Before starting college at 23, I was always the youngest in my group of friends. The majority of the people my husband and I spent time with were typically three to ten years older than me. While I was learning to drive, they were finishing their undergrad or graduate degrees and accepting important jobs half-way around the country. But Wes and I were the first to get married. We could ask advice about universities, career choices, making the perfect bloody mary, and which casinos to visit in Vegas, but we didn’t have anyone to tell us how to handle the messy parts of marriage.
In the years following our wedding in 2004, a strange shift occurred in our group of friends; a few years worth of weddings every weekend, baby showers, and then first and second birthday parties seemed to drive a wedge between the coupled and the un-coupled. Our single friends sort of drifted away to the land of constant bar-hopping and one-night stands, and our fellow marrieds adopted wholly unfamiliar lives full of play-dates, family vacations and the non-stop chatter of child-development. We were stuck somewhere between–we couldn’t really relate to our single friends anymore, who spent every weekend hitting on drunk girls or crying over horrible relationships they should’ve gotten out of months or years ago, but we weren’t quite ready to discuss whether or not I was ovulating with people who called one another “Mommy” and “Daddy.”
Somewhere along the way, Wes and I found ourselves in a weird space, wherein our lives are much more similar to the lives of people much younger than ourselves. And now that the majority of our friends are in their early twenties, we have become those people who field questions about universities, career choices, making the perfect bloody mary, vacations, and, shockingly, marriage.
I have to say that I admire the wisdom of every person who asks me or Wes questions about marriage. We didn’t ask questions. None of our friends asked questions. The only real advice we ever received from adults is “marriage is hard work.” At first I felt awkward and unprepared to answer their questions. What do I know, anyway? But the truth is that Wes and I have been through some difficult things together, and we have managed to make it work for eight years (we’ve been married for five). It feels strange just typing that–an eight year relationship, or a five year marriage, is hardly anything to boast about–but I have been with Wesley almost as long as my mother has been married to my stepdad, and I’ve been married longer than my father was to his second wife. I could not count the number of friends I’ve seen marry and divorce in the time Wes and I have been together. So, our happiness in these eight years is a small sort of victory, but I’ll take it.
This post is really just a collection of advice Wesley and I have given to friends who are nearly- or newly-wed, considering engagement, or experiencing difficulties in their marriages.
How to make a marriage work:
1. The first and most important misconception about marriage is that it based on love. Love is some good stuff, but love is not what makes a marriage work. You should not get married just because you love someone. I know that television and pop-music have taught you that love is the only thing that makes a relationship work, but they are lying. If I learned anything in our first year of marriage (which was a messy, immature, selfish nightmare of a time in my life) it is this: marriage (and love for that matter) are decisions that you make day. Not just once when you see the ring, or once when you say “I do,” but every single day of your life. It has to be based on the commitment or it will not work.
2. Your parents and other old people will tell you a million times that marriage is hard work. And you, being in love and idealistic, will ignore it everytime. Well, don’t. Marriage is hard work. I know we’ve all heard the revision to that old saying “it’s 50-50,” so most of us are aware that it’s actually a 100-100 kind of deal. But it’s much more complicated than that: You not only have to be willing to give 100%, you have to be willing to do so even when your spouse is giving 0%. No, you have to give 100% especially when your spouse is giving 0%. Read that again. Let it soak in. Are you willing to do this?
3. Give each other space to grow. One of the most common statements I’ve heard from my divorced friends is this: “We just grew apart.” That’s completely understandable, especially if you marry young. Growing-up can sometimes mean growing-apart. People change. In the past eight years, I’ve started college, lost my father, watched my brother go to war, became a Christian, moved, switched jobs three times, and countless other things. Of course I’ve changed. But so has he. Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who has the same world-view at 30 that they had at 18? The trick is accepting one another when the good changes come (even if they are not what you would’ve planned–growth is growth!), and being honest with yourself & your spouse when the change is bad.
4. TALK to your spouse. Not your mother. Not your friends. Not your coworkers. Talk to your spouse. If you feel like you just can’t talk to them about some things, then tell them that. Be honest. Let him/her know how to be the listener/conversationalist you need him/her to be. If you are telling your best friend about your spouse’s annoying habits, how is your spouse supposed to know to change? That annoying little habit turns into something you have focused on, talked about, studied, etc, and it will only become more annoying to you each time you see it happen. Meanwhile, your spouse has no idea that it bothers you. Do you see the problem here? I think a lot of us realize how important communication is in a marriage, but we don’t really consider what that term encompasses. That whole “I can talk to him/her about aaaanything” stuff usually applies to childhood or family issues, likes and dislikes, or other things that don’t matter much after a few years. Communicating with your spouse can be how you respond in an argument, how you speak to one another in front of co-workers/friends/family, how you deal with problems together, or how honest you are with him/her when you aren’t happy with something.
I will say that there is such a thing as an “emotional affair.” This sort of thing happens all the time when a person is more open/honest with someone outside of the marriage than they are with their spouse. I think this is how most physical affairs begin–you start to think “s/he just understands me better than (spouse)” or “I feel like I can talk to him/her about anything.” Well, if you are explaining your feelings to the other person and not explaining them to your spouse, how in the world do you expect your spouse to understand? Important: your spouse cannot read your mind.
5. Forget about you. Okay, so getting married doesn’t mean that you cease to exist. Of course you are still your own person, with hopes and dreams and desires and all that other Hallmark stuff. What I mean is this: you have to start thinking of your spouse as much as you think of yourself. Not in an obsessive Bella-and-Edward kind of way, but in that selfless, “how can I be a better partner to my spouse” kind of way that we are wholly unaccostomed to in our culture. That means constantly striving to improve your role in & contributions to the relationship, instead of constantly striving to improve your spouse’s. This is really difficult (eh hem, see #2 above), but it’s essential to a healthy relationship.
Maybe these things seem like common sense to you. Or maybe you are really pissed off at me and think I don’t know anything about the real world. I realize that marriage is not a once-size-fits-all kind of thing. There may be problems in your marriage that I cannot even fathom. Obviously, if your spouse is a habitual cheater, abusive, controlling, etc, then these things won’t make much of a difference (get some help). But for the most part, I think a lot of us end up in divorce court because we never really understood what we were getting into. Most of us don’t know what a healthy marriage even looks like. (Note: Watch the Cosby Show!) There’s a 50% divorce rate in this country right now, and I guess I just want to warn you nearly & newly-weds that what you are getting into is some serious, difficult, messy business. But if you are willing to work on it, to commit to one another and to the relationship, then it can be successful. I pwomise!