This month my wife and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. As I reflected on this I decided to share my list of the top ten things I have learned in 35 years, in no particular order.
1. We’ve had to grow-up together. We all bring our unfinished business with us into marriage and it is these developmental issues that create the most problems. In our case we got married young and that makes it even more obvious and important to grow up. When we have been honest with ourselves and worked on our own maturity, then our relationship has also grown.
2. We’ve had to change with life stages. Related to growing up is recognizing the need to adapt to different life stages. Each stage of life brings particular gifts and challenges to marriage. Being aware of this and making adjustments has been critical. Now as empty nesters we are rediscovering certain freedoms while also dealing with getting older. It never stops.
3. Things go in cycles. Marriage is like a rose bush. It contains both beautiful flowers and thorns. Sometimes the flowers bloom and it is fragrant and wonderful. Sometimes the blooms fall off and all you see is the thorns. If you nurture the plant and keep it healthy you can count on the blooms returning. Learn to accept it all with patience.
4. Trust follows behavior. Most people agree that trust is critical to a healthy relationship. The only way to earn or re-establish trust is through consistent loving and honorable behavior. Words become meaningless if not supported by your behavior.
5. Values hold us together. My wife and I are different in personalities, motivations, and interests. What has been a foundation for our marriage are shared values and priorities. It is vital to keep values in mind and talk about what is important to both of you at each stage of life.
6. It’s sometimes hard to speak the truth.Telling your partner the truth can be difficult, especially if you haven’t learned to be honest with yourself and in touch with your feelings and desires. We may be afraid of our partner’s reactions or of exposing something we prefer to hide. The trick is speaking the truth in a spirit of love and owning responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings.
7. Know and accept your partner. We all view life through our own perspective and assume it is the best or only way. Things that make my wife feel loved and cared about are not always the same as it is for me. What I am sensitive to is also different than what she is. How she likes to do certain things is different than my way. I have wasted too much energy trying to change rather than accept her, and this only makes the patterns of reactions stronger. People do not need to be fixed, only loved and affirmed.
8. The best gift is your presence. The primary question in every intimate relationship is “are you really there for me”. Being present, paying attention and enjoying time together sends the message that “you are most important to me and you can count on me to be here”. One ritual my wife and I have enjoyed over the years is taking a weekend away, just the two of us, at least a couple times per year. It’s a great way to re-connect.
9. Love stretches us. This is one of the purposes of marriage. Your partner will demand from you that which you are not yet capable of giving. For example, “I demand that you love me in spite of …” That something is usually in the area in which you are most vulnerable, such as anger, sex, security, or need for affirmation. This is generally not a conscious process but it helps to be aware of it and cooperate with it.
10. My spouse is usually right about me. This is one I hate to admit but it’s true. Even if it is feedback I don’t want to hear or I think it is exaggerated or distorted, there is always some truth I need to hear. Sometimes my wife has more confidence in me than I have in myself and I need to hear that too. Learn to appreciate your spouse as your mirror and see what you may need to adjust.
“I thought my marriage was OK”. This was the lament of a young man who came in with his wife to see me for coaching. A couple of months ago his wife informed him that she has been unhappy in their marriage for about five years and now is thinking about leaving. How could they have such drastically different perspectives on their marriage?
The simple answer is really bad communication. In reality, things are never quite so simple. The problems in this relationship stem from multiple issues, including how they have dealt with past experiences, differences in how they think, how they are motivated, and how they deal with emotions. They also have not learned how to understand and meet one another’s basic needs.
I remember feeling lost and confused in my marriage at different points in time. It is not easy to work through tough times. However, the rewards of pushing through and hanging in there can be great. For example, my wife and I recently had a great visit with our daughter and her husband and our wonderful granddaughter. Seeing the next generation living healthy and happy lives is sweet indeed. These are the good times.
For the young couple in my office there is hope. They have finally started to confront their problems and really talk to each other. Even though telling the truth hurts, it is a necessary part of recovery. If you are in a hard place in your marriage right now please don’t give up before you do everything you can to work it out. Imagine yourself happily married for 40 years and reaping the rewards of enduring love. Hold unto that thought and make it happen.
Here are a few tips:
1. Decide to be happy and make marriage your priority
2. Share your honest thoughts and feelings with your partner. Not “you make my life miserable”, but “this is what is going on with me right now”.
3. Find out what is most important to your partner today. If you listen to the feedback openly you will hear the themes. What is the underlying need, fear, or pain that is being communicated?
4. Once you know what is most important, sincerely try to respect and meet the need or concern with love as consistently as possible.
Give not in order to receive but to become capable of giving more. Love generates love.
p.s. I have been working hard on ways to help you “re-imagine marriage”. Stay tuned.