That’s me and my man thirteen years ago, all happy and sparkly.
This week my precious sister-in-law is walking down the aisle to a really great guy, and when people you care about get married, it makes you think about your own marriage and anything you’ve learned, the hard way or otherwise, that you can pass on. So in honor of my in-lawed sister and friend on the occasion of her wedding, here are 10 things I’ve learned about marriage.
1. Marriage is so freaking hard.
Marriage is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. And I’m in love with my best friend who loves me back. And despite all the love and shiny feelings, marriage is hard, and marriage is work.
As I neared the end of my twenties, I remember looking around at my peers and feeling a little loserish because while they all had jobs and masters and PhDs, I’d spent several years just trying to make a baby and didn’t have a lot to show for it. Except for one thing. When I thought about all that I hadn’t accomplished in my twenties, I realized that I had one thing, one big, excruciating thing. My marriage.
My hubby and I come from two sets of still-in-love parents and we heard growing up that marriage is work. And now we know why. We smooshed two opinionated, first-born, strong-willed people together and said ’til death.
Marriage is a full-time job that you show up to every day. There are no personal days. There are no sick days. Your life is the work of loving this person for better, worse, in sickness, health, or zombie attack.
2. Magic questions.
Schedule date night. No really. At the beginning, you think you’ll have all this time together and at first you do. But then you realize you still have jobs and then you might toss in a few kids and all of a sudden you can’t remember the last time the two of you were alone together. Commit to a weekly date night. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Take a walk or go get a cup of coffee. We go out every week right before our couples’ small group. We get eyeball to eyeball with each other over a cup of coffee or a plate of schwarma and check in and get right. Then we head over to friends’ to hang out with other couples. There have been several times when we’re so fried from kids and clients that we just stare at each other in silence. And sometimes silence is beautiful.
A couple of years into our marriage, our pastor and his wife gave us The Best Advice We’ve Ever Received About Marriage. On your date night, ask each other two questions.
Number One: How have you felt loved by me this week?
Number Two: How can I love you better?
My husband and I have been doing this for about eleven years now, and it has had a tremendous impact on our relationship. When you have that time set aside each week and you know those two questions are coming, you establish a platform for giving and receiving both encouragement and guidance. Notice that the first question is how you have felt loved. That’s key, because early in our marriage we would do things that we thought were loving but were totally lost on the other person. This question has helped us learn how our spouse receives love. For my husband, it usually involves food. I bought him his favorite snack, I made him his favorite meal, or I brought him a treat while he was working. For me, it usually involves spending time, listening, and playing with my hair. As for number two, if my hubby blindsides me with criticism when I’m trying to get dinner ready, I feel bruised, and well, usually a little pissy. But when I know this question is coming and he builds me up with encouragement first, I receive his opinions more openly and less defensively.
3. Really extreme and potentially socially-awkward boundaries.
We don’t ride in a car or eat a meal one-on-one with someone of the opposite sex. This is a learned-the-hard-way rule. When we were first married, I traveled a lot. One night I ended up in a city I really wanted to tour after a full day of meetings. A coworker offered to show me around and we went all over the city, eating dinner, dessert, walking around. Big ol’ night on the town with not my husband. When I called to say goodnight to my dear spouse when I got back to my hotel room, I could tell he was bumming a bit. And then I nailed my coffin shut when we were out a few weeks later and I referenced my pseudo-date. When you first get married, you think you’ll never even want another man, but one way to make sure that never changes is to never be alone with one. There have been a couple of times when there was just no getting around this, and in those cases we’ve talked ahead of time so everything was out in the open.
4. Fight fair.
You’re going to fight. Everyone fights. Maybe some people call it arguing or having differing opinions or my favorite, “intense moments of fellowship.” Early in our marriage, we fought dirty. Name-calling, ultimatums, slamming doors. Two tantrumy adults set on a collision course for each other. We knew each other better than anyone and that meant we knew how to surgically slice each others’ tenderest areas. These days, we still fight, but we fight fairly. We try to avoid words like “always” and “never.” I’ve taught my hubby how to apologize and he’s taught me how to look at something from the other point of view.
5. Grace for our crazy.
If crazy had an award, I would win it. Sometimes my brain feels like it’s boiling and I can’t remember anyone’s name and I become some kind of grotesque caricature of a woman. I am Hotflash the Way Early Menopause Chick, the Hulk’s lesser known sidekick. I have been exposed to too many gamma rays and can’t control my inner rage monster. In these times when I’m turning green and doubling in size because he had the audacity to ask me what we should do for dinner, my husband diffuses my emotional bomb with a hug and a prayer. He tells himself, “This isn’t at me.” Even if I’m talking at him, he knows that it isn’t at him, and he heaps on way more grace than I deserve, which is what grace is after all. His ability to not engage my crazy and love me through it makes him my hero, and also helps me show him grace when he’s downloading the stress from his entire work schedule into my lap. You can’t live with someone all day every day and expect them to be on their best behavior twenty-four seven. It’s just not realistic, and so, grace. Lots of it. And you’ll learn which incidents are worth talking through and learning and growing and becoming better people, and which things you can just breathe out and let go.
