by William Lloyd Stearman, PhD

Advising My Students How To Get The Most Out of Life

In the sixteen years I taught at Georgetown, I usually ended my courses with a three-hour lecture generally on various ways one can get the most out of life. A number of students told me later that this lecture was one of the highlights of their time at this university. This has encouraged me to try the essence of this lecture on my good readers.


I always started with what was to me the most important facet of life: how to select a spouse and how to have a good marriage. I always said, marry only someone who is a loyal and true friend whom you trust and respect. These, I still insist, are absolutely essential criteria. It is absolutely essential to like your spouse and well to love your spouse. Alas one sees many couples today that clearly don’t like each other, That is beyond sad. Very important is having the same values, basic beliefs, tastes, and much the same background. (This may seem politically incorrect, but is still valid.) Very important too is having a good sense of humor. Americans seemed to believe that one must marry someone in the same age group. This comes from most Americans previously (pre-World War II) having married quite young, and thus perforce close to the same age, since most people went to work after high school and did not go to college, and premarital sex, generally frowned upon, was quite uncommon which much encouraged early marriages. There is an old rule of thumb to the effect that a man should marry a woman half his age plus seven. Actually I have found this to be quite valid in practice, since women generally mature earlier than men. On the other hand, I have know very successful marriages where the wife is older than her husband, and in this country there have been countless millions of successful same age marriages. My point is that one should be more open minded about age differences in choosing a spouse.  In addition to all the marriage criteria mentioned above, mutual physical attraction and overall compatibility are a given. Too many people, however, marry out of passion, which so often is ephemeral, and somehow believe genuine friendship can only be platonic. In fact, a true friendship can evolve into deep and abiding love to which I can attest, having married my best friend. Once married, always treat your spouse with kindness, consideration, courtesy, and respect and always be a good listener. Alas, common courtesies now seem to many of the younger generations to be somehow outmoded, if not stilted or affected. My wife and I, however, still say please, thank you, you’re very welcome, and begin requests with “would you mind doing . . . .”.Though, alas, seemingly out of style, these courtesies have always been a lubricant of society and their demise represents a certain social impoverishment. (It is significant that during China’s murderous Cultural Revolution politeness was denounced as “counterrevolutionary.”) Always build up your spouse whom you should never, ever criticize in front of others, as I have so often seen done in this country. There was a time when some marriage counselors suggested that fighting was healthy for a marriage. This is patently harmful nonsense. Fighting implies trying to settle disagreements in anger. When angry one can, and often does, make hurtful accusations which will not soon be forgotten and which can gnaw at and undermine a marriage. Remember making such accusations is like shooting an arrow which cannot be recalled once launched. Having disagreements is natural, and couples who are friends can and usually do resolve them peacefully and others should at least try.

  I always urged my students to keep their priorities straight by giving top priority to time with family and friends, no matter what. I always cited two role models who did this and succeeded very well in life. First, was my very good friend and fraternity brother from Berkeley, the late Phillip M. Knox, who as a young law school graduate joined Sears and worked his way up to be the number three officer as corporate general counsel and executive vice president in what was then the world’s largest retailer. Phil, who died a few years ago, always placed family and friends first. He had two fine sons: Tom (who now heads his own law firm) and John (now a high school teacher) who both joined the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam. John was badly wounded and spent years recovering, but he eventually married and now has a fine family and a useful and fulfilling career. Phil was a naval officer in the Pacific and was on a small landing beach surveying ship, the USS Dutton, when a kamikaze hit its bow. The other role model was John F. Lehman Jr. to whom I referred earlier in Chapter 16. John was an NSC colleague who became President Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy. He managed its quantum increase in size and strength and later headed very successful defense-oriented businesses. Again, John, no matter how busy, always placed family and friends first.

   Returning to the subject of marriage, I always pointed out to my women students that moving in with a man before marriage is simply stupid, quite apart from the moral factor. I have heard time and again two popular myths in this regard. (1) A marriage license is only a “piece of paper” and unnecessary. (2) You have to live with someone in order to learn whether or not you’re compatible. To this I always reply, wars have been fought over “pieces of paper” called treaties. The marriage license is a contract that above all protects women. People who live together before marriage have a significantly higher divorce rate than those who do not. The reason is, as I always pointed out, marriage is to living together as playing poker when one has $10 thousand in the pot is to when one has $10 in the pot. Superficially, the game is the same. Psychologically there is a vast difference. In one game there is a serious commitment that is absent when there is little at stake. When one knows a relationship can well be only temporary, a number of differences tend to be swept under the carpet, whereas engaging in an anticipated long-term contractual relationship can lead to a magnification of previously ignored differences that can ultimately destroy a marriage. It happens all the time.

