Holding on to the seat, I wheel my newly purchased road bike out of the garage and onto my gravel driveway. I was excited about my first ride, also a bit nervous as I had zero experience with clipless pedals, but there I was, ready to go.
What happened next was like a bad, slow motion dream.
I clip my shoes and try to pedal. I instantly realize I'm in big trouble. My gear is too big, and I can't get the bike to go. By the time my brain begins screaming "abort, abort" to unclip and put my leg out, it's too late. I go down.
My first ride is from a dead stop to flat on my side, in the gravel, in my driveway.
Take that Lance Armstrong.
Here's the best part: My wife, who had just filed for divorce, happened to be driving by at that very moment. I can still see my four-year-old son Kyle sitting in his car seat, waving from the back window and saying, "Hi daddy?" -- with this confused look on his face.
I just laid there for several minutes thinking about my life and what went wrong, what happened to me, what happened to my marriage?
At that moment I decided it was time to change. Time to understand myself and the specific things I would need to change to become the type of person that could create and maintain solid relationships. Laying on a gravel driveway still clipped to your bike as your family uncomfortably drives by will do that sort of thing to you.
I unclipped my shoes, dusted myself off and have spent the last 18 years working on becoming better. I don't have it figured out, but I am on the right path, and even though I take a few steps back from time to time, I know I'm heading in the right direction.
Choosing to be happy
This year marks 18 years with my best friend and wife Megan. Just like everyone else, we have been through a lot together -- mostly good, some bad. I can easily say I'm as happy today as I was on our wedding day.
The biggest key has been making our marriage a priority. It's the most important thing we have in our lives, and we do our best to act that way.
Here are a few things I've learned along this journey, some the hard way. I hope you find it useful.
1. Don't eat the last cookie
This is more about mindset and less about loving dessert. When Megan and I have treats or snacks, whether it be cheese, crackers, cookies or ice cream, I will by default leave the last piece for her to enjoy. It has become part of who I am, and fortunately she is the same way.
I enjoy watching her have the last cookie far more than the cookie will taste If I eat it myself. There are many 50/50 splits as we both try to share as well as eat the last bite.
By itself this isn't a big deal, but it's a simple gesture that says a lot to the person you love. Simple can go a long way.
2. Dream with your partner
When dating, it's normal to talk big about the future life we're going to create together. But then what? We get married, and slowly life begins to take over. Kids, jobs and mortgages take precedence, and the dreams begin to fade. We replace talking about adventures with talking about routines.
"A person without a dream will perish."
One of the most important things Megan and I do is dream together. If you haven't talked about dreams and goals in a while, it may take some time to get back to a place where you feel safe. Allow yourself to dream again, start small if you have to, but start!
Remember, your spouse's dreams may not line up with yours, but don't judge, minimize or dismiss them. Ask questions and understand why it's important to them and then make it your passion to help check those dreams off their list, one by one.
The reward will be the joy in their eyes, the strength it brings to your relationship, and -- let's face it -- you will enjoy the benefit of the dream itself.
3. Be your family's biggest encourager
Life can be overwhelming at times. One thing that brings me joy is encouraging Megan to push through the resistance when pursuing her dreams and goals.
We take the time to have conversations about what, why and how to move forward as well as discussions about when it may be better to pull back, stop or change direction.
When a decision is made however, encouragement and uplifting is my default mode until she accomplishes her task.
Your spouse needs a reliable sounding board. A place to pitch new ideas, voice concerns, fears as well as get a boost of encouragement when needed so they can take that next step.
Caution, try not to become an annoying motivational speaker. Just offer an ear, some hugs and only when you're asked, some productive advice.
4. Simply remind them how special they are
"I love you" goes a long way.
Megan and I will text "123" to each other a few times a day. This little code goes way back for us and it just means, I love you, and I'm thinking of you. It only takes about two seconds to do, and always seems to come when I need it most.
Another simple thing we do is to leave a post-it note with a short message or funny drawing on it. Once a week or so we'll both find a note left in our sock drawer, on our desk or stuck to the bathroom mirror. It's a simple reminder that we are loved and appreciated, and all it takes is a post-it note and a sharpie.
5. Know their language
If you only do one thing, do this. Buy The 5 Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. It will change how you relate to your spouse forever. If you already have this book, re-read it.
Knowing how your partner experiences love and appreciation will make all the difference in how you interact. If you wash her car, but she actually feels appreciated when you spend time together, you both lose and become frustrated.
The 5 Love Languages are:
- Words of Affirmation
- Quality Time
- Receiving Gifts
- Acts of Service
- Physical Touch
The book is a short read, this one simple thing can go a long way towards building a strong and happy marriage. I know it did for me.
6. Keep your hedges tall
Megan and I keep our hedges tight, and we keep them tall.
What do I mean? We keep guard of who we choose to spend time with and who we let speak into our lives. We protect our relationship, and we protect each other.
When needed we help each other stay on track, making sure we finish this strong, proud and together. This is easier said than done, but will make all the difference in the health of your relationship.
I hope you don't take this lightly.
The person you become is influenced by the people you associate with most. Our friends, co-workers, and family influence us more than we think possible.
People that do not value the relationship you have with your spouse need to be removed from your day-to-day life. It's that simple.
Just like you, I'm a work in progress and don't have this all figured out. I'm definitely not perfect and trust me, I'm good at screwing things up from time to time. Just do a little better every day and choose to make your marriage a priority.
Be kind, strong, reliable, accountable, trustworthy, loving and respectful and you will be in pretty good shape.
This post originally appeared on Medium.