My husband Daniel and I have been married for 10 years. It blows me away every time I realize it. Like all couples, we have had our ups and downs. We’ve blown up at each other and bickered and belittled and have even felt at times like we wanted to have a gladiator style death match. But, all that being said, we have grown together and become each-others greatest advocates, best friends, partners, and lovers.
We met when we were 3 years old when our parents became friends through church. We played at each-other’s houses and went out with our families together on trips small and big. Daniel swears I kissed him on the cheek in the playground at school when we were in 1st grade. And I give him a hard time about how he barely talked to me when our families met up in Disneyworld when we were in the 8th grade. He was short and awkward and I was tall and lanky and had mosquito bites for boobs.
When I was 9 my family moved away, but Daniel and I kept in touch through letters and phone calls and the aforementioned family meetups at fun locations of our parent’s choosing. I remember him sneaking his arm around me in the back seat of my mom’s minivan and pulling it away quickly when she caught him in the rear-view mirror.
We were officially reunited in college when we ended up going to the same school and being next-door neighbors. We picked right up on our childhood friendship and our admiration quickly grew until one day, while sipping milkshakes after a movie, Daniel asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend. We dated for only 4 months and one day, Daniel drove me up to the top of a hill, set up a picnic, and popped the question with a ring he bought that morning. A couple months later we were married. It was incredible to be married to this person who I had seen grow up from a little boy, to an awkward runty teenager, to a handsome, funny, hard-working man. I will sometimes catch myself looking at him and having flashbacks to the younger him and being stunned that this man I am married to is that same little boy. Its nuts and beautiful and meaningful and rare.
After we’d been married for only a year or so, we had our first son who was born really really early at 24 weeks (that story here). Daniel was in school full-time and working part-time and I had to quit my job as an interior decorator to stay home with my special-needs baby. It was a tense, stressful, distant, and agonizing time in my life. I felt alone (legitimately so since I wasn’t allowed in public with the baby and Daniel was gone from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily). When Daniel was home, he was stressed and tired and talked out. I was aching to have human contact and felt pushed aside when he didn’t have the energy to talk to me and spend time with me. It was survival and we barely made it, but we made it.
Years later when Daniel had graduated from college and we’d moved to Texas and bought a house, we had another baby after a stressful high-risk pregnancy. We were still quite strapped for cash and were in many ways emotionally disconnected from each other. We also had very different ideas of how our life was supposed to be going and we fought a lot. Stress and life pressures had much to do with how we dealt with each other. I was resentful that Daniel got to leave and have a life outside of parenting every day and I had to be the one to carry so much of the parental and household burden. Our expectations for one another were not aligned with who we actually were and instead were based on ideas we had held to and thought were “the way that it was supposed to be” instead of “the way that works best for us”.
A big shift happened a couple of years later in our lives and consequently in our marriage. We started investigating our world-view, upbringing, and beliefs. This happened organically as a result of much frustration within our lives, our thoughts, our surroundings, and our world in general. Many things started to turn around. We started to see everything differently and more fully. Including ourselves. I started to feel like Daniel really SAW me, instead of seeing what he wanted to see. And I started to really see him as well. I learned that many of our previous issues were a result of forced expectations and lack of empathy. It was a relief to let it go. We grew closer and closer and although we had never had a terrible marriage, I felt like suddenly we had an AMAZING marriage.
When I got pregnant with our last baby, I was stressed like usual but happy and content knowing we would be just fine. Our marriage would come out ok and I would have the support and love I needed from Daniel. She was born and although the adjustment to 3 kids has been somewhat overwhelming, there is a sense of security and contentment in our relationship that is so so needed and calming. We still have our little fights now and again, but they are few and far between and we get through them much more smoothly than we used to and come out more connected when all has been said and done. We like each-other more than we like anyone else in the world and would rather be with each-other than with anyone else.
Anyway, thats a basic peek into my marriage. All of that being said, here are my 10 Tips to a Happy Relationship, learned from my experience as well as gleaned from the best relationships I’ve seen throughout my life. Bear in mind, I am not an “expert” and many of these are things I am currently (and will forever be) working on.
- Be the kind of person you want to attract.
Its insane to me how many people think they “deserve” someone who puts in more effort, attention, ambition, flexibility, and patience into their lives than they themselves are willing to put in. Granted, everyone has various strengths and weaknesses and its ok to admire someone else for possessing a quality that you have yet to adopt. But generally if you want your partner to put effort into their appearance or health, be ambitious in their careers or goals, be open and flexible with change, etc. you are much more likely to influence that kind of behavior in them if you yourself are modeling it.
- Realize your partner WILL change and embrace it.
