What Has Made Our Marriage Work

Love and trust are the foundations for a  lasting relationship, with a little magic dust thrown in. At least that’s my take on what has helped our marriage survive so far. I am writing not from a research perspective but simply on observations I’ve made over the nearly 30 years that John and I have been married.

First, there’s chemistry. I didn’t date a whole lot of guys before I met John, but I spent enough time with them to know whether there was any possibility for a long-term relationship (not that pure physical attraction is the basis for a lasting relationship, but it is one ingredient). I remember the first time I fell in love, during my sophomore year of college. We said those magic words to each other, and life was good. Then my beloved went home for Christmas break, and evidently his parents talked some sense into him (he was only a freshman, and I guess they thought I was trying to get my hooks into him). When he came back, things were different. In fact, I didn’t hear from him for several days into the semester, and I wondered what was going on. Then I saw him with another girl…oh well.

When I met John, there was something about him that drew me in. He was handsome, funny, made me laugh, we had long talks and danced, and I just felt comfortable around him. One young woman in our singles group at church warned me about him. She said he tried out all the new women who became part of the singles group. So I was wary of him for a while, but not for long.

I had this idea of how relationships between men and women should work, but none of my college romances followed this pattern. You see, I thought that when someone you’d been dating for a while started feeling hemmed in or wanted to date other people, the two of you would talk about it and decide to date other people for a while or stop dating altogether. None of this “It’s not you, it’s me” stuff–just honest communication. John and I talked about that. After we dated for a couple of months, I told him I didn’t want to make any assumptions about our relationship. I gave him an out by telling him that if he didn’t want to date me exclusively, he should just tell me. Well, it wasn’t long before a new “girl” joined our singles group and he started dating her. I thought back to my friend’s warning, considered the conversations John & I had had, and decided to write him off my list of potential long-term prospects, though at age 22 I really wasn’t expecting to get married anytime soon. That’s the thing: guys usually thought I was more serious about them than I actually was. I’ve always had an intense  personality; when I get involved in anything (work, relationships, hobbies, volunteer activities), I tend to throw my whole self into it.

To John’s credit, he wised up. He and his date happened to be at the same place that I and my date went one night, a local nightclub where some musicians from our church were playing (not Christian music, BTW). The next day, John called and asked, “How’s your love life? “By this time  I had decided I was way over him (although  Ifelt hurt and angry when I found out he was dating someone else without having “the talk” with me). I replied breezily, “My love life’s fine. How about yours?” To which he responded by launching into a tale of woe about how the girl had dumped him the night before. I didn’t feel too sympathetic. Then, a few seconds later, he asked, “What are you doing tonight?” I was incredulous. I said, “Oh, so you think you can come waltzing back into my life and take up where we left off?” But I wound up going out with him, with the understanding that we were spending time together as friends. That didn’t last long. We went to a movie, and before long, his hand crept over on top of mine. “Uh-oh,” my mind said. And goose bumps raised on my arm.

So there’s the physical part. Over the years of our marriage, my heart has always beat a little faster when I see John after being away from him during the day. Most of the time, that is. I still think he’s handsome, and I love the way his eyes light up, his strong profile, and the curves of his face. I think he looks a lot like the inventor Edison. (In fact, he aspires to be an inventor.)

What are some other things that have caused us to stay together?

1. Shared values. John and I care about many of the same things, such as speaking up for persons who are often ignored or marginalized by society. We feel strongly about the importance of education and about encouraging others to pursue their dreams. We both love to read and analyze political situations (confusing as they are and confused though we may be). Our faith has been important in our relationship. Belonging to a faith community has also played a key role in our evolving spiritual journeys.

2. Mutual respect and encouragement. I’ll have to say that John has been the mature one here. I don’t recall his ever speaking badly about me in front of others. I, on the other hand, have joined the conversation when friends got on the subject of things about their spouse or significant other that really bothered them. John has encouraged me in my career. One time early on, when I despaired about ever moving past an entry-level editorial position, he remarked, “Sometimes you just have to plow corn for a while.” This was what I needed to hear at the time, and it helped me to not give up.

