Happy Anniversary: 20 Things I’ve Learned In 20 Years of Marriage

July 11th marks my 20th wedding anniversary.

Bobby and I got married on a balmy Saturday afternoon in the church where I grew up and had our reception in The Nicholas Room at Masterson’s Restaurant (which is now a row of restaurants on the University of Louisville campus.).

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 for the shock / camp factor).

“Save the Date” cards weren’t in vogue; there were no surprise-ambush, choreographed wedding party dances, and nobody had wedding websites with photo galleries and e-RSVPing.

We barely had an AOL account.


Dial up.


What we did have was a special, moving, fun, and celebratory day that passed all too quickly.

We were so proud and happy.

As a licensed marriage and family therapist and life coach, 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 in this life 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.

So in honor of all of those people I’ve served as well as the journey I’m on every day with my fella, here are a few things I’ve learned about marriage and long-term, committed relationships — both personally and professionally.

July 7, 2018

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 some considerable odds stacked against us.

Why did I think this?

When we met, Bobby was just shy of nine months of sobriety and I was coping with the heartbreaking separation and subsequent divorce of my parents.

I was questioning a lot of things I knew about myself and my life up to that point and so was he.

I actually saw a therapist around that time and disclosed that I’d met the love of my life and that he was also a recovering alcoholic.

He told me we should both cut ties and leave one another. And fast. My 25 year old self decided this guy was way off base telling me there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that two human beings (one of whom he’d never met) who’d had some trials couldn’t create a healthy and happy life together.

He was irresponsible with his opinions as a human being and a professional, 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 that my family of origin was intact with smooth sailing ahead.  

He might have said that we had the world at our helm — to go for it and have a beautiful relationship.

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 most cherish and admire — he or she had a spark that drew you near.

Encourage them to fan those flames — 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 courting 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. Narrate the changes.


The only constant in life and relationships is change. I’m very intuitive and also 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, we 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 like stuckness and if we just need to let time pass and walk through it.

That narrative has been about everything from my penchant for trading in my car for a different one every two to three years to the heavy duty decisions like going to Hawaii to adopt a baby boy 10 years ago.

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 the greatest 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 relationship as a place of hunkering down in separate corners to “get through this” or as a place of refuge, replenishment and healing.

It’s your choice.


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 both of you.

Do you both share the responsibilities for how the household is run (laundry, cleaning, trash, dishes, etc.)?

Or was there an agreement that one of you would be at the helm of those things for a period of time?

Does one of you want to return to work or start a different career if you’ve been home for years?

It’s good to have an open dialogue about things like this as opposed to harboring a secret dream that you hope your partner might be “talked into” five years from now.

And remember that relationships don’t have to be 50-50 all of the time (I think that’s tough to do), but maybe it’s 60-40 for awhile, or then it’s 70-30. Be flexible as well as willing to contribute, learn and grow.

6. You are a family and that is sacred.


You each have your own family of origin and I hope you have healthy relationships with all concerned, but always know that on the day you committed to one another, 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 grown-up.


7. Let each other explore individual interests.


I became a fitness instructor.

My man is fronting a band.

I’m forever traveling to take classes and workshops to learn new things about my work and what I can create for my clients.

He likes collecting motorcycles and has played basketball every Sunday night 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 college.

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 thriving relationships, not acrimony and taking sides.

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 relationship.


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 out loud.

It’s easy to fret over how much money you don’t have or that your son likes fireworks too much (ahem).

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 and irreverent.

I think my husband and I really lean into this because of the gravity of both of our careers — we truly work with matters of life and death each day in our jobs; we need that other part of ourselves to come out and play.

Sometimes the “secret” to a happy marriage is just plain silliness.


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 another “secret” that people are seeking when it comes to building stronger relationships.


13. “Ever mine. Ever thine. Ever ours.”


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 (haay).

In our house, we have a silent, standing date in the kitchen to embrace one another every single morning.

This literally soothes my brain into the start of my day. And then there’s coffee.


