I spent most of my adulthood thinking I would never get married. I had a long history of dramatic and unhealthy relationships throughout my twenties. My parents divorced when I was just 5 years old so I never really had a positive marriage model growing up. Marriage mostly sounded like a prison sentence to me (or, at the very least, something that couldn't last over an entire lifetime and would just lead to heartbreak).
Then I met Joey, my wonderful husband. Joey taught me how amazing marriage could actually be.
From the beginning of our relationship, Joey and I have committed to certain “rules” that have encouraged mutual respect, friendship, romance, and trust. Now that we have two little boys, we found that these agreements guided our relationship through some of the most challenging times of our marriage. Our relationship gets stronger with each passing day, and I attribute our happiness to the following principles.
- Honesty and openness. One of my favorite parts of my marriage is our ability to be 100% honest with each other. We don't feel the need to share every, single detail of our lives. But if something is weighing on us, we talk. If there's an issue that's coming between us, or if one of us is having a personal difficulty – THAT gets discussed. We have zero tolerance for conflict avoidance. Many couples never learn how to “fight fair” so they avoid conflict at all costs. But issues that start out small can (and usually do) gather steam and become big issues that can threaten a relationship if they aren't addressed early and often. Joey and I make a point to shine a light on the difficult areas of our lives and our marriage, so we can address any issues before they become too overwhelming to handle. In addition, no truth is out of bounds. If Joey is thinking or feeling something – whatever it is – he's allowed to speak his truth. I don't judge him, and I don't fault him for how he feels. Complete honesty, but complete acceptance, are fundamental to our marriage.
- Kindness. Many couples fall into the “familiarity breeds resentment” trap. Over time they get to know each other's flaws and they begin to have less patience for the “human” side of their partner. This usually manifests as passive aggressive remarks, snippy comments, avoidance, flat out criticism, or contempt. We're all human. We all have issues and annoying characteristics. But we believe that a relationship, especially a marriage, should be the safest place to expose your true self. It should be a place, if nowhere else, where you can be absolutely vulnerable and open about who you really are. You can't do that if your vulnerability is not met with kindness. Having access to the inner-most areas of your partner is sacred. So Joey and I focus on treating each other with kindness, especially in the hard moments.
- Know yourself. As I mentioned, I experienced a lot of dysfunctional relationships throughout my twenties. I attribute this to not really understanding who I was or being confident enough to simple BE who I really was. It took a long time for me to do the work on myself that I needed to do in order to be a good partner (and then to attract a good partner). Many people look outside of themselves to find a good relationship. Or they look to their partner to change if they are unhappy in their marriage. But understanding yourself intimately is the first step to having a happy marriage. I've come to know my flaws, and embrace them even as I try to overcome them. I know what I like and what I don't like. I am very clear about my boundaries and what works and doesn't work for me, and I communicate that clearly to my husband. I try to understand my motivations. I am clear about my goals and my values, and I share those with Joey and they develop and grow over time. I learn as much as I can about myself, so I am able to share that authentically.
- Take responsibility. Many people come into marriage expecting their partner to “fill them up.” We all have baggage from our lives: a difficult childhood, a traumatic experience, negative relationships, etc. One of the psychological reasons behind our attraction to our partner in the beginning of a relationship is their seeming ability to meet every need we have. They fill our “holes.” But this is an illusion that breaks down at some point in a committed, long-term partnership (usually around the 2-3 year mark). One of my favorite books on this topic is Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. In this book, Hendrix argues that the issues we face in our relationships are often the result of our subconscious trying to evolve beyond a lifelong pattern established in childhood. The relationships in our lives, especially the one we have with our spouse, are designed specifically to push our buttons so we can grow as human beings. Once I learned this, I was able to step out of the “blame game” in my relationships and take responsibility for whatever was causing distress. I stopped relying on my partner to make me happy or to change to become the person I wanted him to be. Joey and I both make a conscious effort to look within ourselves when we experience conflict in our marriage. We avoid putting the responsibility on each other to “fix” our issues, and instead support each other in working through our own self-development.
- Marriage first. Joey and I put our marriage first. It's our top priority, and something that we nurture everyday. I've found that you're either growing closer or growing apart in a relationship. There's no “neutral.” Leaving the marriage on auto-pilot only leads to disengagement and disconnection. Having a happy and solid relationship depends on small investments of time, support, kindness, generosity, compassion, attention, and loyalty. Love is more than a feeling, it is a verb. It is an action. A marriage takes effort and commitment to maintain. Since Joey and I have always put our marriage first, we have created a solid foundation that we can rely on when times get tough. When we went through the transition of becoming new parents, our marriage was tested more than it had ever been tested in the past. But since we continued to place our marriage above everything else, we were able to not only work through the stress and overwhelm, but we became a stronger couple as a result.
Joey and I have other tips and tricks for making our marriage a happy and strong one, but these five principles guide us the most. If you're struggling in your marriage, especially if you've recently welcomed a little bundle of love, do a quick mental check to see if any of the principles above are getting lost in the middle of the craziness of daily life.
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