My friend asked me, “How do you do it?” “Do what?” I replied. “Keep your marriage growing.” “Ah, well, its different for everyone. I can tell you what works for us, but it might not work for you.” She thought about it for a minute, “So tell me anyway. I want to know, maybe it will give me inspiration so we can make it as a couple for 47 years too.” I asked her to give me a few days to think about it. I am not a marriage counselor, I am certainly not a shrink. I’m just a quickly aging female who isn’t willing to sit down and shut up when others don’t want to hear my opinion. And, as my dear friend Bryan said, patience is not one of my attributes. He knows me far too well.
So, here we go. Stop here if you do not want unsolicited advice from a great grandmother.
I can tell you that there are hundreds of books for sale that will tell you their version of the truth. Most of them, however, will simply add to the confusion. At the end of the day, it is up to the couple, whatever that looks like, to find their own path. But they MUST find it together if they want marriage to work.
The first lesson is to Know Thy Self. No I am not quoting the scriptures to you, I am seriously saying, you have to know yourself before you can learn to love another. What you like, what you need, what you want in a lover, spouse, and the best friend you will ever have. And most of us poor saps haven’t a clue before the age of thirty. By then, of course, most of us are committed, and we love the person we chose to live our lives with. Sometimes deeply, sometimes conveniently, but we are committed.
Lesson Two, Keep your business between the two of you, and/or a professional counselor.
As you grow you change, sometimes in the most profound ways, sometimes superficially, but we all change. With change can come distance between us and the love of our lives. That leads to frustration, miscommunication, downright anger, and feelings of isolation. Now here is where most people, male and female, make a huge mistake. They take it to the gossip mill. Instead of going to their spouse or partner (I will use spouse to make typing easy) and talking things through, they go to their best pal, coworker, or family member if your a guy. A woman goes to her best friend, the ladies at the nail salon, or, heaven help all of them, their mother or sister for advice.
At this point, everything gets confused and every opinion will muddle things up even more. There is nothing that will strain an already difficult situation than for a woman to say to a man (or whomever), “Well My Mother Said…” The immediate response is generally, “You told your MOTHER?” It works the same from the other direction. There is a reason why “mother in law” is a dirty phrase in nearly every culture in the world. Because I can guarantee no one can stick their nose in and stir things up like a mother in law. Sure we all need someone to talk to. I suggest making it a professional who doesn’t have a personal interest in your life. Someone who isn’t going to take sides and pony up excuses instead of practical advice.
Lesson Three, Always put each other first. I can hear the shocked gasps from here.
Before children, before parents, before extended family, before friends, before jobs, before church, before Friday night poker games that have been ongoing since high school, your spouse comes first. Why? Well exactly who do you expect to spend the rest of your life with other than your spouse? One day the kids will grow up and leave home, hopefully. Your friends will drift away, your family will die and leave this mortal coil, and you two will be sitting across from one another, all alone, on your phones, ignoring each other. Okay, maybe not on the phone, but you will still have nothing to talk about if you don’t start building memories and adventures today.
Lesson Four, Kiss the Girl, or Guy. For no reason other than they still ring your bell. Go on, kiss her, in front of the kids, or anyone else standing there. Whisper loving words, or even silly words, in his ear. Make a promise for mind blowing love making, later. Make eye contact across the room, then smile, yes, that smile. Remember what made you want him or her in your arms and hang on to that memory as tight as you can for the times when it seems like one or both of you have lost interest. Take home flowers for her just because, or cook her a special meal, or give him a back rub while he complains about work. Do the little things that require physical contact. Fix his tie, smooth his jacket, hold her jacket for her, smooth a wayward lock of hair into place. Find any excuse to touch. Hold hands, Every. Where. You. Go. If that attraction fades away completely, you are in deep trouble and the further you drift, the harder it is to find each other again. Of course, there are couples that are destined to separate and divorce. It takes two in the endeavor, and if one is unwilling or unable to take part. The marriage will drift into the doldrums of the family court system.
Lesson Five, Dance in the Kitchen. My husband has two left feet, no sense of rhythm, and doesn’t understand the art of dance, At. All. But when I get upset or down, he puts on our favorite slow song, and we dance in the kitchen. Really, he just holds me and we sway to the music, but it is how we dance. I know this is his way of comforting me, he knows after I settle down, I will tell him what is hurting me. We are communicating love, comfort, and compassion without words. Maybe you won’t dance in the kitchen, maybe you will go out and shoot at tin cans, or make pizza together, or go for a walk, but each couple needs to find their comfort mechanism. That one thing they only do together that brings them close to one another, communicating without words. It’s a good thing.
