Advice from my father on my wedding day

“How did this happen to us, this lack of intelligence? We read the wrong things. We read the sports page, the financial page, even the entire newspaper. We don’t read the tone of a person’s voice, don’t hear the sound of a person’s ego being crushed…. Create a marriage that lasts because it is a happy one….” Marital advice from my father, delivered twenty years ago.

This New Years provides an obvious occasion to look over the last turbulent decade, which featured a tragic presidency, terrorist attacks, two wars, shameful betrayal of American constitutional values in Guantanamo and other places, Barack Obama’s election, historic health reform, rather rapid deflation in the bubble of American world supremacy, and tangible but too-slow progress in the global fight against AIDS and other public health threats. Thus concludes my summary of the past decade in public policy.

I could write more predictable blather. But instead I thought I would note a more personal milestone. This marks the 20th anniversary of my engagement. Before my wedding day, my dad sent me a letter with some fatherly marital advice. With permission, I’m sharing this with you, exercising the privilege of editing a few things for reasons of family privacy.

In part, I’m sharing it because some newlyweds might want the advice. My real reason is simply to celebrate a bond that extends almost five decades now. My dad’s advice has served me well in an action-packed two decades that have featured more than the usual portion of both joys and sorrows.

At 81, he emails me questions requiring answers of the form sin-squared(theta/2). Some readers may conclude that the wrong engineer Pollack started blogging. That’s ok. As Mayor Richard M. Daley has noted, the son will always say that the father was best. So thanks Dad for these beautiful years. And thank you, Veronica, for sharing this wonderful journey.

Dear Harold,

As the day of your wedding approaches, I am prompted to write a few words of advice to the groom, not because they are necessary but rather because I tend to the verbose. We know that economic theory has made a mockery of Polonius’s advice to Laertes, at least during inflationary periods. Nonetheless undaunted, I as a father who is perhaps none too wise, write these tiny gems for what they may be worth to his fledgling prior to the nuptial flight.

But hold on! Who am I to dare such foolery, at times a fallen sparrow myself, and a bearer of old wounds and unanswered questions…. Am I not the wrong man to attempt any dispensation of wisdom? I choose to ignore this question on the basis of pure ego and the belief that a fallen sparrow resurrected has something to chirp about….

What does one say about the joys and pitfalls? The joys are obvious, the pitfalls less so. There are differences between the sexes other than the obvious. Perhaps the most obvious is the male lack of intelligence. I use the word in the Ian Fleming sense. Men really don’t, to a large extent, know what is going on. Women, in my experience anyway, know everything that’s going on, sometimes before it happens. That’s the way things are.

How did this happen to us, this lack of intelligence? The answer is: we read the wrong things. We read the sports page, the financial page, even the entire newspaper. We don’t read the tone of a person’s voice, and we often don’t hear the sound of a person’s ego being crushed. There’s an entire war going on out there, and we don’t even know that it’s happening.

Women have intelligence. They know about this war. How do they do it? Well, they ask a lot of questions like: “Do you love me?” Or: “Does this dress look nice on me?” Now you may believe that love is a static condition. Women know that it’s dynamic variable that can change state in a nanosecond. They are like radar, sending out periodic signals and analyzing the responses…. It’s not really radar, and it’s not really extra-sensory, but it’s a sense that’s very poorly developed in the typical human male.

Well, you’re going to live permanently with a woman. What can you do to assure happiness? What should you avoid? …The single gem I can offer is to avoid surprises. Now surprises come in various forms, such as “I’m leaving you to become a marine biologist,” or “I’m leaving because you never pick up your socks.” In both extreme cases, the man is completely surprised. The first guy must have seen the college catalogues and the scuba gear, but he never noticed the training sessions with Karl the diving instructor. The second guy heard so many grumblings that he began to ignore them, figuring them as part of the way he and his wife related to each other.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Women are not strange malevolent monsters, waiting to be carried off by diving instructors, or necessarily neatness freaks. The point here is that a guy should be aware of what’s happening. You should develop your own type of radar, and use it often if not all the time. You should ask questions and take the answers seriously within context that love can be a dynamic variable.

You don’t always have to agree, but at least know what she’s thinking and what she may object to. You should learn a mental list of her gripes, and your own gripes, and look for the most important ones. In fact, you should discuss these gripes, ranging from “You always have bits of cottage cheese in your teeth,” to “I saw you looking at her(him) that way at that party.” Talk about the serious things at a time when you can both focus on them in peace—not when one or both of you are tired or distracted. Talk also about those areas that are sacred to both of you. There are many areas where compromise is called for and necessary, but others where compromise should not be made.