6. When life gets hard, you can go one of two ways. Together or apart.
When we were battling infertility and I was hopped up on hormones and completely depressed, I was not an easy person to be around. We lived in northern Virginia and every morning I had to drive across the bridge into D.C. to the clinic where I had more things shoved in and up me. My hubby could’ve left me to do it alone, but he didn’t. He was my chauffeur and advocate and never left my side. While I had ultrasounds up my hoo-ha jamming into my swollen ovaries, he held my undies, my hand, and my sanity. Every night when he shoved horse-sized needles into my butt, I sang 80s tunes at the top of my lungs. We got so good at the injections that we could do them on a commercial break (remember life before the DVR?). Team Dale, together through everything. Our marriage was forged stronger than ever through those tough years.
7. Unconditional respect.
During those fiery first years, we were waiting in line at a store and I hauled off and said something loud and disrespectful to him in front of everyone else in the line. I don’t even remember what I said, but I remember his reaction. He was furious, and it wasn’t just anger. It was hurt and embarrassment. I’d humiliated the man I love in front of a whole group of strangers. We had some seriously intense moments of fellowship after that, and I learned a lot about my husband and how he thinks.
We talk about unconditional love a lot, but one thing I try to practice in my marriage is unconditional respect. I need to feel respected by my husband, and he needs it from me, too. I work on respect as a discipline. I show him respect in front of our friends and family, taking every opportunity to build him up and talk about how great he is. Every post, tweet, or comment that I make about him online is either complimentary or approved by him first. If I truly need to talk through an issue and get a friend’s counsel, I choose one who knows him well and thinks he’s great, so that even as I wrestle with something, they know he’s a great guy, and they help me look at it objectively and help me see my own faults. All that said, we aren’t perfect at this. He and I both lean toward the sarcastic, and sometimes a joke hits too hard. That’s when we apologize and hug it out. These issues often come out when we’re doing our magic questions.
8. Believe the best in each other.
We naturally assume the worst about people, especially in marriage. If I can’t find the keys, I assume that my husband didn’t put them back on the hook after he used the car. I’m learning to redirect my thoughts and assume the best in him. If he said he was going to call the plumber a few days ago and I still haven’t seen the plumber show up, I believe that he made the call and the plumber was just busy, rather than assuming he totally forgot. When he’s late for dinner, I believe that he had several clients call him at the last minute and he’s doing his best, rather than assuming that we’re not that important to him and he’s completely rude. This practice has gone a long way toward establishing trust in our marriage and creating an atmosphere of we’re-on-the-same-team.
9. Serve together.
Nothing makes us more attracted to each other than when we see each other serving others. We’ve led student small groups at church for seven years, and when I look over and see him getting pummeled by eight or ten boys who are now taller than he is and show their love by bear hugging him until it cracks his spine, I’m overwhelmed with love for this man who would carve out time in his schedule to hang out with high school boys. And he’s told me many times how much he loves seeing me with my girls. And then there was that time when he videoed me when I was the only one doing the hand motions during a song….
In Uganda, I watched as he comforted our sponsored child with a lollipop and a hug. He helped push a bus out of the mud, played soccer against barefoot kids who ran rings around him, and helped me tuck in the mosquito net at night. Since then, we’ve taken turns holding down the home fort so we each can get back to our Ugandan family, and I fell in love with him all over again when I heard him talk about the widows’ stories that he heard and his heart for them.
10. Don’t vacuum.
Uh, so for me, this last one is a double entendre. I hate vacuuming, but more importantly, I can’t do marriage in a vacuum. From the beginning of our marriage, we established a routine of getting together with other couples in the same stage of life on a weekly basis. Sometimes when you’re figuring out how to be married and do this togetherness thing, you can start to lose your way, go a little cross-eyed, and feel like your marriage must be the most horrific mistake. You must be the weirdest people on the planet and have unsolvable, colossal problems the likes of which the world has never seen. And then you get together with other couples and find out you’re totally normal and they struggle with those things, too, or maybe have other unique problems and just having problems together makes it all feel doable and solvable and like you’re going to survive and maybe even enjoy this marriage thing.
I love my husband. I love my marriage. When we’re together, we are creative and energized and feel like we can tackle the world…or each other. For me, it’s not about being married. It’s about being married to him. Over the years, especially on those particularly grrr days, I’ve wondered about this whole marriage thing. The fact is, we are better together than apart. We’re a team.
What about you? If you’re married, what have you learned through it all?