Sixteen years ago I married the man that would become my best friend. I was a young woman (barely 20) and he was still a boy (half a year over 19), walking down the aisle of a Walt Disney World fantasy wedding with neither of us having the faintest clue of the crazy adventure we were embarking upon. Marriage is full of rough patches, days on cloud 9, tugging and pulling, loving and swooning, only to find yourselves thrown in to the pits of tension hell and then back to blissful, marital heaven. It’s a roller coaster at it’s finest. Fast, scary, daring, full of excitement, laughter, hanging on for dear life, and relief when the ups and downs of the ride finally slow just enough that you can catch your breath and pat yourself on the back for surviving the ride.
I’m certainly not a guru on marriage but I thought I’d share my dozen list for making marriage (at least my marriage) feel like a happily ever after.
1. Never Stop Dating
This is the advice I write in every wedding card because I believe it to be a vital component of a healthy relationship. Dating does not need to be an extravagant event but rather a weekly time set aside that guarantees a connection with your spouse. It’s important to have a few hours of quality focus on the person that had you at the alter saying, “til death do us part.”
Assuming you didn’t have a shotgun wedding because a little bambino was already in the making, waiting to have kids just makes sense. Get to know each other, travel, live a life of no boundaries or bedtimes before the hormonal craziness of pregnancy and the chaotic demands of raising a family. You’ll be a much stronger duo if you can call upon the memories of who your partner really is when they get lost in all the life changes.
3. Be a Safe Place to Land
So much hiding happens in marriage because one or both partners has not learned to accept the other, flaws and all. None of us is perfect and nobody should expect us to be perfect. All of us want to share our deepest, darkest secrets but not at the cost of judgement or rejection. Be a safe place for your partner’s secrets, fears, and mistakes. It’ll be the scariest place to be but also the most rewarding.
4. Make Sex a Priority
When I was in college I interned for a female veterinarian who owned a clinic. Life was busy for her. I remember looking at her to-do-list one afternoon and being mortified that #5 on her list was “wash hair” and #6 was “have sex with husband”. A few years later when the demands of life were getting the better of us I decided to add sex to my calendar. At first sex on the calendar felt really pathetic and sad. But once I accepted that life throws a lot of curveballs, including sick kids, busy careers, home ownership, feeling unattractive, lack of sleep, too much television, etc, I came to appreciate the day sex was circled. It became exciting. I knew that for the block of time we would connect. I had time to prep myself and prepare. Time for us to send seductive messages to one another and it became this great flirt fest leading up to the evening of the deed. So rather than a ‘something-I-must-do’, sex became a ‘something-to-look-forward-to’. We don’t have to schedule sex all the time but if life becomes too busy we are quick to circle a date.
5. Remember That Your Spouse is Not Your Enemy
It happens a lot in marriage. We turn our spouse in to our hated enemy. Someone we must annihilate and defeat. We must win the argument at all costs. It took me a long time to learn this lesson. Even when we can’t see it we do tend to have the same goals. We want our family to run smoothly. We want to live within our means. We want to have a clean house. But if you were to listen to our arguments on these issues you’d think we were at war with one another rather than fighting for the same team. Once we learned that we are in fact trying to conquer the issues rather than one another we were able to get more creative in our solutions. And calmer.
6. Ride the Downs Because the Ups Will Return
Every relationship, regardless of how healthy it is, will have really ugly moments. It’s vital to just ride the waves and remain confident in the knowledge that the good times will return. They always do. If you can unattach yourself from your partner’s emotional swings the ride will be much smoother and the return to normalcy much quicker. It used to be that every time Mark was in a bad mood I would take on his burden. And vice versa. Now I understand that he will have bad days. He will get in really foul places. But I do not have to go there with him. I just need to be here when he comes back from whatever struggle he’s had. And again, vice versa. My moods are entirely mine and not for him to fix or ride with me. Trust me, once you’ve mastered being responsible only for yourself, the ups and downs of marriage are a lot less frightening.