Lesson Six, Take private time for romance. A weekend at the hotel down the road is good enough, if you don’t want to get too far from the kids. Why? Because every couple, admit it or not, need the excitement of a romantic get away. Give the hotel number to the sitter, turn off you phones, better yet, leave them in the car or at home. Spend the time alone, on a honeymoon, or if your having issues, as a marriage get away to talk things through. Romance is vital, VITAL to a lasting marriage. Once, my husband took me to Paris, France (We lived in London at the time.) and he kissed me in the rain, on top of the Eiffel Tower. It wasn’t an all out, I want to bed you right now, kind of kiss, it was a, soft, romantic, I love you, I’m glad I found you, kind of kiss. One that used to make ladies in a movie audience swoon. Now that is romantic. For me. For you, I have no idea what constitutes romantic, but make sure it stays alive between you all your lives.
Lesson Seven, Words Mean Things. Don’t say it unless you mean it. Even in the heat of a knock down drag out screaming argument, Don’t Say It unless you mean it. Because you can’t take back the hurt and shock of whatever it is, and once said, it has meaning that can resonate for years. Just don’t do it, words hurt more than a sharp sword. The damage can be fatal to a relationship. Dead and buried isn’t how most people want their marriage to end. Sometimes it is necessary, especially if there is infidelity or violence in the relationship. Being angry does not give a person the right to try to destroy another person with vicious words, lies, and gossip. Anger is not communication. Words mean things, good and bad. Be kind or Don’t say it.
Lesson Eight, Be gracious, be noble. When we first got married the Mr. and I would argue over stupid things. If I turned out right, I would gloat and rub it in that I was right. If I lost, I would pout and resent him. Talk about twisted. Be gracious in apologizing if you are wrong. Be noble in accepting that apology. Even if you insist you are right, be gracious and let it go, unless you love screaming at him or subjecting her to the silent treatment. Be noble, be willing to be wrong, be willing to apologize. Let go of the need to always control things, to always know everything. Men and women see things from a totally different point of view. I am five feet three inches tall. My husband is six feet one inch tall. I do not see the world from his perspective, nor does he see it from mine. Not unless we are willing to trade perspectives. I climb on a ladder, he sits in a chair, but come on, who always has that available? So we accept that each of us sees something differently, and we nobly, with grace, let it go. (Unless I get into a stubborn mode. You would think I would know better by now.)
Lesson Nine, It’s Okay To Cry. Nothing makes me cry faster than seeing a strong man cry. Because, ladies especially, for a strong man to cry, he has to break social expectations and give in to emotions. Men do NOT like that. They want to see a problem, analyze it, and fix it. If it is something they can’t fix, it confuses and frustrates them. It emasculates them in the deepest part of their foundation. We lost our son. It was horrific, sad, shocking to know a 21 year old was dead. Just gone. His life over. My beloved husband couldn’t fix it. He slid into shock, then into rage, then into a deep, long lasting depression. I got angry, got things done, buried our boy, and picked up the pieces of our life because that what a woman does, even while crying her eyes out. It wasn’t until my husband broke down and cried that I knew there would be a chance for our marriage to survive. He couldn’t fix it, he had to learn to accept the pain, the loss, the sorrow, and still go on living. It has made him a more tender, loving man. So, fellas, its okay to cry. The strongest of men are those who will allow themselves to cry in sorrow and in joy.
Lesson Ten, Nobody is perfect. No, you aren’t. Because if you were perfect, you wouldn’t need to be here struggling on earth. (Okay, there was a God pitch there, deal with it.) Both people in a relationship are flawed human beings. We say stupid things, do stupid things, hurt each other unknowingly and make mistakes. It isn’t a mistake to forsake your marriage vows, or try to maim one another, those are choices designed to end a marriage. Period. A mistake is making an inappropriate joke, telling your spouse something that will hurt them, and being so obtuse not to know. Imperfect means forgetting to say I love you when your spouse needs it. Imperfect is missing the cues she sends out that she is in need of a little tender loving care, and imperfect is to expect a man to catch those cues when they need explicit information to know how to act. (Note to females: Most guys only need to be told the parameters once, with an example, and careful instructions. From then on they will only need to be reminded with a code word.) Imperfect is to expect a man to understand female emotions, and imperfect is to expect a woman to understand that a man needs to FIX things instead of simply understanding and listening. But both come close to perfection when they try to see things as they really are and not through a cloud of emotion.
There is a lot more, small things, significant things that make a marriage work. Sometimes it requires judicial use of blinders, and a boat load of forgiveness. Sometimes it requires a huge sense of humor, and sometimes a hard line drawn in the sand. But, give it time, and most things can be sorted out. Two things are unforgivable: Physical or emotional violence, and infidelity. Either one is a deal breaker, and it can and will end a marriage.
To all my friends who are reaching the breaking point, breathe, look at your spouse, some where, deep inside both of you are the two people who fell in love once upon a time. Dig them out, dust them off, and let them rediscover each other in the older, wiser version of you.
And, that my friend, is how the Mr. and I manage to stay married after all these years.