Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Marriage. According to me.

I am quickly approaching my 15th anniversary of marriage, and this has had me thinking.  What makes some marriages last and others crumble? We’ve actually now attended more weddings that have ended in divorce than ones in which the couples are still together. I can’t really speak to what works for others, but I do want to express what has worked for us.

Meet Your Match

When Mike and I met, we were both used to being the one in charge in a relationship.  I’m not proud of this, but my prior 3 year relationship consisted of me intentionally being awful, praying he would finally tell me to go jump in the lake.  He never did.  He was a lovely person, just not the right person for me.  When Mike and I began dating, we grappled over who was in charge.  It was…colorful.  About a month in, he was visiting me at my dad’s house in Altadena.  We were in the car, bickering about something. I can remember the corner we were turning when Mike said something along the lines of, “I don’t know what you’re used to, but I’m not putting up with this crap.”  I’m pretty sure the language was slightly more elaborate than that, but I’ll let the readers use their imagination.  It’s crazy, but at that exact moment, I knew this wasn’t going to be a short lived thing.  I absolutely loved that he wouldn’t tolerate my shenanigans, and it made me admire him even more than I already did.  It felt like a huge sigh of relief, “it’s about TIME!”  God love him.  My family noticed this element too, fairly quickly.  I believe my father was a combination of impressed and worried that both of us were so stubborn.  My older sister actually nailed it on our wedding video.  She said that the women in our family could be pushy (truer words never spoken).  Then she said, “When I first met Mike, he said nothing.  When I met Mike the second time, I knew Jane had met her match.”

We still spent a huge portion of the first few years of our marriage fighting over who was wearing the pants in this relationship.  Over the years, we both learned when to let stuff go, and not dig our heels in just for its own sake.  15 years later, I would say we both probably still have a hold of one leg of the pants. More often than not though, one of us eventually lets go.

Marry Your Friend

In every significant relationship I have ever had, the boy/man has initially been interested in my friend. It’s been an embarrassing pattern in my life. I don’t really have an explanation, other than I’ve always had male friends, and maybe that was just easier for me.  Mike was no exception.  We met through a mutual friend, and I was instantly attracted to the boy.  However, he wasn’t the type of guy I ever ended up dating. I dated the safe guys, slightly nerdish, and ones who wouldn’t stand up to me!  Mike was tattooed and pierced and insanely cute. He was the consummate bad boy. I immediately accepted the fact that he’d never be interested in me in a million years, and moved ahead.  This group of friends started hanging out a little more, and he was always there.  Because I considered myself nowhere close to his league, I relaxed. I was totally myself, and we quickly became friends.  I’d planned a ski trip to Tahoe, and one by one, my girlfriends begged off.  I had to consider my options.  I could cancel the trip, or go with three men I didn’t know very well.  I went.  In retrospect, that was a crazy move, fueled by a lot of alcohol and boredom.  I didn’t see a lot of him on the slopes because he snowboards and I ski…and I suck.  We hung out the rest of the time though, and we both discovered some things about each other.  We had very similar, twisted senses of humor.  He was witty, and quick with his observations in public.  While relaxing in the hotel room, Jeopardy came on the television.  He’s told me that the moment he noticed that I was getting a lot of the questions right was the moment he started looking at me differently.  Score!  His perspective didn’t change because I was “hot” or had money or because I was young.  He began to like me because I knew the answers on Jeopardy.  What could be better than that? After that trip, he began to actively pursue me and ask me out, and truth be told, I didn’t know what to do.  I was completely unprepared for such a thing.  We’d already told each other many unsavory stories about one another though, so that was out of the way, but I still had a lot of reservations.  I remember telling him that I was afraid it would ruin our friendship. I’ve never been happier to be wrong in my life.

We became engaged fast, after only dating for 8 or 9 months.  Nevertheless, I knew…he did too, and it scared the tar out of both of us.  I actually remember telling my dad, after only dating Mike for a few weeks, “I might marry this one.”  Our wedding was an absolute blast.  I have been to so many weddings that felt stiff and formal, weddings at which it appeared there was no joy at all.  Ours was amazing, and I believe the reason is that we were friends.    To this day, it was one of the best days of my life, not just because I married my soul mate, but also because it was so much fun. 

I got lucky that I was friends with Mike before we fell in love, but I don’t think it has to be that way.  I’d simply say that it’s important to be friends with your spouse in general.  Take time to have fun, be silly, and laugh as often as you can.

