July – cheers to a month of heat, crazy amounts of rain, and celebrations! In my family, we celebrate quite a few birthdays, my own among them.
And today, July 11th, marks my 15th wedding anniversary. Bobby and I got married on a balmy Saturday afternoon in the church I grew up attending and had our reception at a restaurant and banquet hall that was owned by a friend of his from high school. We were transported there by one of the limos in our funeral home’s livery service (no, it wasn’t a hearse — but I would totally do that now if given the chance; maybe for our 20th — stay tuned).
“Save the Date” cards weren’t in vogue; there were no surprise, ambush-like, choreographed wedding party dances to “Super Freak,” and nobody had wedding websites with photo galleries and e-RSVPing. We barely had an AOL account. 1998. Old-school.
What we did have was a special, moving, fun, and celebratory day that passed all too quickly.
I can still remember getting to our place in Florida for our honeymoon (after getting lost on the way from the airport in Pensacola), walking from the beach towards the condo and finding a litter of kittens. I can remember that beach breeze I loved so much, the mewing kittens, and the realization that I was a wife…at 1:00 in the morning.
I didn’t become a licensed marriage and family therapist because I know the secret to having a healthy marriage — everyone’s relationship is different, and I have a lot of good tools for helping people heal the wounds and move forward. I love connection and believe that the greatest contribution to healthy relationships begins by looking at the relationship you have with yourself. Marriages flourish when each partner is taking care of themselves individually and within the context of their relationship.
People like “tips” from professionals like me, and I think I’m too verbose for tips. I don’t like to soundbite myself. Plus, my idea of a “tip” may not resonate with some people, especially when we’re talking about the most intimate relationships we have. Here’s what I can offer you, though: my husband and I held a quorum in the kitchen the other night and came up with some of the lessons and truths we’ve gleaned during our life together so far.
And as a LMFT, I work with couples professionally on their relationship issues and they continue to teach me every single session. One reason I believe that nothing is too good to be true is because I have witnessed people beyond the brink of bitterness, despair, and vitriol and walked with them on a path towards sacred and astounding growth. True, unconditional love in action. Here’s what I’ve learned about marriage, both personally and professionally:
1. We’ve ALL got everything going for us– if we want it. I used to say that by some standards, my husband and I “on paper — had the odds stacked against us.” Why did I think this? When we met, Bob was just shy of nine months of sobriety and I was in the middle of coping with the tumultuous separation and subsequent divorce of my parents who’d been married for 25 years. I actually saw a psychiatrist around that time and disclosed I’d met the love of my life and that he was also a recovering alcoholic. He told me to run and run fast. My 25 year old self decided the shrink was way off base telling me there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that this human being (whom he’d never met) could change his life and live out that decision every day. So I fired him. Yet, I also know he could have been right.
I could just as well have told that doctor that I’d just met the love of my life who was a successful heart surgeon and community philanthropist, and he might have said that we had the world at our helm — to go for it and have a beautiful marriage. And he could have been right. Or very wrong.
Here’s what: My husband and I decided we had everything going for us and lived accordingly. We define who we are, and we hope people outside of our marital orb love us and have high hopes for us, but what matters most is that we have high hopes for us.
2. Be each other’s biggest fan. This is the person you cherish and admire — he or she had a spark that drew you near. Encourage them to nourish that flame — whatever it is that lights them up. Their happiness, joy, and success feeds their soul, but also feeds the soul of your covenant with them. If you find yourself stroking some resentment when your partner wants to finish a degree, take a big trip with the girls, or form a rock and roll band, ask yourself why. And then ask yourself why not — why wouldn’t you want them to realize their potential, experience fun and joy, or work towards goal or a lifelong dream?
3. Narrating change. The only constant in life and marriage is change. I’m a feeler and an analyzer, so my marriage gets an earful of what I call “the ongoing narrative” of our lives. As different circumstances happen in our life together, I call our attention to it and discuss it: what it feels like; what I/we want to do about it (or not); what seems to be a solution or next step; what feels stuck and if we just need to let time pass and walk through it.
We are watching our daughter become a teenager — right before our very eyes! She’s going to die that I merely referenced her — see, I really do have an adolescent. Bob and I talk about this transition, sometimes wistfully remembering the bald-headed baby girl days and other times marveling at her beauty and how she radiates from the inside out (even when all she says is “Can you just close my door?”). When our parents are sick and transitioning to new places and phases of their lives, we talk about it — not just the logistics, but what it means big-picture. Narrating change on a regular basis is preventive maintenance for looking at each other 20 years down the road and thinking “Who the hell is this person? What happened to our life? Why didn’t I know you felt this way about that in 2003?”
4. You are one another’s port in the storm. It’s fun to celebrate the joys and triumphs or even just the pleasant summer nights in the front yard, but when the shit hits the fan and you’ve got each other’s back, that is true love. That can run the gamut from the loss of a parent or a job, an illness, or watching your children struggle. You can see your marriage as a place of hunkering down in separate corners to “get through this” or as a place of refuge, replenishment, and healing.
5. Reassess roles. Everyone’s got a different setup. Sometimes one of you is “the money person” and the other is the “yard person.” Maybe you’ve decided to stay home with your children and run the household while your partner is running another kind of business. I would offer you the perspective that it’s a good idea to decide you’re going to do these things as opposed to sliding into them. Sometimes it just happens that we take on roles and each of us is pretty cool with it, but it never hurts to check in and see how that’s working for you.
