Last time I posted, I shared some intimate struggles that my husband and I had gone through in our marriage. I also promised that was only the beginning--that I would be back to share a more joyous post about the present of our relationship and how we restored the things that were broken.
I didn't plan on it being so long between posts, but life happens. It's been a bit busy here lately, but I digress.
I want to talk a bit about some of the things I learned during our difficult times; I want to share those things with anyone who wants to hear them, so that they may understand them without having to face the same trials that we did.
So here are the 5 things that I believe are the most important (but perhaps the hardest) lessons to learn for a healthy and happy marriage:
1. Your kids aren't #1
I'm starting with the toughest one. If you don't have kids, this doesn't apply to you now. But it may in the future. And it's better you understand it before ever going down that road. Here's the thing: As parents, we know that our kids really are our number one priority. We know that we love them more than anything in this world, that we would protect them at all costs, and that they fill a place in our hearts that nothing else can fill. But because they are our most prized possessions, we have to understand that doing the best for them doesn't always mean having our universe revolve around them.
My husband and I were married a year when we had our first son. We were young--21. And we were so naive. He worked a lot and we lived away from family and friends. I threw myself completely into motherhood and I quickly lost any and all identity that didn't involve mothering. Part of me begrudged my husband for not being completely taken over by parenthood like I was. But then again, I couldn't relinquish the control of the situation. I wanted his help, but I felt more confident and less guilty doing it all myself. I stopped taking care of myself in so many ways. It wasn't just that a baby takes up so much of your time and energy. I just forgot about and ignored anything else..including my husband. I know he missed me being the way I once was. And I felt so upset that I had given so much of myself away, but at the same time I felt it was what was required of me.
I pride myself on being a good mom. I adore my kids and I adore motherhood. But after 5 years of being nothing but a mom, of losing the desire to focus on myself, my ambitions, my husband or his needs, I realized that my kids needed a healthy mom. And the biggest gift that parents can give their kids is loving each other, cherishing their relationship, and teaching their children that life requires balance. After so long of being a certain way, our life had lost balance. And a year after marriage counseling and bearing all our truths with my husband, I still have a hard time learning how to be mom, wife, daughter, friend..Robin..all at once. But parents, it's imperative.
Remember, you and your spouse are the foundation for your children. You teach them how to love, how to forgive, and how to measure success. Do not be fooled. The nursery may be beautifully decorated, comfortable, and happily played in. But if the foundation is full of cracks, the house is still dangerously close to crumbling.
2. "Date" is a verb, not a noun
We've all heard that you have to make time for dates in a marriage, regardless of how busy we are. And this is true. But I think you can be on a date and still not dating each other. For a long time, my husband and I didn't have a lot of opportunities to date. He was gone a lot of the time and then after we had children, we didn't always have a lot of options for sitters. But when we did, we would do our best to go on dates. Looking back, I can remember dates that were very great--like a day spent at Busch Gardens together. And then I can remember dates that were simply awful--like a day or two of my children staying with my mom and us doing nothing but arguing. The difference is that we began to see date as a thing, rather than as something that we had to actively do. Anyone can go to dinner or a movie. But the outing itself, the time with each other, is not all that matters. Your time together will not work for you, you have to work for it. You have to talk to each other, to continue to learn from each other, to share new experiences, to be open, to re-experience the things that brought you together in the first place. Something that has always been important to us is humor and acting like kids together. When we were going through marriage counseling our counselor suggested that we do something that we remembered doing when we first fell in love. Robert said one of the first times he remembered knowing he loved me was when we went to see Wedding Crashers and laughed our butts off together. We fell in love with the funny sides of each other. So, last year we ordered in and dug Wedding Crashers out of the DVD cabinet. We enjoy racing go-karts or going to amusement parks together. We understand that we need to play together, to laugh, to explore. Spending time alone together isn't enough because it can often lead to expectations that aren't met. You can't put too much emphasis on the time itself; you have to emphasize what you do with that time. Date intentionally.