14. Love and understanding take deep roots 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, going to the gym, bike rides in the neighborhood, and visits with grandparents are what make up much of the day-to-day life that is marriage.

I like to call it the extraordinary-ordinary. 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.


16. Your parents will pass and you will lead your families.


It might sound kind of weird, but when my husband’s parents died in 2013 and 2015, it felt like both of us became “more grown-up” grown-ups in those years.

My in-laws had long and beautiful lives, but it was so hard to let them go. When your partner’s parents die, you step into a higher calling as a wife or husband. They’re orphaned, essentially.

You see a vulnerability in your partner that is raw and moving — and there is nothing you can do or should do to fix anything.

It’s just what life is. You simply walk alongside them with a sense of honor and dignity as you both grieve — with one another, with your children.

I watched my husband literally bury his mom and dad from our funeral home and I understood even more — with a deep river of knowing that I didn’t think was possible — why this man is my partner.

We talked about this sense of responsibility we felt with the passing of one of our parents.

It was like we’d become this next generation. We were never practicing or rehearsing our life, but everything just felt more definitive and real with the passing of his dad.

I think that when our family members grow older and move on to the next life, we lead our families in a different way.


18. Yes, your parents will pass … and those babies you had are going to grow up in a flash. It’s a cliche because it’s true.


When I began making this list years ago, I had an 11 year old and a four year old. They are 17 and 10 now and they are simultaneously filling up and breaking my heart.

They are continuing to become beautiful, unique young people who make us so proud and delight us every single day. And each day, they inch their way to leaving this cozy nest we’ve made.

I know I’ve still got lots of time and that they may boomerang their way back to us many times before they really, truly move on; but this past year, I’m beginning to understand the beautiful ache of holding them to me while letting them go in a new way.


18. Make movement and fitness a priority in your marriage.


About five years ago, Bobby and I got on the same page about this. We found a gym and a community of people that we felt connected to, and as a result, we committed to our health in a way we had never before.

We want to be on this planet for a very long time for one another and for our kids, family and friend.

And shit, we want to look good, too — and holy tacos, we sure do.

Taking care of your body is a prayer to thank God, and it’s a way of expressing a deeper commitment in your marriage.

19. Never stop making friends.


It can be harder to make friends where you’re a grown up. There aren’t as many natural venues for connecting with people and we get busy and set in our ways.

We had friends from way back, but time, distance and child rearing in our 30s and 40s made it tougher to stay present with one another.

For many years, we didn’t really have a group of people we could hang out with — have dinner, see movies — stuff like that — and really want to grow to know, not just share social engagements.

We got really lucky when we committed to fitness (see #18) and joined our gym, Milestone.

Over the past five years, the group of people in that photo (and there are many more not pictured) have become our “family-Stone” because of our connection to the club.

We’ve been with one another through births, deaths, career changes, financial shifts and buying and selling houses, among other things. We see one another multiple times a week and talk / text just as much.

They’re our people who, when life throws curves your way — they’re the ones that stick.

They don’t run — they love, support and ask what is needed. They can for sure hang for the fun stuff, but also when it’s really heavy and important.


20. Celebrate the milestones. Create rituals.


On 7.7.18, we had a small dinner party with nine of those precious friends of ours. We held a surprise vow renewal ceremony before dinner with our kids as maid of honor and best man to celebrate of twentieth wedding anniversary (7.11.98).

We had a huge ceremony with 300 people 20 years ago, but the 12 witnesses at this vow renewal hadn’t entered our lives yet (kids included : ) .

We could have gone to dinner or on a trip, but this restatement of our commitment meant more to us.

It’s great to celebrate milestones with flowers and gifts, but we chose a ritual that involved a living room with 10 people, a bouquet of flowers and our pastor.

Several people who heard about it or saw photos afterwards said we inspired them to do something like this to mark a life milestone.

We’ll never forget that night and we will continue to make it a priority in our lives to create special moments like that.

The day-to-day rhythms, routines and ruckuses coupled with these reverent and inspiring moments are, to us, what make it a wonderful life.

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