"Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there" - Will Rogers
Having a successful, fulfilling, happy marriage doesn't come as the result of dumb luck. You won't have the perfect marriage all of the time and live in harmony because you met the right person, everything fell into place, and nothing ever shifted or changed for 50 years. Marriage, like most things in life, requires effort. We spend neverending amounts of time and energy keeping our cars maintained, trying to be a great parent, cleaning our house, managing our money, working at our career, and pushing forward in so many other valuable parts of our lives. Yet so few of us put even a fraction of our effort into nurturing our relationship with our spouse. I think this could be the symptom of something I suffer from - thinkthatfantasymovieloveisreal-itis (that's the clinical term). We're programmed to believe that all relationships are like the movies. We see the perfect whirlwind romance where he's Prince Charming and she's Cinderella and think we'll be hopelessly in love just because we are who we are. This is a novel thought, and a romantic one at that. But it's dangerous. It's dangerous because it can lead us to complacency in our marriage. We need to constantly be working and growing and communicating together. We need to be prepared for the fact that PEOPLE DO CHANGE. We'll always be who we are, but a different, maturing version of ourselves. That's not a bad thing, it's just a reality.
Okay, so you're ready. You've accepted the fact that you're going to need to put in hard work, time, and energy to create the type of marriage that most can only dream of. So, what's it gonna take to be successful?
"If we're growing, we're always going to be out of our comfort zone" - John Maxwell
This is where men become men, women become women, and the shit hits the fan. Oh man, the journey you're about to take... sometimes it's not going to be pretty. It's not gonna be clean and neat and nice. It'll be messy and sometimes ugly and flawed. Marriage is like that. You are two different people with two different personalities. In "The 5 Love Languages" by Gary Chapman, he says "we cannot rely on our native tongue if our spouse does not understand it." What he's referring to is his belief that we all speak different love languages, and that's the way we communicate and understand love. Because of this, there is GOING to be conflict. Harsh conflict. When my wife and I are face to face ready to correct course because we know something's headed in the wrong direction, my eye twitches, her fists clench, and we get ready for battle. Honestly, we know that sometimes it's going to be emotional chaos. It's going to happen, and it's good. Cathartic even. It almost always ends with us breathing deeply, sitting a few minutes in silence, and then being more in love with eachother at that moment than ever. Those moments at the end are the ones that everyone should experience. But they don't come without that first part. And that's what's going to take courage. You have to be ready for anything that can and will happen. Now I'm not saying that every moment focused on growing a relationship should be a knock down drag out emotional battle, that's not the point. The point is that we can't be afraid to get into the good stuff and the bad. The overused phrase from vows, "for better or for worse,' - that applies more than most people are prepared for it to. We need to have the courage to lay it all on the line with this person who we committed the rest of our lives to because they get all of us and we get all of them. That's what marriage is. Not only do we need to be courageous in the wake of what may happen if we lay it all on the line, but we need to be prepared to be a part of what our spouse lays on the line. For some people, this opportunity to be real and out there is the first time they've been able to. We may not like what we hear or see. So be prepared for positive and negative on both ends, and don't be afraid to jump at it and work on it.
HONEST AND OPEN COMMUNICATION
The idea that we need to have better communication with our partners is beat to death. There are thousands of books and websites about the topic. There are classes and seminars and cruises and counselors devoted 100% to facilitating communication between spouses. And somehow, even with the wealth of resources out there, most couples fail MISERABLY at it. Why? When we know this is one of the most powerful tools available to our marriage, why do we still treat it like something we can do later? It's insanity. This husband, this wife, they're the one we're going to share our world and ourselves with. They're not a roommate. They're not a buddy that we'll see every once in a while and chat about the weather and how great it was when the Cowboys had Emmit Smith. They're our one and only life partner, and because of that, effective communication is the number one thing that relationships need to survive. Without it, we can become distant, untrusting, deceitful, anxious, and sad. I won't dig too much further into this topic since there are resources out there you can use if you know this is an area where you have opportunity for major improvement. But be prepared to dig into the meat and potatoes here. Without communication, all of our other efforts will fail.