3. You are not in competition
I know, you're reading this and thinking "duh", but hear me out. I think a lot of us fall into this trap without even realizing it. I can tell you from experience that I have had times in my marriage where I felt jealous of my husband. I have measured myself against his accomplishments and felt that I couldn't add up. His military career and having children young has taken a toll on the amount of time it's taken me to reach my goals. And I believe that at points in our marriage, while I felt like "you get to be doing something", he was feeling like "it must be nice to not have to do anything". You see, what he has done in the military or how quickly he's been able to wrack up college credits or how likely he is to get a job right away after his military career does not negatively reflect on me. And my taking a little longer to get my college degrees and spending most of my time during the last six years being a stay-at-home mom cannot be viewed as inadequate or lazy by my hardworking husband. Because our end goal is the same. We both want the best for our family. We both want to be successful and to watch each other succeed. Regarding marriage, we often hear "you two are a team", and it is so true. You aren't just a team, you are force to be reckoned with. You have the opportunity to have support, a number one fan, a sounding board. You have the ability to be an inspiration. You are the definition of strength in numbers. Do not compare yourselves to one another. Stop feeling sorry for yourself or placing yourself on a pedestal and recognize that you two are working in unison toward a better life. Remember the goals of one another and do what it takes to help the other achieve them. If both parties are determined to live this way, there will be victory for you individually and as a couple/family.
4. Don't be afraid to fight
This sounds counter-intuitive, but it's not. You have to understand something: you cannot be in a thriving relationship and avoid disagreement altogether. You are separate people with separate feelings and separate mindsets. You will bump heads. You have to learn the proper way to fight. If not, your arguments will only bring hurt and fear and you will eventually do all in your power not to argue. But not arguing only means that your voice does not get heard. Your feelings are bottled up and they will eventually come out in all the wrong ways. It becomes an endless, negative cycle. So remember this: you will argue and that's okay. Just know that the goal of an argument is to understand each other and to come out on the other side doing what's best for your marriage. Not what's best for YOU or for HIM/HER, but what's best for your union as a couple. Never use an argument as a medium for belittling each other, for bringing up past hurts, or for making threats. Talk to each other with respect, regardless of the disagreement. Give each other space, if needed, but always revisit the issue. You cannot go through marriage hiding your true feelings. But you must use those feelings as motivation for the betterment of the marriage, which doesn't always mean that you're going to get your way. One person never wins an argument. You either both win, or you both lose. So do "pick your battles", but don't avoid conflict altogether. It will come back to bite you in the butt.
5. Grow together, not apart
Last but definitely not least. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that you should never have to change yourself for someone else. But it's impossible not to change, and it's irresponsible to refuse change when it's necessary. My husband and I got together when we were 17 years old. I just turned 28 a week ago. A decade, more than a third of my life, I have spent with him. Of course I have changed! And, *gasp*, some of those changes have been spurred by him and our marriage. We have both matured. We've changed our outlooks on life more than once, we've expanded our religious beliefs, our political beliefs, our perceptions of success and failure, our opinions on each other and our relationship. Refusing to make any changes for your spouse is not strong and independent, it's selfish and naive. Of course, you cannot compromise your values or your truest beliefs. You cannot bend until you break. But you must grow and you must understand that your spouse is an integral part of that growth. You will change, and you can either choose to use those changes to bring you closer together or allow those changes to tear you apart. Keep your eyes on each other--grow together, as a pair, as an institution. Because change is inevitable. It is the human experience--you will be malleable until the day you die. Embrace it together and enjoy watching your spouse become the finest version of him- or herself.
And there you have it. I realize it's long, as most of my posts are. And yet, there is so much more I could say. I feel like I've been given an extraordinary gift in learning these lessons and having the opportunity to implement them with the love of my life. We all know that marriage is a journey--take that twisty road with its dips and its mountains and learn to love it for exactly what it is.