   I also am wont to point out that a single woman living with a man meets the dictionary definition of concubine. Of course feminists would protest that concubine implies a certain subordination on the part of the woman when, in reality, the relationship is actually between two equals. This is a myth. In such a relationship a man always has a clear advantage, since he knows that the older he gets the more women are available for dating and eventually marriage. (To which I can personally attest.) With women, the opposite is true. In other words, a woman’s chance of finding a permanent mate shrinks with each year. Today, however, many young women in their twenties protest that they are not really interested in marriage. (Often this is the result of having seen their parents’ marriage fail or to giving careers priority. And women are marrying much later than they used to, which also limits their childbearing years in marriage.) This still holds true for a number in their thirties, but for few women in their forties. Unlike men, women also have a biological clock that continuously ticks off their remaining years of childbearing. It is the height of foolishness for a woman to take herself out of circulation for the sake of a man who may well have little interest in marrying her. This is especially true today when so many men are reluctant to make commitments that lead to marriage. I am constantly reading in advice columns complaints by women who have spent years in a live-together relationship with a partner who has little interest in marriage, as it turns out, reflecting an attitude, which as a grizzled old chief petty officer I had on my ship use to crudely, but cogently, put it, “Why buy a cow [that is, get married] when milk [sex] is so cheap.” I just happen to be fond of women and hate to see them shafted as so many now are.

   I also regard it as generally irresponsible for unmarried couples to have children as it is for single people to do so. In order to properly develop, children need family stability with both a father and a mother committed to the family through marriage. There are exceptions in that a number of children raised in single–parent families turn out remarkably well. Remember always that divorce is extremely harmful to children, unless it results from a mother being clearly abused. Make a special effort to preserve your marriage for the sake of the children, I would advise couples. Sadly, many couples now divorce for frivolous reasons--like a neighbor of ours, fortunately childless, who got a divorce because she was bored with her husband. She also came up the old 1960s excuse that this had only been a “starter marriage.” (She has since remarried, and I wish her luck.) A couple that is having trouble should always seek counseling. Of course, this is why it is of transcendent importance for people to choose their spouses with great care and thought in the first place, as counseled above.
Throughout human existence, a prime, if not the prime, function of marriage has been the procreation and raising of children (hence the absurdity of oxymoronic same-sex marriage which throughout human existence never existed in any culture or country for obvious reasons). I strongly advise couples not to forego this great gift. On the other hand, I also would caution couples to wait until they are quite certain their marriage is solid before having children. I have known of a number of troubled couples who believed that having a baby “would bring them together.” The opposite is more likely, since new babies, and children in general, do put a strain on a marriage. For one thing, women often, at least temporarily, lose interest in sex after having a baby. Those who cannot have children naturally resort to a number of solutions, among them adoption. It is nothing short of grotesque that Americans feel compelled to travel all around the world to find children to adopt when in this country over a million babies a year are aborted. Why can’t we have a nationwide adoption-before-birth program to help rectify this sad situation?

   In connection with children, I can’t resist offering some bits of advice. Be parents, not buddies, to your children. Administer fair and appropriate discipline when needed. An undisciplined child can subconsciously feel unloved, if not neglected. Do not let children run your life, as so many Americans are inclined to do. Children need to be taught respect for their parents and other elders in order to be open to learning from them. Never fight in front of children. Instead, show signs of mutual affection. Remember that American children have become increasing sedentary and passive from being locked into getting everything from some screen or earphones, be it TV, computers,  iPods, or video games. As of 2008, it was determined that the average American child spends 52.5 hours a week in such passive pastimes (Time, February 1, 2010) as opposed to 17 hours with parents and 30 hours a week in school. These pastimes are not something you realistically could or should ban; instead, they should be substantially limited in order to safeguard your child’s behavior, health, and ability to imagine, and to enable your child to engage in psychologically essential make–believe games. Also, begin reading to your children at an early age and continue for as long as possible. This engenders a desire for reading books that can immeasurably enrich one’s life.