All of that being said, don’t let this friendship turn into the following:

Don’t Let Your Spouse Become Your Roommate!

I think that most married folks will be able to relate to this phenomenon.  You’re both working, cleaning, cooking, wrangling kids, and the weeks can become a blur.  I’ve had many moments in the last 15 years, and especially the last 10 since we’ve had children, in which I’ve become unacquainted with my husband.  I’d look at him and think, “Ohhhh, yeah.  I remember him!”  This is a slope that is very easily to careen down, into a place of comfortable, boring complacency.  This place is devoid of passion, intimacy, or true closeness.  I am not just referring to the physical aspect here.  It’s easy to lose touch with your spouse, despite the fact that you live in the same house and sleep next to each other every night. 

We’re not in college anymore.  Your spouse deserves more than a casual head nod and a “what’s up?” when passing in the hallway.  Like most routines, this can be difficult to break away from, but you must.  Does this mean you must be all flowery, lovey-dovey, kissy face, and over the top with the compliments?  God, I hope not, I personally hate that.  You do need to give your spouse the lion’s share of your attention, or as close as you can manage.  This is probably not possible to attain every day, but give it your best shot.  Turn the television off and go sit in the backyard.  Talk about something other than your children.  Go on a date.  Do whatever you need to do in order to spend some quality time with the person you married.  You may be tired, you may not be feeling it, but fake it if you have to.  It’s vital, it’s worth it, and it’s of monumental importance.

History Does Not Have To Repeat Itself

Neither of us had the best role models when it came to marriage.  My parents probably never should have gotten married in the first place, and divorced when I was three.  Growing up, most of my friend’s parents were also divorced, so I had absolutely no frame of reference.  Mike’s parents also divorced when he was quite young, although his mom did remarry.  Neither of my parents ever did.  I think we both grew up in, shall we say, unique circumstances.  I worried a lot about this when we were first married.  How would either of us know what was “normal”?  How would we learn how to fight fair, and all the other stuff they talked about in our mandatory pre-marital counseling?  I felt as though we were twisting blindly in the wind, with no idea what direction to go.  You know what I’ve discovered over the years?  You can make your marriage whatever you want it to be.  There is absolutely no reason why you need to follow a road, good or bad, because you feel you need to, or because it’s a legacy of some kind.  There are certainly many things in both our histories that we’ve had to work through, but I believe we got married for the right reasons. We got married because we wanted to.  That helps.

If you know the mistakes your own parents made in their marriages, or things they regret now, you can try hard to not do the same. For us, the main one was alcohol.  We both had alcoholism in our families growing up.  When we met, we both had major issues with alcohol. Unfortunately, it was one of the main things we initially had in common.  Luckily, we experienced some divine intervention shortly after we were engaged.  Mike got a DUI, and it was his second.  At the time, driving was his job. He nearly lost his job, in addition to all the other things we had to go through including court, classes, breathalyzers, and general shame.  My family was wondering if us getting married was a good idea, and I can’t say I blame them.  The truth that not a lot of people knew was that I had just as big of a problem as he did.  I just never got caught. We both quit after that.  Our children will never know what it’s like to have to deal with a drunken parent.  This was an intentional decision on our part.  If we had we not stopped drinking, I have no doubt in my mind that we would no longer be married, if it had happened at all.

When You Get Married, You Really Do Marry Their Family.  Have Your Spouse’s Back

I’m among the very lucky who get along exceedingly well with the in-laws.  Mike gets along with my family too, although we don’t spend as much time with them because they’re scattered hither and yon.  As most married people know, tough times and conflicts inevitably come up.  In these instances, your loyalty must be to your spouse, and it’s not always easy.  When I’ve had conflicts with my own family, Mike has been rock solid on my side, and usually upset at the way I’d been treated.  When reconciliations begin to form, I know it’s been tough on him to let my family back in.  No matter what the situation has been, he’s always done so with open arms.  This amazes me.  When I’ve asked him how he’s been able to do this so easily, he’s shrugged and said, “It’s your family.” This isn’t done blindly however, and it shouldn’t be.  When I’ve been the one at fault, he’s said, “Don’t you think you’re being a little hard on them?” Likewise, I’ve said, “Honey, you just need to accept them for who they are.” 

Loss in families is incredibly hard, and we’ve experienced a lot.  Between us, since we’ve been married, we’ve each lost a grandma, an uncle and an aunt for him, two uncles for me, and my father.  These are the times that you really need to be there for each other.  Again, Mike has been a rock of support during these times.  I actually don’t even really know how to describe it, other than he did not leave my side. In my opinion, you don’t need tons of words during these tough times, you just need the person who loves you to be there. He always has been.  I can only hope that I’ve been as comforting to him during his losses. 

