.
So then it became learning how to explain that what we wanted them to do was the right thing, explain how it would improve their lives – not just because it was what we wanted them to do. For instance, when we asked them to clean their room up, it wasn’t just, “Because I say so.” It was because it’s a good discipline, to keep your space less cluttered. We tried to explain natural consequences. That fit a lot better than just laying down the law, saying, “You can’t play until you clean up your room.”
— On your father —
Can you tell me about your father as a parent?
It’s pretty hard to just think of him just as a parent. He’s a wonderful person. Humble. Been so influential on many parts of my life. Always giving to other people.
With work [and coming home], he was pretty regular. He was running a fiberglass company, he was home just about every evening by five-thirty or six. He would sit down and would read the paper, and there was a regularity there. Rather than – you were never sure when he’d be home because he worked all the time.
In business he always made sure that his partners came out well. I think he might have been a little more generous with employees and partners than was good for himself sometimes. I also saw that he treated everybody with respect, I mean he wasn’t just doing it because he was making a sale or something. I would sometimes hear that he lent so and so some money to get his car fixed. Rounding up some clothes for kids here and there; for the holidays.
He had a fiberglass fabrication business – this was in the 70s or 80s – and we had a workforce that was one third Hispanic, one third African-American, one third Caucasian. It was pretty equally balanced. Back then that was a little unusual.
He treated all of his guys very respectfully, they loved him very much, and he didn’t just care about them in work hours. He got to know them after hours, too, and tried to get them into furthering their education – it was pretty much manual labor – he was offering to help them do those things, and it made quite an impression on me.
We would go call on companies and be talking to department heads or presidents or something, and there was always a receptionist, and Dad just told me, when we checked in, “These guys here are really powerful, but you gotta realize, the ones who really run the show are the receptionists; they make all the calls, know the leaders, you gotta be on their good side.” And he treated everybody that way, you learn that everyone has a role to play, the janitor on up, and everyone has the ability to do the job well or poorly and it’s not just your capacity or abilities – it can be things going on outside of work – there are lot of other things that affect your life and what goes into how you do a job.
— Mentors and role models —
Can you tell me about a great mentor in your life, other than your father?
I think of a mentor as someone you go to, to ask big questions in life.
Things were changing at work, so I went on vacation one time – I asked the owner if it was okay, and he said “yes” — I was running the office then. I came back and the owner had hired another manager, I was moved down the hallway, and that was that. I didn’t find that out from the owner. I found out from the new manager, who was actually sitting at my old desk. He saw how I felt and said, “We just need to agree, the owner’s a [jerk], it’s not going to affect us; I wasn’t out to get you, I was unemployed, and I got this job, and I’m sorry it affected you this way.” And so we became real good friends.
He was ten years older than me. He didn’t have a background in fiberglass as much as thermoplastics (this was at the fiberglass shop and after Dad had retired). Very clever – very intelligent guy, not highly educated – I think he went to high school – he was one of those who didn’t have a college degree – but he knew how to develop questions, how to research them, with introspection.
He was the guy I went to when we had that crisis in our marriage. He was a counselor of sorts to me. He was married at the time – had been divorced before then, had a second wife with two kids. I think six or seven years after that, his wife got diagnosed with MS. It’s a horrible disease, that’s all I can say.
And you were there for him?
Yeah, and he was for me. I learned a lot from him, and he could lay things out pretty matter-of-factly sometimes.
Any other role models?
I have been influenced by some international and national figures. I’m very impressed by Desmond Tutu, for instance, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m also impressed by Bill Gates, one of the wealthiest persons in the world, who uses his wealth responsibly. These are not people who get to where they are by might or force. There’s an inner strength – a spiritual strength – that overrides all else.
— On learning, saying you’re sorry, and being a man –
Any other lessons you’d like to share for new parents?
Fatherhood is a constant evolution, and one thing I learned is that you have to learn to be able to say you’re sorry, not just to your wife but also your kids. Even if you were doing what you thought was right, you just have to sit down and say, “I didn’t handle that situation well and I’m sorry.”
You can do that with kids when they’re pretty young. And you learn quite a bit from doing that. I learned it can be easier than all the squirming you do to avoid saying you’re sorry.
That’s not just fatherhood, that’s a life lesson. For instance, at work once, I’d asked a direct report to do something, but it was obvious he hadn’t done it, and he seemed to keep making excuses. All I was really wanting him to do is say, “I’m sorry it won’t happen again.” And we could have been done with it.
What does being a man mean to you?
Well manhood I think is taking responsibility for yourself and your actions. Sounds pretty straightforward but what that means is: we all make a lot of mistakes, and you own up to those mistakes, and you make them right as best you can.
* * *
Resources for learning and practice. We hope you enjoyed this interview, which was edited for clarity. Here are some life-empowering actions you may want to try (or kudos if you are already doing any of these!):
- Find a reflection practice that works for you. We all need a little solo time to process life’s ups and downs. Examples include quiet reflection (above), talking to your spouse or a close friend (e.g., see this interview), meditation, and journaling.
- Create a communication practice in your relationship that allows you to celebrate joys and also face challenges together. Examples include Marriage Encounter, Nonviolent Communication, and methods based on John and Julie Schwartz Gottman’s research (e.g., see their book, “And the Baby Makes Three”). The first method may resonate particularly with Christian couples, and the other two methods can be used no matter what your belief system.
- If you’re married or in a long-term relationship, carve out regular one-on-one time each week if you can (e.g., date nights). See page 5 in this interesting report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia (hat tip, Eli Finkel, PhD in the NY Times).
- Transform adversity into opportunity if you can. It certainly beats hoisting a defeat onto your shoulders and despairing. We learned how a potentially devastating event – someone replacing Mr. Jones at work – can be transformed into an opportunity. Jones and his replacement connected with their shared feelings, and did not hold grudges. They accepted the change and soon became great friends, and the older man even became a life mentor.
- Practice positive discipline that empowers children, rather than simply controlling them. For more on this, see books by Madeline Levine, PhD and Alfie Kohn.
- If you are a parent, try reflecting on how your father and/or mother raised you.
- What did you appreciate?
- What would you like to avoid passing on to your children?
- Consider writing out your thoughts and then thanking them for their hard work. They did the best they could to raise you, and too often we obsess over imperfections, which blinds us to the kindness and love that may have been there all along.
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