When is compromise unwise? I think it is unwise when your own definition of self is at risk. Even though the lack of compromise can lead to confrontation, it’s healthier for both people to hold their ground when the very definition of what they are is under fire. This is the hard part: deciding these areas that are so sacred to you that compromise is not to be made. Compromise to sacred areas of self will only explode into serious problems later on.

The question of compromise is interesting in itself. We often tend to compromise in areas that we consider unimportant, such as the selection of furniture or flatware. Leave it to her—it’s not important enough to fight over. She may not even know that you have preferences other than her choices. This happens to many men who later find the chairs to be uncomfortable, or the fact that they live in a home at the sufferance of their wife—the mistress of it all. My advice is to take an interest in the home. Help with the choices. Learn what you like and what you don’t. The house is also yours to live in. So own up to your responsibilities beyond taking out the garbage. On that topic, you could learn a little about cleaning and house maintenance so that you can be a partner in deed as well as spirit.

In a world where everything is in flux and people are redefining themselves all over the place, find stability in your marriage and in your home. In many ways we are all victims of other people’s will. The marriage and the home can be a safe refuge….

In summation:
• Be aware of what is going on.
• Avoid surprises
• Talk to each other often in quiet times
• Make compromises that don’t compromise self
• Take an interest in the home, and its furnishings
• Be a partner in household chores

Create a marriage that lasts because it is a happy one.

And….to thine own self be true.

Go fly my bird,


Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

12 thoughts on “Advice from my father on my wedding day”

  1. Congratulations to you and your bride Harold, and thanks for posting this wonderful token of a father's love for his son.

  2. Excellent advice, although I don't agree with it all, specifically with not taking interest in the "selection of furniture or flatware. Leave it to her." My better half (more on this later) says, "Don't stick me with making all the decisions about the household — get involved. Don't be passive." And I now do, making both of us happier.

    As for which half is better, my advice to newlyweds for the past few years is not to say those "three little words," but rather the more important six little words: "You're right, dear, and I'm sorry." I don't know about the rest of you, but much as I hate to admit it, in well over half of our differences she's right — as Harold's father notes in his third paragraph.

  3. MikeM: I think you misread the advice, Father Pollack is presenting this as an example of what other people say… but he disagrees with it. Read the rest of the paragraph: "My advice is to take an interest in the home. Help with the choices."

    Harold: You got engaged on New Year's Eve, huh? I guess that makes it easy to remember.

  4. "Avoid surprises".

    Reminds me of the joke about the married couple of (Oxford, Harvard, Chicago..) English professors. She comes home unannounced, finds him in bed with nubile student. She: "James, I'm really surprised at you." He: "No, I am surprised. You are astonished".

    An astonishing 2011 to you all.

  5. Rather lovely advice. Two pieces struck me on a personal note and seem to be particularly perceptive to me.

    1. "When is compromise unwise? I think it is unwise when your own definition of self is at risk."

    – and –

    2. "In many ways we are all victims of other people’s will."

    As a gay man who painfully ended my marriage in order to come out I wish I'd understand that first statement more clearly before I got married. And I would have been a lot less tormented if I'd been able to live by that advice as a much younger man. Sadly it took the marriage to demonstrate it to me. A decade has gone by and my former wife and I are both now lots better and great friends.

    As to the second statement, my current partner is not a U.S. citizen and currently lives 12 time zones since the U.S. will not recognize marriage of same sex couples at the federal level. I live the second statement every day. I look forward to the day that "The marriage and the home can be a safe refuge" for LGBT people too.

    Thanks for sharing this, Harold.

  6. Thanks all of you. caphilldcne I do hope our society soon comes to our senses. Acceptance of gay marriage seems inevitable given demographic trends. But I hope we don't have to wait 20 or 30 years on this thing.

  7. Thanks, Harold. I am quite hopeful that things will probably get a lot better faster even in the next 3-6 years, depending on the outcome of various cases likely to go to Justice Kennedy (er, the Supreme Court) and perhaps partly on elections in 2012. Probably shouldn't have even commented since my statement potentially politicized your fathers letter. However your father's advice is extremely sound and applies not just to marriage but to life! I really enjoyed this post. Cheers!

  8. Happy Anniversary!

    CaPhil: I think it is the other side that makes marriage political. You are just trying to be with the one you love. I hope this situation gets sorted out soon!

  9. Harold – What a wonderful letter for a son to receive from his father – your father is so proud of you and you are so proud of him. His letter to you is awesome. I have known your father for the past fourteen years and he is the most faithful, caring and INTELLIGENT friend one could ever have. I use the word INTELLIGENT in the female sense of the word.

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