My daughter is getting married in November, and there are so many things I want to tell her about marriage that I don’t know where to begin. It’s not that she hasn’t been witness to her parents’ marriage for her entire life, but so much of marriage takes place behind closed doors or simply away from the children’s eyes that I’m sure there is plenty that she hasn’t gotten a chance to witness. I have been trying to write it down in some meaningful narrative, but it isn’t working. I have tried several times to parse the many things I’ve learned in 28 years into a concise story but I haven’t managed to write anything really meaningful. This morning I thought it might work better if I separated the information into the early years, once we had children, etc. And so here we have:
The First Year
Everybody tells you that this year will be the most difficult, and they are right, but if you’re lucky it won’t seem that way until you look back after 5 or 10 years of marriage. The first year is quite a lot of fun but there are a lot of things to work through before you can settle down into the long-term work of marriage, which is staying married. More on that later. For now, it is important to pay attention to a few things that you may not have discussed prior to marriage…things like gender roles.
You moved in together before you got married and you’ve probably fallen into one of the more common expressions of gender roles in dating: she does the dishes and the cleaning and laundry and thinks nothing of it, and he does an occasional load of wash or dishes and thinks he’s Mr. Wonderful because he’s helping. It can stay this way for years if you let it, but I encourage you not to do that because one day you will have kids and if you think you are busy now…you have no idea. Spend some time discussing how the work should be divided, and don’t be afraid to be bold when telling him that no, he is actually NOT doing an equal share of the chores. Men, especially men who didn’t live on their own before moving into a committed relationship, often have no idea what it takes to run a household. They have no idea what it costs financially and what it costs in time and effort. He had his chance to live like a bachelor (read this: in filth, eating crap food) prior to his marriage and if he didn’t take that chance, too bad for him. He’s going to be a married man now and it is time for him to learn how to pick up a rag and clean; how to fire up the vacuum cleaner and sweep; how to run a dishwasher and how to run a washing machine without ruining the contents of either machine. You will be a much sweeter wife if you don’t feel like his maid, and never underestimate how good he will feel when you listen to your girlfriends complain about their lazy live-in boyfriends and then state that you “don’t put up with any crap like that” because your husband is a good man. To quote my mother, “Get ‘em young and bring ‘em up right!”
On the other side of that coin is this: if he is genuinely trying to help you, give guidance but don’t criticize unless he is only giving a half-ass effort. Many men want to help their wives but find themselves victims of the “can’t do anything right” syndrome that overtakes women when they get used to running a household. If he loads the dishwasher wrong, so what? If he folds the clothes wrong, re-fold them. If he folds the clothes wrong and you have to iron the entire load because of that, coach him…repeatedly. And remind him: if his ‘work’ around the house creates more work for you, that isn’t sharing the load. That’s punishing you for making him do work around the house. Only the occasional man will be that rude and ignorant, and if yours turns out to be that variety (which I sincerely doubt) you need to kick that lazy bum to the curb. Otherwise, coach, gently, and thank him for every single thing he does for you, even if it isn’t done the way you would do it. Be grateful for each and every single thing he does because each and every thing that he does is something that you don’t have to do. This is how you keep yourself in the gratitude zone. It’s easy to take your partner for granted, and you will have to work on that the most after the first year, so start early and be grateful consistently, even when he is simply doing the jobs he agreed to do.
Take time to discuss needs for privacy and private time. No matter how much you love him, you will need time alone. And I mean, TIME ALONE, not time to be out with your girlfriends. You need time for that kind of stuff too, but time with friends does not substitute for time alone. The thing is that you and your wonderful husband won’t have the same needs for time alone. He might not need much and you might need an hour every day. If you don’t discuss your needs for time alone, he might think that you are being rejecting, or that he’s angered you. Discussing what you need and how you need it is a great way of putting yourself in context for your partner. When your father and I traveled to China we were in a tour group and I would get overwhelmed by all the noise and lack of time alone, and so I would put in my earbuds while we were on the bus and zone out while staring out the window. It wasn’t until later that I found out that your poor father thought I was angry with him every single time I put in my earbuds and ignored everyone including him. No context means no way to understand your partner. You would think that after 20 years of marriage that your father would automatically understand me, but NO…that’s unrealistic. Your father still needs some context to understand me, just like I need context to understand him. Tell your husband what you need and make sure you take time to listen to his needs for time with friends, time alone, and time with YOU. By the way, no one should have to explain WHY they have a need. Needs are needs and who cares why? No one should have to justify themselves unless they are opting for illegal actions…and that’s a whole other topic.