Whats the old saying, “Women think they can change their man, and men think their women will never change.”? I think thats how it goes. The reality is, everyone changes. Nobody is the exact same person they used to be since we are all subject to life experiences and new information that continually shape our choices and beliefs. When someone says to me, “You’ve changed.” I want to say, “Well geez good thing. What kind of a human would I be if I didn’t?”. Accepting this fact and being flexible with the changes we all go through in our lives will help tremendously to keep your partner feeling validated and understood. That doesn’t mean change is always easy, some change sucks and is really really hard to adapt to. All the more reason to face it as a united team who is willing to be flexible and creative in handling the many phases we could conceivably could face.
- Find something you both enjoy doing and do it together regularly.
It is surprising to me how many people have nothing in common with their partners. My theory is that in the “courtship” phase of a relationship we feel pressure to impress the other person so we feign interest in whatever the other is interested in. We love it when someone is interested in what we love. Until they’re really not and we are stuck with them, going our separate ways to our separate hobbies, movies, groups, concerts… until we are just living side by side with nothing to talk about or do together. So find something to do! TOGETHER. It’s out there if you try. Make a list if you have to, until you find something you both can get on board with, and then do that thing regularly together. I am lucky in this way with my husband as we are both interested in many of the same things like music and sports among others. I used to think this was the normal but have realized after observing and talking to many other couples that having so much in common is pretty rare. But its awesome, and I highly recommend partners work hard to have it. You definitely don’t have to do EVERYTHING together (and you really really shouldn’t…everyone needs some space), but if you can find a couple of things, it will definitely make your relationship stronger and richer.
- Learn how to get good at sex.
Sex and money are the two main reasons cited for divorce. It is really important in a happy relationship to feel content and comfortable with your sex life. So little real information is discussed about sex in our culture and ideas and expectations can get really skewed. Its incredibly frustrating when sex doesn’t “work” for a couple in a satisfying way, but there are ways to get better at it and learn to connect. Although unhelpful info is most prevalent, there is also some great information out there from experts who have studied sex and desire we can use to learn about how men and women experience sex, their different needs, and methods of how those needs can be met. But the best way to learn is simply to just TALK ABOUT SEX with your partner. Ask them what they like and don’t like, and be open and honest in expressing yourself as well. Don’t judge each-other or make the other feel uncomfortable. Also, this is so so important, do not pressure your partner into having sex by using manipulative tactics. Sometimes you just aren’t going to be on the same page. But deal with it in a way that is loving and compassionate toward the other person’s experience.
- Explore new things, places, and ideas together regularly.
One of my favorite things about my relationship with Daniel is that we both like to “discuss” things. We are both interested in learning new information about the world and the people in it and we regularly have conversations about what we are thinking about, reading about, or listening to. Podcasts are awesome for us because we can both listen throughout the day to our favorites (me while I’m editing photos or going for a jog and him while he is in the car commuting to and from work), and then when we see each-other we have interesting thoughts to discuss that don’t involve our kids or work (although we have those conversations as well). I also find its important that we try new places and experiences together and as a general rule we try to be open to what the other is suggesting for our weekends or date-nights. This all sort of goes in line with some of the other tips, which summed up basically suggest that being willing to embrace new thoughts and experiences together can help you both to grow and develop in line with one another.
- Set expectations based on who your partner truly is, not on who you’ve been told to expect them to be.
Old-fashioned gender roles are the bane of my existence and something I’m hoping will fade as the world becomes more willing to accept the individual over the stereotype. My relationship truly blossomed when my husband and I started to understand that my womanhood does not dictate my strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes and that my husband’s manhood does not dictate his. When we took a hard, honest look at who we each were and dropped whatever preconceived ideas we had about who the other should be it was like a gigantic weight had been lifted off of us. There are so many ways outside ideas and theologies shape our expectations for those around us, especially our partners. Gender roles are just one of those tricky ideas but not the only one. The key to a happy relationship is to try our best to deflate those ideas and create in their place expectations that are fine-tuned to the actual person we are with. Once these new expectations are in place, be flexible still, as we will all change (see Tip 2) and those expectations will need to shift as we do so.
- Share lifestyle responsibilities as equally as possible.
With Tip 6 comes Tip 7. So many of us grew up with moms who did much of the household work as well as the child-rearing and dads who worked away from the home, primarily being responsible for providing financial support. Even the moms who worked outside of the home were still expected to fulfill most of the household duties and spend the most amount of time with the kids. Many couples I know argue about housework and kid-duties (which I lump together under the term “lifestyle responsibilities”)even now. This used to be an ongoing argument in my marriage as well until we realized it was both of our responsibilities to make sure our life didn’t fall apart. For us, that means I still do most of the cooking (although many nights Daniel will bring home dinner for us or we will eat whatever is around), Daniel usually does the dishes and cleans the kitchen, we both pick up the house at bedtime with the kids, I sometimes do main chores like bathrooms, floors, dusting, etc. while he is gone at work or we do them together on the weekend. When I’m gone, Daniel cleans and organizes, feeds kids, mows the lawn, etc. without me. When he’s gone I do those things. When we are both home, we divvy it up in whatever way makes the most sense. The point is, we both feel responsible for our lives and kids and house. We both put in the work to keep it up, and we are both to blame when it falls apart. Expecting the “stay-home” partner to be responsible for it all is like expecting the “working-away” partner to do their work, but also make lunch for their office, then clean up the lunchroom, then also stay after work and clean all the cubicles and bathrooms, and maybe put gas in the bosses care before they leave for the day.
