Today marks iconic film critic Roger Ebert’s 20-year wedding anniversary with his wife, Chaz, and to commemorate the occasion he took to his blog and posted an excerpt from his memoir, Life Itself, which waxed rhapsodic about their history and his enduring love for her. It’s one of the best things I’ve read today and the further I read, the more I realized that Ebert’s encomium has much to teach anyone who’s actively seeking to strengthen their relationship or their relationship readiness.
Here are a few bits of advice we can take from Ebert’s marital wisdom:
1. Pay close attention to the “In Sickness” part of the vows.
Roger Ebert famously appeared on the cover of Esquire two years ago to discuss the thyroid cancer that resulted in the loss of his jaw and his speech, which seriously threatened his life. In each account of his illness, he’s credited his wife’s devotion to him for restoring his will to live during his lengthy hospitalization and recovery. He does it again in the very first paragraph of his blog entry today:
If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude. I was very sick. I might have vegetated in hopelessness. This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live.
Everyone would like to think that they could daily put on a brave face for as long as it took for their spouse to bounce back from near-death. In purely hypothetical terms, it’s easy to imagine yourself never crying in front of him, changing bedpans when necessary, and performing all the other daily human functions your loved one would have to re-learn. In practice, it’s been known to be a marriage ender, particularly in cases when this level of care will continue long after hospital discharge and well into old age. Many rise to the occasion; others feel it’s too oppressive a responsibility.
Here, we see that caring for your husband in sickness as well as in health is paramount to improving his resolve and quality of life. It’s always nice to see reminders of that principle in action.
2. Power and intelligence are attractive.
Take note of how Ebert describes his earliest introduction to Chaz:
I didn’t know her, but I’d seen her before and was attracted. I liked her looks, her voluptuous figure, and the way she presented herself. She took a lot of care with her appearance and her clothes never looked quickly thrown together. She seemed to be holding the attention of her table. You never get anywhere with a woman you can’t talk intelligently with.
In an era when playing coy and downplaying your intellect or assertiveness are still persistent bits of advice in relationship self-help books, it’s great to hear powerful men appreciate women whose intellect attracts and holds attention. It’s also really wonderful to read about how fly he thought his future wife looked, not just because of her body, but also because of her attention to sartorial detail.
3. Copy edit your love letters.
Ah, word-geek love. It’s cool that their romance blossomed through emailed love letters, which Ebert describes as “poetic, idealistic, and passionate.” It’s even cooler that Chaz proofread hers — and that he noticed! This small act needn’t necessarily be applied to copy editing. The principle here is in the meticulousness. Ebert could tell he’d be in good hands with someone who’d take such care in something others wouldn’t tend to notice.
4. Make his interests yours.
I’ll admit: This advice has always been difficult for me to follow. Taking great interest in something you wouldn’t normally enjoy, just because your man likes it, can sometimes feel like becoming something you’re not in order to keep his attention. But ideally, you’re with someone with whom you have a great deal in common, so you don’t feel like your own investments are suffering while you tend to his. Chaz became deeply invested in Ebert’s professional life; she was named vice president of the Ebert Company. It was a move that would prove invaluable when he was deathly ill. By then, she was already used to being deeply involved in every aspect of his life.
In addition, by taking on the interests of his company as her own, she became his first line of defense. As a creative, he wasn’t business minded. She made it possible for both of them to pursue their passions: his in art, hers in business:
I’ve never understood business and have no patience with business meetings or legal details. I had a weakness for signing things just to make them go away. She observed this, and defended me. It was a partnership.