Sadly, it won’t take long for the two of you to get past the initial flush of love and marriage and settle down into the daily humdrum. Life is boring and mundane; at times life is hectic, chaotic, and painfully difficult. Those wonderful and intense feelings that you have right now when you are around him will pass, and when they do, you will find yourself wondering if that means something is wrong with the marriage. The answer is: probably not. Love, much like life, gets boring and mundane. Love is NOT a sentiment felt in the heart…at least not for long. Love starts as a sentiment in the heart, and then love becomes a set of choices you make based on a commitment you made before God and your family. Love is a choice you will have to make again and again, multiple times a day. Choosing to act in loving ways and choosing to take time to work on the relationship will yield years of joy with each other. If you don’t put work into the relationship, it eventually will die like an un-watered plant. The thing about plants is that even when they are well-cared for and watered consistently, most of the time they aren’t in bloom. There’s nothing showy or eye-catching about them. The ‘plant’ of your marriage will be much like that, in the sense that you will need to give your marriage daily attention and most of the time it will still feel kind of mundane and somewhat boring…and then there will be seasons where it blooms and your marriage will feel like the most amazing thing ever and all the emotions you had in the beginning will be there and you will feel them as surely as you feel your beating heart. And there’s another great metaphor: your marriage and your heart are much alike. Your heart beats in your chest all day long and most of the time you don’t really notice it—but fail to take care of it and you will notice it right away! You will have to devote time and effort to the health of your marriage just like you need to devote time and effort to your own health. What I’m trying to say is: DON’T JUST BE MARRIED. Actively work to be a couple growing together and you will find that your marriage is one of the most satisfying things in your life.
Shortly before your father and I married, a friend told him that marriage is either the best thing that ever happens to you or it is hell on earth. On a related note, many of your father’s friends told him that he better be prepared to give up his sports car, his hobbies, and sailing catamarans on Sundays. Thank God those two messages came at the same time, because your father shared both of those messages with me and I decided two things simultaneously: 1) I was going to have a ‘best thing that ever happens to you’ marriage and 2) that I absolutely refused to make your father give up all the things he loved just because he married me. That turned out to be a great decision, because many years later your father told me that one of the things that made him happiest in our marriage is that I encouraged him to do the things that he wanted to do: learn to fly a sail-plane; make stained glass windows; go back to get a second master’s degree; learn to blow and fuse glass. Part of being ‘the best thing that ever happens’ to your spouse is encouraging them to constantly grow and learn; encouraging them to challenge themselves; being their biggest cheerleader; and not holding it against them when they fail. This doesn’t mean that you give your husband a pass to do whatever he wants no matter what it does to you financially, or that you don’t ever hold him accountable. That is unreasonable and foolish. On the other hand, criticizing him for failing doesn’t really change the failure and doesn’t help him figure out how to move on and succeed in the future. Letting your husband explore his interests keeps him interesting to you and encourages him to stay young and keep expanding his life and his mind. Treat yourself in the same way (and ask him to treat you the same way) and you will have endless numbers of reasons to talk to each other and listen to each other and share your separate experiences with each other. It doesn’t hurt that your marriage becomes the reason that you do interesting things…because for many people their marriage becomes the reason they stop doing anything interesting at all.
And that’s a bunch of what I learned the first year I was married. Obviously I wrote this for my daughter, but if it helps you or anyone you love navigate the early stages of marriage, that’s great! I probably left at least 20 things I learned that first year off of this list…mostly because I couldn’t remember them all when I sat down to write this. You can count on a few more installments on this in the future, although I promise not to post one blog entry for every year that I have been married. No one needs to read 28 posts on marriage, not even me.