Monday, July 4, 2011

To Have and to Hold

Marriage has been a hot topic in the news lately.  Who may get married?  Who shouldn't be married?  Is marriage "in danger"?  It seems every time I turn on the television, log on to Facebook, or find myself in a group of people, some aspect of marriage is being discussed.  Consequently, I've been finding myself thinking about marriage quite a bit, especially my own.  This September will mark ten years since John and I tied the proverbial knot.  Sometimes when people ask how long we've been married, they seem impressed when I tell them nearly a decade.  Part of me finds it a bit sad that a ten-year marriage is grounds for congratulations, but then again, I'm a bit impressed myself.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not insinuating that I'm in some sort of matrimonial hell.  I have a great husband and we have a strong marriage.  But marriage isn't easy.  Remember preparing for college and being told not to room with a close friend?  I recall being warned that living in a dorm with even your best friend will fatally strain your relationship.  Living with someone--sharing space, dividing responsibilities, learning their faults and quirks--is enough to chip away at the tightest, oldest bonds.  Marriage is exactly the same, only it's magnified by the stresses of careers, bills, a house, kids.  I'm going to be honest, I'm not the least bit surprised that the divorce rate is as high as it is.  So many people get married while they're still in the "lovey-dovey, making out in the back seat, fairy tale" stage.  Maybe people should be required to wait until they've gotten a bit more--um--comfortable.  Maybe they should wait until the new wears off a bit and see if they still want to spend their lives together.  I'm aware that this might drastically decrease the number of marriages, but that would hopefully in turn decrease the number of divorces and broken homes. 

This isn't about whether or not people should marry, though, or how long they should be together beforehand.  This is about the last ten years of my life--of our-lives--and how we made it through the past 3,800 days or so. 

This morning, my little girl and I visited my husband's hometown and attended church with his family (he had to work).  The pastor's message was from Ephesians 5, how the woman is to submit to the husband and the man is to love his wife as Christ loved the church.  He made reference during the sermon to a couple in the church who have been married 73 years.  Stop and let that absorb into your brain.  Seventy.  Three.  Years.  It's a small church with a very relaxed atmosphere, and the little man--who is in his early 90s--quietly (and sincerely) said, "And each year is sweeter than the last."  His wife learned over and tenderly patted him on the shoulder.  As I've gone throughout my day, I have found myself thinking about that precious couple and their remarkable marriage.  What are the secrets of a a 73-year marriage, especially one without a trace of bitterness.  There was a tenderness between this couple that cannot be forced or faked.  They aren't the stereotypical, crotchety old couple of a sitcom.  Though I can imagine they've faced their hard times, they've somehow survived with their love for each other intact. 

I would love the chance to sit down with this couple, to soak in their wisdom.  In the meantime, though, I've been reflecting on my own marriage.  John and I married fast and we married young.  Went went on our first date in February 2001 and were married on September 1st of the same year.  I was 22; he was four days from 21.  More than a few people expressed their disapproval and even their doubts that we would "make it."  Fortunately, our families were supportive and have remained so throughout the years.  I think this has been crucial; I honestly don't understand how marriages survive parents and in-laws who meddle and plant discord in their children's lives.  But even though it's true that you "marry the family, not just the person," ultimately it's the two of you who begin and end your days together. 

I've been thinking about the ups and downs of our marriage and how we've made it through the hard times and somehow come out on the other side even stronger.  What have I learned about marriage in the past ten years?  What do I have to share with someone just starting out?  Ten years doesn't even begin to compare to seventy-three, but every new married couple has to start somewhere.  Perhaps my experiences are easier to relate to for a couple just starting out in their marriage than those of a husband and wife who "have it down pat."  So I've decided to share a few things I've learned over the years.  I openly admit that even though I know these things to be true, it doesn't mean I always put them into practice.  It's frustrating that I find myself often running in circles, trampling a problem with the same old, stinky shoes instead of the new shiny ones that I know work.  But that's exactly why marriage is a challenge.  Anything that involves people--that involves us--is going to be challenging since we are all so inherently flawed.  Especially me.