Does one of you want to return to work or start a different career if you’ve been home for years? Good to discuss here and there as opposed to harboring a secret dream that you hope your spouse might be “talked into.” And I just have to soapbox it here as far as parenting and say that no matter who is working at home and who’s in an office / out in the field — many times, it really takes two (and then some) to carry out the daily care and keeping of kids. Everyone needs to know how to change a diaper. And make a can of soup and some grilled cheese (or spaghetti or whatever works for you in a pinch). And wash the dishes after. Making this the work of just one person can be exhausting over time — you’re in a partnership all the way around. Step up for each other and your babies. It doesn’t have to be 50-50 (that’s tough to do), but maybe it’s 60-40 for awhile or then it’s 70-30. Just purposefully roll with it and help each other out.
6. You are a family and that is sacred. You each have your own families of origin and I hope you have healthy relationships with all concerned, but always know that on the day of your wedding, the two of you became a family. Other family members may offer (or assert) opinions on how to handle issues or decisions to be made, and you can hear what they have to say. And then you can confer together and decide what works for you and your family — and it isn’t at all in a spirit of spite or disdain — it’s just part of being a grownup.
7. Let each other explore individual interests. I became a Zumba instructor. My man is fronting a band. I’m traveling to Paris with a group of women in October. He likes collecting motorcycles and has played basketball two nights a week throughout our entire marriage. We like each other even more because we do these things. We have cool stuff to talk about. We get to be even more proud of one another. We know the growth of one contributes to the growth of our life together.
8. Be each other’s boyfriend and girlfriend. Date each other. Be open to the possibility that you might not know everything there is to know about this person you’ve spent years with; I love the thrill and excitement of a story my husband will recall about something that happened when he was a sophomore in high school. I love going to his grade school and high school reunions and seeing him through the eyes of people who knew him before I did. The dating period is about discovery and it doesn’t have to end when you say “I do.”
9. Get help when you feel stuck or in a “spin cycle.” Sometimes things go unsaid and erupt. Sometimes things erupt too much and that’s a problem. Sometimes someone’s breached trust. You don’t have to stumble through it alone; people who do what I do are committed to helping you sort it out and make positive progress. I am a hope merchant for marriage, not divorce. Some people tend to think stepping into my parlor is like knocking on the divorce door. It’s not. It’s smart and it’s courageous. Most importantly, it’s a loving decision for your marriage.
10. Speak out about the joys at least 5x more than you dole out criticisms or point out hardships. What’s great about your life right now? Say it. It’s easy to fret over how much money you don’t have or why your son likes fireworks too much. Lean into the gratitude for what you have. There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t look at our kids or speak of our work and say how special it all is or how lucky we are. There are so many miracles right in front of you that need to be acknowledged.
11. Play. Kind of ties into that “boyfriend/girlfriend” thing, but I’m talking about really playing — kinda like kids. Ride stuff together at amusement parks. Jump on a trampoline. Ride go-carts. Play miniature golf. Dance in the kitchen and make your kids freak out. Be silly. Go to a concert and have a discussion about why the gentleman in the front row who looks to be in his mid 70s is seeing the B-52s. And how awesome that is.
12. Decide you want to be there. There is so much power in stating “I want a life with you.” There will always be other directions to take or lures to other people, places, or things, but if you acknowledge the beauty and goodness of what you have and that you both want to keep growing into that — that is a powerful statement. That declaration on both of your parts may just be the “secret” that everyone is seeking out for a strong marriage.
13. “Ever mine. Ever thine. Ever ours.” Depending on your whether you’re more connected to culture-culture or pop culture, that’s from a love letter Beethoven wrote and it’s also what Big whispers in Carrie’s ear on their wedding day in Sex & the City – The Movie. Don’t stop romancing each other. Remember the power of touch — in and out of the bedroom. And the power of words and touch together — whether it’s more poignant and reassuring or there’s some heat generated. In our house, a standing date in the kitchen to embrace each morning literally soothes my brain into the start of my day. And then there’s Starbucks.
14. Love and understanding take deep roots not just through trials and triumphs, but in the unfolding of everyday life. Big life events like weddings, graduations, baptisms, funerals, surgeries, moving, or job promotions have a lot of muscle in terms of how we can let them impact our marriage; however, the steadiness of work, carpool lines, taco night, grocery shopping, bike rides in the neighborhood, and visits with grandparents are what make up much of the day-to-day life that is marriage. Be aware of this and how the collection of these moments makes you and your family who you are just as much as the bigger, more public events.
15. Consider the awesomeness of this history you’re creating together and act accordingly. You and another person decided to create a story of your life together that could span 40, 50, 60 or more years together. You came in knowing that chapters would contain celebrations, disappointments, surprises, tragedies, and miracles. You have an intimate knowledge of another human being’s life outside of yourself. And they you. You’re making it happen in a world that no matter how hard it tries, will not be able to microchip marriage. There’s nothing linear, predictable, or convenient about it. And THAT is spectacular.
Want to share your own wisdom about having a healthy, loving, and joyful relationship? Or maybe there’s a couple you admire that reaffirms your belief in marriage and committed relationships. Please leave a comment — I’d love to know.