I’m no “relationship expert.” But I’ve been happily married for sixteen years. Here’s my personal recipe for thriving — not just surviving — in a long-term, committed relationship.
When Jake and I said our vows 16 years ago, we had only a dream of what our life would be like together. We shared the same values and wishes. We loved each other passionately. But the only thing we knew for certain was that we wanted to realize those dreams and wishes together.
For me, this was my second marriage. The first time, I married a wonderful man (at the tender age of 23). We had a big, beautiful wedding. But after two years, we realized that we were not meant to spend our lives together.
So I entered into marriage #2 knowing full well that dreams and wishes aren’t enough to make it last.
The vows Jake and I exchanged reflected the lessons I learned in my “starter marriage.” Here’s an excerpt to give you a flavor of what I mean:
Officiant: Jake, Will you cause Marta pain?
Jake: I May.
Officiant: Is that your intent?
Officiant: Marta, Will you cause Jake pain?
Marta: I may.
Officiant: Is that your intent?
Officiant: Will you share each other’s pain and seek to ease it?
Jake & Marta: We will.
A lot of things have changed since that sunny September day on the rooftop of the MIT Hotel in Cambridge, MA. We grew from “young couple” to family-of-four. We moved from Boston to New York City and back again. We bought our first home. Adopted a dog. I started a business. Jake finished medical school and residency and embarked (finally) on his career as an M.D.
But every September, we take a few moments to reflect on what we’ve learned, what we’ve loved, and what our “new” dreams and wishes are. The vows have held true. The love has grown.
So today, as my personal way of celebrating sixteen years of marriage together, I’m sharing the ten most important lessons I’ve learned from the journey so far.
#1: BE GRATEFUL.
I’d love to say that our marriage has been nothing but blissful. But that would be… well, not entirely true.
Life is a roller coaster. Full of ups, downs, twists and double-corkscrews. It’s easy to fixate on the moments that make you feel scared, small, or vulnerable. Or to exaggerate (in memory-mode) the daily frustrations that are, like it or not, inevitable.
Gratitude is the antidote.
Taking just one moment—each and every day—to appreciate your partner is the best medicine. To look—with eyes wide open—for a quality, a gesture, even a distant memory of what you LOVE and appreciate about your partner.
When we were first engaged, Jake bought me a beautiful antique jewelry box that we now call “the love box.” Inside is a stack of notecards which we use to collect little moments of gratitude and love. For the first few years, the notes were just mine and Jake’s. Then the kids started adding to it.
And any time that I’m feeling down or frustrated, I open it up and pull out one of the notes. They bring me back to hundreds of precious moments—and remind me why I said those vows in the first place.
#2: ACCEPT YOUR BAGGAGE (AND HIS/HERS).
There’s a reason why most books and movies focus on either the journey toward marriage—or the painful process of seeing one end.
It’s called baggage. And it’s something we all carry with us. From relationship to relationship.
It’s natural. And unavoidable. Living, after all, isn’t “easy.” And our battle wounds don’t get erased simply because we fall in love.
But those wounds need not define us, ruin us, or break the very bond that brings us together.
The key is to accept baggage as a fact of life. And then, to figure out which pieces become sources of growth and healing—and which ones we choose to leave behind.
For me, the scars of growing up with a narcissistic, emotionally-unstable parent has been difficult. It’s a heavy, Samsonite-tough piece of luggage that has left my kind, loving husband battered, bruised, and blind-sided more times than I’d like to admit.
To his credit, Jake understands this simple truth, and has moved mountains to help me unpack what needs to be unpacked—and to seek help when the burden becomes too much to bear.
Which is a perfect segue to lesson #3…
#3: EMBRACE “THERAPY.”
I am baffled by the stigma and resistance that surrounds “therapy.”
We’re not afraid to hire a trainer, see a doctor, get botox, enhance our breasts, dye our hair, send our kids to private school, buy insurance… but when it comes to seeking aid from a professional trained specifically to help couples nagivate the ebbs and flows and inevitable challenges of a long-term, committed relationship—we all get rather squeamish.
It’s as if “therapy” is synonymous with “failure” or “weakness.”
Let me be 100% clear on this: IT IS NOT.
Therapy is the fastest, most effective way to either fix what’s broken in your marriage—or to recognize that it cannot be fixed.