Oh God. We hate this word sometimes, don't we? Some people on the more stubborn end of the spectrum find this to be THE hardest part of marriage. We spend the early portion of our lives being who our parents say we are and doing what they tell us to do. Then we move into early adulthood and begin to learn and develop who we are. We become adults and have developed a personality and mindset that we feel confident about. We can make decisions, whether good or bad, and the only person who has to answer to the consequences is the person in the mirror. Then suddenly, without warning, we have merged our life with someone else's and every step we take can effect not just ourselves, but another person. Whoa. This is not the easiest thing to deal with. I've seen the marriages of friends crumble because they tried to live completely separate lives and it ended up ripping their household apart. We want to be able to do the things that make ourselves happy because well... it makes us happy! But honestly, as I progress in my relationship, I find the most fulfillment comes in watching my wife when she "gets her way" (and no, not in a snotty kind of way). Especially when it involves something I wouldn't have chosen for myself. You want to feel good inside? Make a small compromise without much effort on your spouse's part and see how happy they are. It's massive. It's a small (and sometimes not so small) way of showing how much you care. Now this can be broken down into simple things like what to have for dinner and where to take a vacation, or it can be huge things like where to live and who's going to stay at home with the kids while the other person works. Regardless, we have to be willing to make choices that we might not have otherwise made. We will get "victory" on somethings and "defeat" on others. Compromise means it will always be a "win" because we have a healthy, happy marriage.
On the other hand, we can be too compromising.This is an area where my wife and I are very similar, but in slightly different ways. She will always, ALWAYS choose the thing I want without a second thought. This is admirable for sure, and it's 100% out of love and trust. She loves me and wants me to have everything I want in life. She trusts me to make the right decision for my family. However, it means she's going to go without much of the time because I can very much fail at reading signals. Often, this is an unsustainable practice in the long term. We can sacrifice our wants and needs too much. It's important that decisions work for both partners. I, on the other hand, will always put up a solid struggle for "my side", but when I realize it's not what she wants, will always concede. This is one of the easiest ways for me to piss her off. I've worked on this, and it's helped us grow ever closer.
To compromise effectively, devote time relative to the importance of the topic. For example - if the discussion is regarding what to eat for dinner... duh, don't spend hours on the debate. However, if you're talking about whether one of you should stay home with the kids or put them in day care, it's probably worth investing some time together discussing the merits of each choice. Logic isn't the only thing that comes in to play here either. Consider emotion. The "smart" choice isn't always the right one. I'll talk more about compromise in future posts because I think this is an area where so many relationships suffer, yet there are a ridiculous amount of action steps that can be taken starting RIGHT NOW to improve the quality of your relationship.
Okay, I know what you're probably thinking. "No shit, Sherlock." But love isn't to be forgotten here. I thought about substituting compassion or empathy or another pretty word like that, but I picked it right. What's the point of doing all of this without love? Now, our love is going to change and shift and morph as we grow together (and maybe a little apart), but it's gotta always be there. If you've lost it, you can get it back! I'm not going to talk about how to develop love since that's about a billion more posts of stuff. We can wax intellectual all day long, but leave love out of the equation and it's all for naught (I've always wanted to use that phrase). If you're on this website, it's because you want a beautiful relationship with your spouse and that's not happening without love. All of the advice in the world means absolutely zero without it. You've gotta come to this journey because you have that love or you want it back. You've gotta be prepared for what it means to give and receive it. It's not quantifyable or measurable by any standard that I know of, but if you have it, you know it's there. Bring love to this journey and make it known that it's with the intention of defining and shaping the love to mean more than it ever has to either of you. Do that and your effort will be multiplied.
I'm going to end by saying that all of these things aren't going to come easy right away. They won't be perfect now, and aren't likely to ever be. They'll be an art form that's gradually developed. Don't be afraid to come with your experience meter on LOW, as long as you're willing to turn that motherlover up. Practice and work and push forward and you'll be ready for an amazing transformation in your marriage.