On the day you get married, people say you have your whole life ahead of you. What they don’t tell you is that life is made up of a series of years, months and days, each with their own rhythm. So even though ten years sounds like a terribly long time on your wedding day, it really doesn't feel that way when it rolls around. Instead, it feels like a collection of the ordinary and extraordinary, the good and the bad, the hard and the easy, with both of you together at the center. At least that's how it felt to me, as my husband and I celebrated our tenth anniversary in June.
In that decade, Chris and I learned a lot about each other and marriage. We've been through hospital stays, international travel, crummy work hours, living in multiple places, graduate school, and having two kids. Here are some things we've picked up along the way:
1. Be each other's biggest cheerleader: Research says that the biggest common element of failed marriages is that the spouses regard each other with contempt. One of the best ways to prevent contempt from developing is to actively encourage each other. All of us have times when we feel like a failure or imposter. Your spouse - the person who knows and loves you more than anyone else - is the best suited to counter those toxic narratives. Even when my neurotic brain doesn't believe him, my husband telling me that I'm beautiful makes me feel better. This is especially important if you decide to have kids; no parent really knows what the hell they are doing at least some of the time. Your spouse saying “you are a good parent” can mean the difference between crippling doubt and grounded confidence.
2. Do activities by yourself: You simply can't go through a marriage attached at the hip. You'll long for independence and be too dependent on the other person for company. Unfortunately, Chris and I have had plenty of practice spending time apart. After a four year long-distance relationship, Chris spent three years of our marriage working nights and weekends in a restaurant. Even if you don't have those extreme circumstances, it's useful to have time apart to cultivate your own interests and relationships. Plus, it's very handy if you have kids. Babysitters are horrifyingly expensive, so we switch off who gets to go out with friends.
3. Make time for conversation: My favorite part of our relationship has always been our conversations. I've always said that he's the person I love to talk to more than anyone else in the world. Good conversation where you make yourself vulnerable is the foundation of a solid relationship. While experts recommend taking "date nights" on a regular basis, what's the most important is carving out some time to be together.
4. Challenge each other in good ways: Chris and I have rather different personalities. I love travel and adventure; he's a homebody. I'm quite ambitious and constantly planning; he lives in the moment. I'm neurotic; he's easy-going. While this difference could cause frustration, we see it as complementary. Because I've encouraged him to push his boundaries, he's lived in a foreign country, obtained a culinary degree, and moved far away from his hometown. Because he's provided an anchor, I've found calm amidst anxiety and was willing to buy a house.
5. Compliment your spouse when they do something that needs to get done but they hate doing: I despise cleaning. So when I make a strong effort to clean, especially something that takes a lot of time, I love when Chris recognizes it. On the flip side, because I get little inherent joy from it, I get annoyed when he doesn't notice. Just a simple, "Thank you. It looks great" goes a long way.
6. Realize that you’re a family, whether or not you have kids: In our baby-centric society, it's easy to believe that a couple isn't a family if they don't have kids. But that's bullshit. Thinking of yourself as a family from the beginning increases your satisfaction for your current relationship, not some future one. Kids expand a family, not make one.
7. Don't be tied to gender roles: My husband is a stay-at-home dad; it's one of the best decisions we've made in our marriage. If he was still working at his restaurant job, he'd make a couple thousand dollars more than day care costs and see his kids a few measly hours a week. Instead, our children get an incredibly dedicated caretaker and an amazing relationship with their dad. We even have our own professionally trained family chef! All of this wouldn't be possible if we were bound to traditional gender roles. Plus, according to a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, couples who reported an even split of chores had sex once more a month on average than those where the woman did most of the work.
8. Hug often: Hugging is a wonderful activity. It's non-sexual, but deeply intimate. It's a way to connect and show support when you don't have anything you can say. When we were first dating, Chris and I would squeeze each other tight, like we were holding on for dear life in the dangerous waters of high school. Now as parents of two small children, we've returned to clutching each other to keep from drowning in exhaustion. A hug gives so much and asks for nothing in return.
9. Keep a childlike sense of wonder: My husband and I had people blow bubbles as we left the church as husband and wife. Now, we still love to blow bubbles with our children. Keeping a sense of wonder elevates the everyday. People say that the feeling of "falling in love" fades over time, dampened by routine. But I think it's much easier to maintain that thrill if you can find joy in the small beauties of domestic life with your spouse.
So those are a few lessons learned in a decade of marriage. What have you learned about relationships so far?
Shannon Brescher Shea is a work-outside-the-house mom married to a stay-at-home-dad in the Washington D.C. suburbs who is exploring the process of growing up herself. The mother of a three year old and a four month old, she writes about learning to be kinder, more sustainable and more adventurous as a parent at We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So, hangs out on Facebook on the blog's page, and tweets @storiteller.