- Have some money of your own.
As stated in Tip 4, money is one of the most cited reasons for divorce. And I can attest to why that is. Money problems create so much stress and anxiety in a relationship, even an otherwise healthy one. From my experience as the primary stay-home parent of 3, I used to feel like another “dependent”, with no income stream of my own. Daniel never held money over me as a way to manipulate or get his way. He didn’t track my spending or make me feel like I had to “earn” the right to his cash. But I really felt stuck and troubled when I had no money to truly call my own or to contribute during hard times. Not only is it smart to have a personal income stream of some kind, but its good in a relationship for each member to feel self-sufficient and validated. When I started making a little money on the side of stay-home-momming I felt proud, stable, and free in a way that I didn’t when I was relying solely on my husband’s money. Its worth noting that my income isn’t steady and it is pretty meager. But even having a couple extra hundred bucks a month to either contribute to the joint account, pay down debt, or do with what I please has significantly decreased my feelings of dependency and increased feelings of autonomy and self-reliance. I would guess that from my husband’s side, not having to carry all the financial weight alone is freeing as well. Although there may be times where this isn’t an option for you, if you start up a little something on the side, even babysitting or designing web pages, or refereeing high school sports (my husband makes extra money refereeing wrestling every year), or photographing babies, or serving lunch in the school cafeteria, or whatever it is… you will have something you can ramp up if needed in the future if you choose to pursue a full-time income.
- Talk it out before the resentment kicks in.
I don’t hold grudges. Honestly I just don’t have the patience and energy for it. So when I am bothered by something, I have to either decide to not be bothered by that thing, or I have to address it before it exhausts me. I am married to a man who is similar in this way so we are lucky to want to take care of whatever our issue is quickly so we can move on. The few times I have held something in, for fear of backlash or conflict or whatever, I’ve realized the more I sit on it, the more it festers. Maybe I’ve thought it would just go away or magically fix itself, but any seasoned married person will tell you that it doesn’t go away. It only snowballs until its wild and huge and out of control. Once resentment winds its way in, it becomes incredibly hard to unravel. Resentment fuels closed ears and a loud mouth, shouting over whatever reasons are given for the offense. I’ve learned that when I am bothered by something my husband has or hasn’t done or said, that if I try to talk to him about it promptly and openly without assuming his intent, we can both express what we need to and hear what the other one is saying, adjust our viewpoints accordingly, and commit to future change. Then we move on, resentment free. That’s not to say we never yell, pound our fists on the table, rub our temples, or need “fight-breaks”. One or all of those things could be involved in any given argument. But this all usually happens in a matter of minutes or hours. But never days, weeks, months, or years. Sometimes its helpful to talk things out with a mediator. Never be afraid to seek counseling if you’re having a particularly difficult time unraveling built up resentment.
- Show gratitude and support for your loved one every day.
One of the great “parenting wins” I feel I can claim is that my kids are pretty polite. They are loud and wild and crazy, but they will say “please” and “thank you” and are grateful when it comes to receiving special treatment or gifts. This is not a quality I intentionally instilled in them, but I think they have accepted that this is the way we behave because they have seen my husband and I treat each-other that way. Some of the best couples I know are fabulous at expressing gratitude for their partners. Even saying “thanks love” for simple things like getting you a drink or taking out the trash or throwing you the remote can boost one’s psyche little by little. We all want to feel needed and appreciated. It’s what makes us connect to one another. Serving someone and recognizing the service of other’s instantly imbues empathy for that person. Daniel and I are sarcastic and we tease a lot, probably so much that people who don’t know us well might think we actually hate each other. But we also brag about each other and are the first to show pride in the other’s accomplishments. We also help each other accomplish what is important to us by either directly offering up our talents to the project or indirectly by taking care of some of the outlying duties that are pressuring our partner. Also, when we strive to show gratitude it reminds us of the many ways we love our partner and prompts us to show them more and more love and support.
I’m sure there are so many great tips I could add to this list, but after some careful thought, these are the ones that felt right at this time in my life and relationship. I hope this finds you all well and well-loved as we near Valentine’s Day 2016.
What tips would you add? How have you strengthened your own relationship? Have you had any great examples in your life? I’d love to hear from you!