7. Stop Thinking it’s Greener Elsewhere
No marriage is perfectly blissful. No marriage is without issue. No sex life perfect. No partner flawless. When we start to recognize just how green our pasture is we find that it’s absolutely not greener elsewhere. In fact, living in the fantasy that it’d be better somewhere else keeps you from seeing the beauty where you’re at. It keeps you from helping to grow what you have in to something even more beautiful. Whenever we get in a funk and start to think it would be better with someone else we quickly check back in to reality. And reality is, we’d just be trading one set of problems for another. What we have is plenty good.
8. Have Your Own Hobbies & Interests
Too often I see couples who get completely lost in their spouse. They lose themselves entirely. Make sure you have things that you do separately. Make sure you continue to do things that make you uniquely you. Encourage the same of your partner. Mark likes to race his road bike. Racing road bikes scares the shit out of me but I support his love of the sport. I like to run marathons. Mark has no desire to ever log 26.2 running miles. But he’ll be my biggest fan. I read and write for fun. He wants to join a laser tag team. He has his set of friends and I have mine. They don’t always have to intertwine. Having different interests opens us up to new ideas, fun conversations, and an individuality that is so important.
9. Embrace Your Differences
Embracing differences is way easier said than done. And it seems that we never stop being challenged in this area. When we learn to embrace our differences we stop trying to change the other person. And we actually learn something. I’ve learned that I can actually be more like Mark and be better for it. I like control. I like plans and not to venture from those plans. But I’ve adapted since being married to Mark. He’s a fly by the seat of his pants kind of guy. Live life as it comes instead of planning out life. In embracing this about him, I’ve discovered that it’s a great way to live. I’ve found that I actually like going on vacation without an intinerary. I like not always knowing what’s coming next. Because of this life philosophy we’ve had some really grand adventures! I’m not sure what Mark would say he’s learned from embracing my differences but I’m sure he’d agree that my love of structure has added some value to his life as well. I no longer want him to be different and he no longer tries to change me either. This makes our love feel so much deeper.
10. Focus on the Positive
Negativity is like ivy. It keeps growing and growing until it’s infiltrated every nook and cranny of your life. When you find yourself stuck in the negative, try finding the positive. It’s always there. Sometimes you just have to cut back that overgrown negativity plant to find it. Start planting seeds of positivity and find what blooms. We have something that we do for each other called, “You’re beautiful because…” or “I see your beauty when…”. We text these phrases to each other followed by whatever we see as beauty in the other person as a constant reminder of how wonderful each person is. It’s good to see the beauty and it’s good to receive it as well. For those times when I just can’t seem to get past the negativity I’m feeling I vent to my closest friend. The friend I know understands that I’m just pissed off and using her for my bitch session. Better for her to hear it than for Mark to take an unnecessary beating. Those are hard to recover from.
You’ve heard this one a million times by now and for good reason. Good communication can make a good relationship great. For me it means not stifling my feelings. I’ve had to learn that I have a voice and my voice matters. I’ve also had to learn to listen. We all know that a key component of communication is listening. Repeating back what you’ve heard to clarify that you’ve heard correctly is not a cheesy exercise. Telling your spouse what you need instead of making him/her guess (if they really loved you they would know, right) is not dumb advice. These are communication tools that make marriage easier on every one.
12. When All Else Fails Enlist A Professional
Sometimes we know the correct way to handle a situation but we just can’t seem to master the skill. Sometimes we’ve just hit a crossroads that we aren’t certain how to navigate. Sometimes we just need an unbiased sounding board. Whatever the case, I believe every couple should have the name and number of a great therapist. Someone that both parties like and feel comfortable sharing intimate details with. Never should we be ashamed to seek the help of a professional. Our marriage went through a lot of changes a few years ago and all the change became so overwhelming that we started mismanaging the and our relationship suffered because of it. Enlisting a marriage therapist was the best decision we made. She helped us save our relationship and it’s better than ever now. What a shame it would’ve been to walk away after investing so much. Instead we get to reap the rewards.
Other suggestions: take care of yourself, turn off the television, take a weekend off without kids, remember the only person you can change is you, praise your spouse (especially in public), hold hands, show some PDA, put your kids to bed early, keep life simple.
What advice would you give to couples wanting a happily ever after?