I could never completely put into words what has made our marriage last, but here are a few ideas that have worked for me:

Marriage is easier if you're married to a friend - It's true that love helps you get through the hard times, but it helps even more if you like the person you kiss goodnight.  If your wife or husband isn't your friend--your besta grudge instead of mercy. In an interview with Esquire, Barbara Bush said, "I think you ought to treat your spouse like you treat your friends. You clean your house for your friends, you make sure they're taken care of, and a spouse comes second. I think you oughtta treat him like a friend."   When our marriage has been most strained, I kept pushing and persevered, not only because I loved John but because I truly enjoy his company and can't imagine experiencing life without him. 

There is no greater gift than forgiveness - Forgiveness that must be earned leads to resentment and insincerity.  You should never have to "make it up" to your spouse in order to be forgiven.  True forgiveness is given freely, often without the offending party asking or even deserving it.  A bitter heart and resentful spirit are cancer to a marriage, eating it alive while e you both fake a smile.  Just as we expect our spouse's apology to be sincere, our forgiveness must also be real.  I'm not saying this is easy; deep cuts take ages to heal.  But without forgiveness, those wounds are torn open again and again.  If every time you argue with your spouse you bring up all of his or her past mistakes, you are withdrawing your forgiveness.  And each time withdraw that forgiveness, you are showing your spouse that an apology is a waste of time since it is not truly accepted.  If you want to show your husband or wife that you love them deeply, forgive and don't bring it up again.  This is a precious gift and will lead to more openness in your marriage.  No one wants to discuss a problem if there's a chance that old transgressions might be dug up and wielded as weapons.  If I'm not afraid of having to pay again and again for past sins, I am more willing to be honest about how I feel or what is bothering me. 

Pick your battles - This applies to so many areas in our lives but especially to children and marriage.  Sometimes you just need to give your spouse the benefit of the doubt.  Use some discretion before confronting.  Ask yourself, "Is this really that big of a deal?" or "Am I taking out my frustration about another issue on him or her?"  Anyone who has been married knows how quickly an "issue" can escalate into a full-blown fight.  And how often are these issues insignificant in the grand scheme of things?  Real problems in marriages must be addressed and sometimes it's not pretty.  But there's a difference in something that irritates you and something that legitimately damages your marriage.  You have to choose which things are worth spending time discussing (or fighting over).  And some things you just have to grin and bear, accepting that it doesn't hurt anyone and get over it without having a meltdown.  When you're getting to know each other (or have known each other long enough to figure out the idiosyncrasies that bug you), it's easy to find something to harp on and pick a fight.  But it solves nothing and only chips away at your marriage.  There's no award when you die for "Most Fights," but I can promise once you're gone there will be people who remember you being a "Bitchy Wife" or "Douchebag Husband."   If something genuinely bothers you, talk about it or even argue about it.  But don't turn everything that bugs you into a shouting match.   Choose your battles wisely.  In my field, I've come across teachers  who write kids up and send them to the office for coming to class without a pencil or walking to the garbage can without permission.  Not only does this tell the students that the teacher is not in control, it makes the administrators less likely to take the referrals seriously.  It's the same way in a marriage.  If you freak out over everything, when something truly important or hurtful needs to be addressed, it may fall on deaf ears. 

Don't assume your spouse knows how you feel, what's bothering you, etc. - Women seem to be more notorious for this behavior than men.  I wear my feelings on my sleeve and am completely baffled when someone (especially my husband) can't figure out (A) that I'm sad/mad/scared and (B) WHY I'm sad/mad/scared.  I mean, isn't it obvious from my body language?  Usually the answer is no.  My husband can detect something is amiss but he's not a mind reader.  When we make our spouses play the guessing game, it only exacerbates the problem.  While I'm waiting for him to figure it out, I'm growing more angry or upset.  Meanwhile, he's growing increasingly more frustrated that something's wrong and I won't just tell him.  By the time it finally gets addressed, I explode or break down.  He become even more frustrated.  Most or all of this would have been avoided if I'd just told him in the first place what was bothering me.  This would have eliminated days of silence and/or passive aggressiveness, as well as the fight I'd already "pre-planned" in my head.   In her stand up special Money Shot, Whitney Cummings talks about women being "crazy bitches."  Example: 

Guys you ever get into a fight with your girl and she’s much more pissed off than she should be? And you’re like, “Woah, that argument escalated really fast.” It’s because for the last week we’ve been having a fight with you in our imaginations and in our head you said all the wrong shit.

