…by being married for almost twenty years.
I get a annoyed by the surfeit of ‘top ten’ blog posts on lessons for marriage from the first year. I’m not suggesting you can’t learn anything in your first year being married, but if you take your advice from just the first year you are going to have a hard time getting through all the years that come after. That’s like getting your relationship advice from Cosmo, not a good idea if you want a relationship with even a modicum of sanity and trust. The honeymoon is nice, but then there is the rest of life that has to be lived too.
I know I have no business dishing out advice, but I’m going to do it anyway. Here are five things that I have learned about sustaining a marriage so far:
1. There are three people in your relationship.
You, your partner, and the relationship itself. I understand that the “relationship” is not a person, but it is an entity distinct from the two individuals that needs attention and care. I have watched a lot of marriages fail because the individuals did a lot to take care of themselves and not lose their identity, but my experience is that you need to lose your identity just a little in order for there to be something more than just two individuals living together. There has to be an “us” that is important to you.
2. Go to bed angry.
The general advice is that you should never go to bed angry. Sometimes, though you are angry and you are tired and that is not a combination that lends itself to positive resolution of a conflict. Also trying to solve problems when emotions are high does not have a great success rate. I’m not suggesting you ignore your feelings or problems. I am suggesting that sometimes it is better to say “goodnight” rather than whatever it is that your angry, overtired mouth wants to spew forth. Go ahead and sleep on it, talk about it the next day, you might feel different with a little rest and reflection.
3. Don’t try to split things evenly.
Figure out what you like to do, what you are willing to do, and what you really can’t stand. Match this up against your partner and see where you can divide, where you overlap and where you need to outsource or adjust. Then be willing to be flexible because sometimes we all have to do things we don’t like, that’s part of being in a partnership. Sometimes you do more, sometimes you do less, it’s not a daily thing, it’s not a tally sheet and it can’t compare to other relationships. Different things work for different people, figure out what works for the three entities you are dealing with and adjust as needed.
4. Fake it.
Happily ever after is bullshit. We all know that but we want to believe, somewhat masochistically, that maybe it’s out there and if we were different, if they were different, if whatever was different maybe we would arrive at happy, forever. Happy is a feeling and like other feelings it comes and it goes. But it comes back and it is important to leave room for that possibility even when you think it is gone. Sometimes in a relationship we get in a slump, and in the words of Dr. Seuss, “unslumping yourself is not easily done.” You have to work at being happy, noticing happy things, trying not to focus on the negative. Try holding a pencil horizontally with your teeth for sixty seconds. It forces your face into a smiling position and that tricks your brain into thinking you are happy, then all of a sudden you feel happy and you start to notice happy things – positive cycles happen, let them. Also this works for sex, which is important in a marriage. You are too tired, too grumpy, not attracted to your partner, whatever: fake it. Pretend what you want but do the best acting you can, a couple minutes in and it won’t be fake anymore, if it is keep trying until it’s not.
5. Children are bad for marriage.
Having a baby never saved anyone’s relationship. If things are on the rocks and you are really not happy start with numbers 1-4, don’t bring someone else into the world – only you can fix you. Babies and children are wonderful, they are a joy, they are a struggle, they are a delight, they are a terror. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, remember that in the tough times whether it is exhaustion in the early years or the insanity of adolescence. Be there for each other, take care of your relationship (see number 1), and remember the kids grow up and leave. Once they are gone you can be the team that made it through or the individuals defeated who go their own way and just have the kids in common – you choose which path you want and then walk it proactively.
There is a lot to learn about everything you do, and that is probably the best advice anyone can actually give about marriage. It is a partnership that is supposed to be forever, that’s going to take some work and a willingness to learn. Forever is a long time, a lot happens on the way, be patient, be willing to learn new things and be surprised, the best views are often the ones that take a lot of work to get to.