3. Honest, sometimes frank, communication. I used to think we argued a lot, compared to other couples. But over the years I noticed that some of our friends who didn’t argue wound up getting divorces. I pondered that for a bit. I don’t think it’s healthy when a couple argues constantly. But if they don’t disagree and express those differences to each other, they may settle into a pattern of apathy, where they don’t share ideas or look deeper at issues. I don’t agree with John’s views on many things, but we’ve decided that being of the same mind on every issue would result in a boring relationship, or that one person would constantly be biting his or her tongue, feeling subjugated.

4. When things go wrong, you gotta stick together. John and I have survived having a child with substance abuse problems, three parents’ deaths, estranged relationships in our extended family, financial problems, and childhood wounds, just to name a few. If I’ve ever jokingly mentioned divorce, John looked at me seriously and said, “That’s not an option.”  I will add a disclaimer here. I told him there were at least two situations I could never live with: infidelity or abuse. I do believe every relationship needs to have boundaries.

5. Spend time together, away from your children. When our children were young, we got absorbed in the daily responsibility of caring for them. We originally set a goal of going out weekly, but that wasn’t realistic for us. So once a month, we got a babysitter and took a night off. Occasionally we went on weekend getaways, sometimes with other couples and sometimes by ourselves. These trips were well worth the money and helped give us some perspective on whatever was going on in our family at the time.

6. When you disagree on how to discipline your children, do so in private. I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at following my own advice. Sometimes John overreacted (in my opinion) to something one of our children had done, and he would bark out an ultimatum … and then leave me to enforce it. I got so POed about that! And I told him so (away from the children). I recall one instance in Daniel’s adolescence when John and I had a heated exchange, and Daniel remarked, “Should I call a marriage counselor?” He was a hypersensitive child who read a lot into our “discussions” (as I preferred to call them, rather than arguments). We told him that no, we were just fine…we just had a difference of opinion. On the important issues, we presented a united front with the children. We soon caught onto the game of their approaching one parent and asking for something, then if they didn’t get what they wanted, they would go to the other parent. So our refrain became, “Your dad (mom) and I need to talk about this. If you keep pushing, the answer is no.”

7. Spend time with older couples who have healthy relationships. Learn from their example. We are fortunate to have some older friends who have demonstrated love and faithfulness in the midst of trying times.

8. Don’t let the children be the center of your relationship. John and I tried our best as parents. We made many mistakes. Sometimes we got sucked into letting our lives revolve around problems with our kids, but we tried to decompress every day by spending a few minutes talking about anything but the children. As our children have become young adults, we like to sneak off every now and then and do something fun. They always act a little startled that we have a life outside of them, but we remind them that we were a couple first and foremost before we became parents.

9. Forgive, forgive, forgive. And don’t expect domestic responsibilities to work out 50/50. Sometimes you feel as if you are “doing everything,” when in reality you’re not. Couples who keep score of who’s doing the most seem to be the most dissatisfied folks we know. There are times in every relationship when one person has to carry most of the weight to get through a rough patch. That’s okay, as long as it doesn’t become a long-term pattern.

10. In the Christian tradition to which John and I belonged for most of our marriage, there was an emphasis on the wife being submissive to the husband. I have always thought this to be a load of bullcrap. The apostle Paul does say, “Wives, submit to your husbands” and “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church” (meaning that husbands should love their wives enough to be willing to die for them). But immediately before those instructions, he wrote, “Submit to one another out of mutual love.” John and I believe strongly in mutual submission. It has been key in our relationship. Partners have different strengths. We think that the person with the most strengths in certain areas (such as finances, household repairs, etc.)–regardless of gender and expected roles–should be the one to make the decision…of course, after discussing with the other partner.

Every relationship has its rough patches, and those are the times when you hang onto the commitment you made. Sometimes you may not feel loving toward your partner, but we have discovered that if you act as if you love someone, the feeling usually follows. Feelings are strange things. If you operate solely from an emotional base, you can get in trouble, because emotions are like shifting sands (maybe even quicksand).

So these are my thoughts for today. I hope I will look back on them in 10 years and think that they are still valid! My best wishes to every couple out there who is navigating the sometimes troubled waters of a relationship. There are good times, and there are bad times. As the old saying goes, “This too shall pass.” And scripture says, “Three things remain: hope, faith, and love. The best of these is love.” (Read 1 Corinthians 13 if you want to know more about keys to a lasting relationship. I can write no more wiser words than those of  that beautiful chapter.)

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