Ultimately, you’ll have each other’s family in your lives forever.  However, I believe that it’s unbelievably important to remember that in marriage, you are creating a family of your own.   That’s the family that needs to come first, always.

Learn When To Shut It

It took me years to fully learn this particular lesson. Having always been on the stubborn side, I was always used to having the last word.  Along with this came the constant need to address things.  “What’s wrong?  I can tell something is bothering you.  Did I do something?  Are you upset about work?”  God, I irritate myself even typing that!  There have been so many times when I just needed to leave things BE.  I still have to remind myself to do this, but I’ve gotten better.  Sometimes, just shut up.  In the middle of an argument, stop.  If I can tell Mike is annoyed and he doesn’t want to talk about it, I need to shut it. Mike has learned that there is pretty much nothing he can do to make me happy in the mornings.  I am not a morning fan, I don’t like to talk much, I need coffee, and to start doing whatever it is that I need to do that day. I will often audibly grumble in the morning, and curse at my alarm clock.  It’s unlikely this characteristic of mine will ever go away. Thankfully, Mike had gotten wise to the fact that he basically just needs to stay out of my way.  After a couple of hours have passed and caffeine has been ingested, I resemble a normal, reasonable human being again and I am safe to approach.

Know when to LET IT BE.

You Don’t Have To Like Exactly The Same Things

Mike and I have the same sense of humor.  We enjoy many of the same movies and shows, but as far as interests and pastimes go, that’s probably it. That’s not entirely true, we like a lot of the same music too, but not exactly.  We both actually loathe some bands the other one adores.  I hate KMFDM, it’s just noise, and I’ve never gotten Neil Young.  He didn’t grow up with R&B or soul, so he doesn’t get my love for Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.  Overall, we enjoy radically opposite things.  He loves video games, and it doesn’t bother me at all, but I can’t stand them.  He says it’s relaxing for him, but it does the exact opposite for me.  The first-person games he plays make me dizzy and anxious. He enjoys shows on the Science Channel about how things are made, built, thought of, engineered, etc.  I don’t like them because I don’t understand them.  My brain doesn't work that way. He loves to cook, and I'm the lucky sucker that gets to reap the rewards of this, another bonus!  Again, it's something that relaxes him.   He is more introverted in general, and loves to work alone.

Mike loathes my love of Glee, and all things musical theater-like.  This includes my addiction to So You Think You Can Dance.  He’s also not fond of my trend to record and enjoy really depressing shows and documentaries, such as Intervention or "Meth Nation".  “Don’t you get enough depressing stuff at work?”  Well, yes…but these things interest me, which is why I went into psychology in the first place.  I love to read, he’s not a big reader. I wouldn't say I hate to cook, but I don't enjoy it. I love to be social, and I talk a lot.  He’s much more reserved initially and is harder to get to know.  I love to work around a lot of people, and can’t imagine not having interactions with others during my day. I love going to concerts, he can take it or leave it.

It’s all good!  Taking time to spend with your own friends is really important, for both of you.  You don’t have to do every single thing together.  Just because you marry someone does not mean you have to let go of who you are, or morph into the other person.  Keep yourself.

All of these things I’ve written about are my silly little observations, and only my point of view.  There are other exceedingly important things that enhance and strengthen a marriage.  Sharing the same faith sure does make things easier, and stronger.  Being on the same page when it comes to child rearing is essential, although you’re bound to disagree from time to time.  One thing that I feel is a non-negotiable issue is basic human decency.  It's been very important to me that Mike and I be on the same page as far as how people should be treated, all people. We’re lucky that we have all of these things in spades.

The two of us are in a very good place right now, the best we've been in a very long time.   We’ve been having a great time together, and he is truly my best friend. Inevitably, the moment I post this, he’ll probably do something to make me mad. Every married person I know, at least the ones who are comfortable enough sharing, has had and will continue to have moments in which they unequivocally cannot stand the other person.  There will be times when you can’t tolerate being in the same room with the other.  Then it will pass, and you’ll remember why you married them. Be brave enough to be the other fifty percent. Marriage is a long, crazy roller coaster.  The key to success in marriage is to hold on tight, refuse to let go, and experience the ride.

He is indeed irritated right now. I've been on the computer too long, I've got to go!