When our kids were all under eight, Bill talked me into allowing him to do worm composting in our basement. He sold me on the environmental benefits of the process and said it would also be educational for the kids to bring our table waste to the basement and see what an important job worms do creating rich soil. On the day that he came home with five-foot trays filled with dirt and hundreds of small, red round worms, I was less than enthusiastic and wished I had not agreed to it.
“This was not in the vows,” I said.
“Hey, I wasn’t the one who married me,” Bill said.
He was right. One of the things that I loved about Bill when we were dating was his commitment to the environment. He had Ansel Adams photos of national parks all over his apartment; he rode his bike to work; he toted a reusable lunch container to work. While we were dating, I might not have been able to see worm composting as part of our future together, but I had certainly known that a commitment to the environment was part of who Bill was.
“I wasn’t the one who married me,” has become a recurring line in our marriage. We use it to gently remind a spouse struggling with a habit or behavior of the other that we both chose each other, idiosyncrasies and all. The line reminds me of how I’ve heard friendship defined: Friendship is knowing fully the good and the bad of another person, and moving forward with the relationship, anyway, accepting both.
For Bill and me, and many couples I know, one of the keys to a long-lasting and healthy marriage has less to do with date nights or or weekends away, and more to do with the mindset that each partner brings into each day of the marriage.
Holding onto gratitude—especially when life gets crazy
Couples in strong marriages make a conscious effort to be thankful for their spouses. Miguel, married almost 20 years to Juanita, comments: “We can't seem to find date night time. We are working to meet needs of kids, care for aging parents and we are bad at putting our marriage ahead of all that. Nevertheless, when I feel like I am grinding it out, day after day, I remind myself that I am so grateful to be sharing all of this with someone else who cares as deeply about our kids and parents,” Miguel said. “Basically, no one I'd rather do this with. I also am deeply grateful that Juanita likes to do the things that I don't really like to do and think it is mutual. I appreciate the teamwork that we forge together.”
Consciously look for the good
The hard-to-pay bills, dishes piled on the counter, and the forgotten appointment can move a spouse in one of two directions. The daily annoyances of life with another person can serve as proof points as to why a marriage isn’t working, or they can propel a spouse to look more deeply into the other person and into the marriage to find all that is worthwhile. Married couples who enjoy each other don’t necessarily have fewer issues to work though, but they may take a different approach to their challenges than those with less satisfying marriages.
For Jenny and Brian, parents of three children under 10, perspective is key. Jenny notes that intentionally bringing to mind what attracted her to her husband brings positive feelings to mind. “I flashback to our time dating,” she said. Jenny also mentioned the importance of getting out of the day-to-day environment and interact with others to bring freshness to the relationship. “If I'm frustrated with him, I always change my attitude when we are out socializing with friends or family and I see him interacting with others and I easily remember how awesome he is and why I married him.”
Amy, married 23 years to Kevin, jokingly said that if she’s in a difficult moment she allows herself to go morbid. “I think about life without Kevin and it really makes me appreciate him,” she said. Like Jenny, Amy takes herself out of the present moment and into the past. “I think of when we dated and how much I wanted to marry him. And I remember all the reasons why. When I do both those things I am all in again.”
Lean on honesty, humor and faith
Brigid, married 23 years to Bob, said that she has found that looking for the underlying truth in a moment she might be tempted to quarrel has worked tremendously well for the couple. “I committed to be honest with myself rather than play games. If I feel vulnerable or fear that I am not loved, I am committed to stating that truth rather than blowing a situation out of proportion in order to get the reassurance that I need,” she said. Brigid’s practice could likely save some marriages. Some couples find themselves in endless rounds of arguments that have little to do with the underlying issue: Do you love me? Brigid balances her serious, intentional approach with quick wit. “I go out of my way to tease my husband. You don't tease people you don't like,” she said.
Andrea and Greg, married 23 years, see the early years of marriage as critical. They credit their Catholic upbringing and long, committed marriages on both sides of the family as helping them with the more challenging early years of marriage—when misunderstanding sometimes led to hurt and distance. “As we have grown together as a couple, the trust in all areas has grown,” Andrea said. “We strive to be and kind to one another and to put one another first. We operate from a place of deep compassion and respect. This has been the glue that binds us together.”
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