3 Things the Final Season of Downton Abbey Taught Me About Building a Strong Marriage

For richer or poorer, there’s a lot to learn from the spouses in the big house.
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For richer or poorer, there’s a lot to learn from the spouses in the big house.

For the last couple of years, Sunday nights at 9 p.m. have been sacred to me. I take out my favorite cookies from their hiding place in the freezer, make a big cup of tea, grab my knitting, and settle in on the couch for an hour in a world different from my own—the world of Downton Abbey.

Time and again, I tune in for Lady Mary’s snark, the Dowager Countess’s zingers, and Daisy’s righteous outbursts. Sometimes I play Downton Bingo with friends via Snapchat. Last year, my daughter was born during the season finale; this year, we feted her with a tea party that would have made Mr. Carson proud. In a word, I love this show. But what has struck me most in this last season are the lessons I’ve gleaned on marriage. Even after the last episode airs this Sunday, it’s these nuggets of wisdom that will remain with me.

The most important things spouses need to share are their values.

Though my husband and I grew up in the same town, we lived in very different homes. I come from a relatively quiet family of four. My husband lived with his parents, five siblings, and an in-home daycare. I was terrified to come over for dinner the first time. There were so many of them, and only one of me!

One of my favorite lines this season was when Tom told Mary that, “A strong marriage is one comprised of equals.” Lady Mary tells her chauffeur-turned-brother-in-law that she will not “marry down.” I don’t believe that my husband or I had a “better” upbringing, but I do know that what we experienced was different.

Tom challenges Mary with the example of his marriage. No matter that Sybil came from “upstairs” and he from “downstairs,” they had strong—and shared—convictions by which they lived. For us, that’s faith, family, integrity, and humility. “We were happy,” Tom tells Lady Mary. And if my husband and I continue to put those shared values at the center of our marriage, I believe we will be, too.

It’s the little, everyday things that build a strong foundation for a marriage.

Too often, when my husband comes home from work, he picks up the baby and hugs one of the boys while I throw a “How was your day?” at him from across the room where I'm busy throwing dinner together. Sometimes it’s not until bedtime that he and I remember to share a hug.

In a stressful time for our family about a year ago, this lack of consistent connection came to a head. Life got ahead of us, and we needed to regroup with new commitments—like the arrival hug—to keep our marriage in a healthy place. We’ve been slipping in this again, and a recent episode reminded me we need to regroup.

When Lord Grantham suffered a burst ulcer, he believed himself to be on death’s doorstep. He used the little energy he had to assure his wife, Cora, that he loved her. In her calm and graceful response, it was clear that she felt his love deeply.

I recalled their bedtime conversations over the years when they talked about the things that were weighing on them. In addition to the ulcer, the couple had been tested by infidelity, outside advances, miscarriage, the death of a grown child, and so many other more minor things. These exchanges meant time taken to truly listen and validate the thoughts and fears of the other. In doing so, each implicitly allowed the other to help carry those loads.

It’s the little things that I need to make more of an effort with—putting my phone down and really asking about how his day went, taking the dishwashing gloves off to give him a hug when he walks through the door, picking up his favorite treat at the grocery store, just because.

When tragedy struck, it was these little moments that fortified Cora and Robert’s marriage into something firm enough to stand on. I loved that Cora told Robert that the moment would not be the end of them. What more did she need to say?

It does no one any favors to try to carry burdens alone.

It might be spoken about more freely these days than it was a century ago, but infertility is no new problem. I ached to see Anna Bates crumble trying to shoulder the pain and grief of her miscarriages alone, because I’ve been there. But what really struck me was seeing her husband disappointed that he was denied the opportunity to support her.

When we lost our child, I recognized that my husband experienced our loss differently than I did. He was sad, but his primary reaction was fear of what the grief meant for our relationship. It was a situation from which he couldn’t protect me. He’d promised to love and honor me, and in this case, he didn’t know how.

The answer was that, like Bates and Anna, we needed to keep communicating and commit to being honest with each other, even when the truth was, “I wish you could read my mind right now, and I’m angry that you can’t.”

My husband and I are two different people, but we’ve made the same commitment to each other. No matter what century you live in, this union is something that takes work. It isn’t always pretty. But when it’s done well, it’s something to celebrate, even after the last curtain falls.

Photo Credit: PBS