I laughed and cringed when I heard her say that because it's totally true.  I have had to learn the hard way (as well as repeatedly) that marriage is better if I just tell him why I'm upset in the first place.   Otherwise, I just end up more upset because I think he doesn't care that I'm upset when he is really just trying to figure out what on earth is wrong with me and why I'm slamming cabinet doors. 

Sometimes it's okay to go to bed before the fight is over - Sometimes issues need to be worked out now.  I get that.  This is advice that is on a "case by case" basis.  I just know that there are occasions when we've stayed up most of the night and reached some sort of solution to a problem.  Then, when I have to get up the next morning and go to work on 17 minutes of sleep, I get pissed off again over staying up all night.  There have been disagreements in our marriage that were easier to resolve the next day once we'd gotten some rest and calmed down.  Seriously, there's no way to be logical at 4 AM when you've been screaming and/or sobbing for six hours.  If you reach a lull in the disagreement, it's okay to call a truce and go to bed.  I can't promise you'll sleep well and you may still feel like hell in the morning, but just maybe you'll wake up and with a new perspective or even think, "I was wrong."

A little kindness goes a long way - Kindness can manifest in a variety of ways:  in our words, our actions, our countenance.  In marriage, I've found that kindness works best when it is unexpected, unsolicited, and when it meets a need.  And a kind word or deed cannot be offered with repayment in mind; there is no quid pro quo in kindness.  We all know something we can do for our spouse to show kindness, and generally it's something that requires very little of our time or effort.  However, these small rays of sunshine can light up some of the darkest corners in your marriage. 

Foundation is crucial - My husband and I were married nine years when we had our first child.  Now, I understand that not everyone has the luxury of (or desire to) wait that long.  When to have children is a personal decision we should each consciously make if at all possible.  However, I feel our marriage and our little girl have benefited from our waiting.  During those nine years, we formed a foundation upon which we can build our family.  We know each other.  We know our strengths, our weaknesses, our fears, our hopes, our dreams.  We know what the other is and is not willing to accept.  And most importantly, we know the other person is in it for the long haul.  Some people fear reaching a point in their marriage where they actually have the "should we stay together?" conversation.  For many, this is a "no turning back" point, the place that defines the rest of their marriage (however long or short it ends up being).  For some couples, though, it's the beginning, a renewal.  My husband and I have crawled through valley together and emerged from the other side not as two, but as one.  This foundation, as painful as it sometimes was to forge, makes us better as husband and wife and as parents.  Though I know that we will still face difficulties, we've been through what I think is the worst.  And we didn't drag a child through it with us. When our marriage was at its weakest, we had the chance to strengthen it, just the two of us.  Now that I am a mother, I can't imagine having to balance a struggling marriage with a teething infant.  I am so thankful we waited so that our daughter can grow up in a happy home with parents who are secure in their marriage.


There is so much more that goes into a marriage, but these are some beliefs that have served me well.  Even now, there are times I find myself making allowances for friends but not for my husband.  I struggle not to let my hurt feelings hinder my ability to forgive.  I choose the wrong battle to fight.  Or I choose the right battle and carry the wrong weapons.  I lock up my emotions and make my husband play guessing games.  I get selfish and forget to be kind.  These are not areas in my marriage that I have perfected, but they have come a long way since the beginning.  At least I have the tools to deal with them now as long as I don't fall back into old habits.  I also have the desire  to make life happier for both of us.

I love my husband, and I feel incredibly blessed that we've spent the last decade together.  When all is said and done, I remember the good days much more vividly than the bad.  Maybe we'll get 73 years together, maybe not.  It's not just about how long you're together, it's about how good  you are together.  Whether we get five years or fifty, I just want to spend them with him. 

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