My husband and I met in college and have been together for almost 12 years. We started dating in 2004 as irresponsible and immature college students, and in the last 12 years, we’ve somehow grown into two fully functioning adults with great jobs, a nice home, and a beautiful daughter. Our life is pretty wonderful, and many friends and acquaintances have made comments about our “perfect” marriage.
It’s true; I married “one of the good ones.” My husband is the most patient, kind, selfless, hard-working, and loving person I have ever known. I wouldn’t share my life with anyone else on Earth. Our deep love for each other is only rivaled by our friendship. We are often so in sync that, when trying to decide where to eat, we’re both thinking of an obscure restaurant we haven’t been to in months. We have inside jokes no one else understands. We have a shared history full of amazing experiences, and each year, we continue to know and see each other more deeply.
But our marriage isn’t perfect.
“I wish I had ten middle fingers so I could give you all of them.” That’s what I said to my husband a few weeks ago during a fit of frustration and rage. We laugh about it now (especially when I jokingly hold up both palms as a ten-fingered gesture of annoyance), but at the time, my anger didn’t crack.
It’s not a very nice way to speak to one’s husband; I’ll admit that. But the thing about being married to someone is that you see each other at your ugliest. Little grievances pile up. You’re annoyed by specific things they do and by specific things they DON’T do. You drive each other crazy at times. My husband chose to share his life with me for the wonderful and loving person I am, but he also sees the very worst of me. Like, every single day.
We tend to fight about the same issues, never able to fully accept each other’s limitations. For example, I’m a little messy and often throw clothes on a chair in our bedroom. My neat freak husband wants nothing more than a spotless, pristine bedroom. Each night, when I finally collapse into bed after a long and exhausting day, my husband thunders in like a hurricane, on a mission to get the house as close to perfect as he can before going to bed. (I know what you’re thinking, ladies: “And you’re complaining WHY?”) He chooses this moment, the moment of relaxation and solitude I’ve been working toward for 18 crazy hours, to ask a question guaranteed to rile me up.
“What’s going on here?” He points at the pile of not-clean-not-dirty clothing accumulated on the bedroom chair. Even though he doesn’t mean it this way, it feels like an accusation. It feels like he has picked the worst possible moment to criticize me about something utterly meaningless.
This is marriage. Marriage is pulling on the wrong thread, taking something the wrong way, saying something you don’t mean. Marriage is 7 a.m. on four hours of sleep with a screaming child on your lap. Marriage is being late to a wedding and you hate your outfit and you didn’t bring the address and your husband forgot the gift. Marriage isn’t a picture-perfect weekend away in Napa; it’s an ordinary Tuesday morning when things won’t stop going wrong. Marriage is lifting each other up and letting each other down, but choosing to go forward together, again and again and again. So the question becomes: Who do you want by your side when all the crap hits the fan?
With all this in mind, here are my top five tips for real-life marriages:
- Meet them where they are. My husband wants the bedroom chair cleared because it helps him relax. He is not trying to attack me for failing to meet some ideal standard. When I can, I try to focus on the heart of the matter instead of taking it personally and overreacting. My husband is not going to magically stop caring about the chair of clothes, so I need to meet him there and figure out how to solve the issue together.
- Give more than you think you can spare. Resentments start to pile up when each partner feels they are doing more than the other. When I am feeling unacknowledged, I’m primed to overreact. I try to remember that things run smoothly when we both give a little more of ourselves than we think we can offer. Instead of thinking of responsibilities as a 50/50 split, think of it as 60/60, and then everything gets done. If I can push myself to spend five minutes putting away those clothes to make him happy, the whole fight can be avoided. Similarly, if my husband launches into a super boring and extremely long story about video games, I try to stay focused and give him my attention, even when I really want to snap, “Okay, I can’t listen to this right now. I have 30 minutes to myself for the first time all day.”
- Be friends first and spouses second. This is my biggest tip for newlyweds. Romance fades with time (not that you shouldn’t try to keep it alive). A solid friendship can last a lifetime, and it’s a lot less pressure to maintain than “the perfect marriage.” Also, it’s helpful to periodically ask myself if I’m treating my husband like a friend. It helps take off the weight of expectation from that role and keep the focus on treating each other kindly and compassionately.
- Take responsibility for your own happiness. I truly believe that you can’t be happy within a relationship unless you’re happy without it. I stay engaged with hobbies and activities that feed my soul and fulfill me (like, hey, writing for this blog!). I don’t count on my husband to make me happy. Again, it comes back to removing unreasonable and unnecessary expectations from your partner and taking responsibility for your own life.
- Celebrate their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. My husband is terrible at surprises. I used to spend a lot of energy hoping he would surprise me with a weekend trip or bring home a bottle of my favorite wine for no reason. I used to routinely start fights about his lack of grand-gesture-style romanticism. But then I realized, grand gestures are not his strength. You know what IS? Showing up for me and loving and supporting me unconditionally every single day of his life. Hmm, on second thought, maybe I’m cool without that bottle of wine.