July Fourth 1981 was known in our house as Interdependence Day, since that is the day my husband and I gave up our respective independence and tied the knot. Though still more children than adults at 22 and 24, we came together with bright hopes, plenty of ambitious, if naïve, ideas about what makes a good marriage, and a sophomoric over-confidence. Marriage, we discovered, is incredibly complex in today’s fast-paced and culturally chaotic world.
Despite our best intentions, the pressures of life and maturing began a siege against our ideals. We soon realized that we had to adapt or fail. Our marriage has been a good marriage, but that does not mean it has not been a tumultuous one. Yet, we have faced the typical trials of marriage, and survived. Not necessarily because we love each other more than other couples, nor because we are smarter, or more diligent. I believe we are still together primarily because we were willing to let each other and our marriage keep evolving into something knew.
Of course, techniques will not fix a marriage that is wrong at its core. Certainly, some marriages should be ended so that the parties can heal and move on. However, many a well-founded marriage has been mangled or unnecessarily torn apart by internal and external pressures. These are a few of the reasons my husband and I are still enjoying each other after 35 years.
- Choosing To Be Together: Perhaps the most important reason we have remained together is that we have repeatedly chosen to stay together over every other option. In a real marriage, we don’t actually get to choose each other once and then live happily ever after. In truth, we must choose each other again and again. Each time we are faced with a new challenge, a twist in the path, or a new disappointment, we must decide again to stay together. Each test, each fork in the road, requires a new commitment. My husband and I are strong and independent, but every time we faced a tough choice, we always made the choice to be together. Often, this has been the harder choice.
- We are NOT a single unit: In the beginning, I believed marriage meant becoming ONE. For me that meant my husband would want what I wanted, would put my needs first. However, only by realizing that we were two people with two perspectives could we find common ground. We learned to respect our differences and negotiate compromises that we could both live with.
- Respecting Personality Patterns: So many of us fall in love with someone, then immediately begin trying to make them more like ourselves. I did. Then I realized one day that I did not want to be married to myself. I turned my focus to recognizing and understanding the attitudes, patterns, and beliefs that made up my husband’s personality. Over time, we both learned there were certain topics and certain situations that could create huge and unnecessary rifts. We learned to recognize when we had hit a wall and needed to back off to give each other space or time.
- Honest Communication: This does not mean saying everything you think. People have the right to and should learn to keep some of their thoughts to themselves. Some thoughts are temporal, but once spoken, can create an impenetrable barrier. Some things do need to be shared, though there are ood times and bad times to do so. When we could not communicate verbally without inflaming emotions, we would write letters. Whenever I wrote a letter, I could edit my inflammatory comments into something more healing and more reflective of my true feelings. Often, it would be letters that would break down our barriers.
- Going to Bed Mad: One of the worst pieces of marital advice I ever received was that we should never go to bed mad. I say, DO go to bed mad AND force yourself to actually sleep. Believe me, it has saved my marriage again and again. Regardless of how important or trivial your argument may be, it is always worse under the intoxication of your own anger. Regardless of whether the fight is about something important or trivial, or just fueled by events or indulgences of the evening, it can be addressed with less heat and more balance in the morning.
- Letting it Go: Though some issues or grievances must be worked through, some cannot be resolved, and must simply be let go. John Gray, in his Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, describes an unconscious point system inherent to relationships. Many of us do keep score, consciously or unconsciously. In the film, Enchanted April, the character Lottie explains exactly how this can stifle a relationship: “The important thing is to have lots of love about. I was very stingy with it back home. I used to measure and count it out. I had this obsession with justice, you see. I wouldn’t love Mellersh unless he loved me back exactly as much, but he didn’t and neither did I. The emptiness of it all.” If you stay in a relationship long enough, you realize that you have to let the scorekeeping go, even when you think your position is justified.
- Develop Separate and Shared Interests: Another of our most important practices is that we learned to encourage separate endeavors, as well as develop new interests together. We have encouraged individual friendships, which allow us to expand who we were as individuals. As a couple we have gone on adventurous vacations, studied art, hiked, biked, skied, learned to sail, and taken cooking classes in Bangkok. Each adventure refreshes our relationship with fun and excitement.
There are no secret formulas or guarantees in relationships. However, if a couple really does want to be together, then by being creative, generous, and willing to allow each other and the marriage to evolve, we have found, their relationship can continue to grow into a deeper and more fulfilling marriage.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Benjamin Random