So unless you’ve already decided you’re done with your partner, I suggest you find someone to help you learn how to LISTEN, COMPROMISE, and APPRECIATE the man or woman you’ve chosen to spend your life with, lickety-split.
Because the real failure/weakness is the failure to give it your all.
As a Type A/Get-Shit-Done/Fix-Every-Problem kind of person, sitting my ass down and just listening — without offering advice, solutions or anecdotes — is really hard.
But the truth is that listening — REALLY listening — to your partner can be the greatest gift you give them. And better yet, it won’t cost you a fucking dime.
For me, learning to “listen” required the help of a couples therapist. My version of listening to Jake before therapy can best be described as, “I already know what you’re going to say, so let’s just skip to my story.”
Therapy helped me learn how to be “compassionately curious.” To create space for my husband’s feelings. To soften just enough to hear his needs; his feelings — before jumping in with a solution (or an argument).
I highly recommend learning to listen with compassionate curiosity. And therapy. And yes, therapy might cost you a buck or two. But listening — listening is free.
You know — the thing we naturally resist, because the word itself means “to give in.” And that’s the last thing you want to do when your back’s against the wall and you’re certain that your partner is being selfish or unfair.
Sorry, friends, but compromise is an essential ingredient of a good marriage.
To be clear, compromise doesn’t mean there’s never a time to stand your ground. It means you have to choose your battles. And know that the best outcome in most cases isn’t “win or lose.” It’s GIVE MORE and TAKE LESS. Or, at very least, learn the difference between the two.
Life — at least the adult version — can be pretty serious. There are bills to pay; clients, colleagues and bosses to answer to; traffic to endure; illnesses to overcome; insecurities to manage.
But there’s also a playful side of life. THE FUN SIDE!
And that, my friends, is what any good marriage needs as much as humans need water and food to survive.
“Play” can happen in many ways. It can be silly, sexy, suspenseful, competitive, creative. It can be very, very childlike — or very, very “adult.”
Regardless, here’s the lesson: playing is something you do with friends. And if your partner is also your friend — you’re golden.
“I’m sorry” is one of the hardest things to say sometimes. But it’s also one of the most important.
Because — #truth — you’re going to fuck up. Often.
And the way past that fuck-up isn’t denial, avoidance, blaming your partner, or gaslighting things.
It’s THROUGH it. With an apology.
Oh — and the bonus part of admitting and owning your marriage mess-ups?
#8: DREAM (together!)
A lot of things have changed over the past sixteen years.
But one thing that hasn’t is our fondness for dreaming about “what could be” — together.
Sometimes my dreams scare the shit out of my husband. Sometimes, vice versa.
But the time we spend sharing, dreaming (and freaking out about each other’s crazy dreams) is PRICELESS.
Dreams serve as both anchors and magnets.
They anchor us to a shared vision of the life we want to build with our partner. And they draw us toward new and sometimes unexpected places. Places where growth happens. Where love takes root — and flourishes.
So, DREAM BIG. Dream often!
And most importantly, dream together.
We’re accustomed to celebrating birthdays, religious holidays, etcetera.
But what about celebrating the smaller things?
A perfect sunset. A clean kitchen. A week free of conflict. That time when you didn’t lose your shit in traffic.
I’m not suggesting that you turn your marriage into a soap opera of false celebrations. I’m saying it won’t hurt — and will help — to acknowledge and actually celebrate any moment, no matter how small, that feels like a “win.”
#10: BE VULNERABLE.
There’s nothing more terrifying than putting your heart on a silver platter and handing it over to someone else.
What if they break it?
What if they laugh at it?
The fear — and the contraction that fear elicits — is very, commonly, painfully real.
But perhaps the most valuable, most important lesson I’ve learned after sixteen years of marriage is this: it can’t last if you don’t let down your guard. You must bare your soul. You must be consciously vulnerable.
Yes, your heart might be broken.
Yes, you might (and probably will) doubt; panic; suffer; react (or overreact), struggle; complain; withdraw; rage.
In fact, you’ll probably do all of the above.
But like C.S Lewis once wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.”
I repeat: You must be vulnerable.
It’s an absolute requirement for a long-term partnership — especially a marriage.
I hope with all my heart that you’ll be vulnerable — and playful and flexible and grateful and kind and loving — and then some — in yours.