Who am I to give marriage advice? It's a fair question. I've only be at married for five years, and they haven't all been easy. But in those five years I have checked off every challenge on the "Top Things that Threaten Your Marriage" list other than infidelity. In five short years, we've moved five times, including across the globe to rural Kenya; we've lost one beloved parent; we've had two children; we endured grad school and unemployment; we started new jobs; we were separated by an ocean for months just after our first child was born; and (that ultimate relationship destroyer) we even worked together. We've packed in a few decades of difficulty in those five years.
But we've weathered the storm and come out stronger. So, while I'm sure I have more challenges ahead and more lessons to learn them, here's what these past chaos filled years have taught me:
And that is how I began my "marriage advice" post. While I'm not naturally an advice-giver (it always feels a bit too hubristic and bud-insky to me), I came up with what I thought were insightful, pithy guides to keeping your marriage sane and alive. I thought I had something to give here. But just to be sure I hadn't missed an obvious insight, I asked my partner in this partnership what his thoughts were.
We were on one of our frequent walks. We cherish these walks. Free from electronic distraction, dishes and bills, it's when we communicate the best. The fresh air elevates our moods, and the walking seems to keep the blood flowing better to our brains. We figure things out during these walks. We make life plans. We air and solve grievances, the wide open sky putting our troubles into proper perspective.
Enjoying the leaves crunching under our feet and the leisurely pace established by our 4-year-old, who was preoccupied finding and collecting broken twigs, I asked him: "So, Colin, after five years at it, what do you think are the keys to a good marriage?"
His response: "I don't know. It's nothing new. And it's all cliché. Communicate well, make time for each other, decide that the marriage is something you'll both commit to working at. Nothing earth shattering here."
And as he dismissively rattled off that list of cliches, I mentally crossed off almost every bullet in my whole post. He was right. I don't have anything to add to generations of wisdom on how to get along with your spouse. My whole list suddenly became trite but true and nothing new. Well, except for one thing.
He paused and I sat with the silence, feeling humbled and a bit silly for even attempting a retrospective so early in my marriage. He continued:
"Actually, I would say this: There is something that's going to get under your skin about the other person. Something that bothers you more than anything else and that manifests itself in a number of ways. Like a core issue."
I knew exactly what he was talking about. We discussed this a lot on our walks. I could be too judgmental and he could be too self absorbed. My judging made him feel demeaned and small. His self absorption made me feel excluded and alone.
He picked up a perfectly straight and smooth twig and handed it to our son. "The trick is to figure out what it is. To name it, talk about it and for each person to work at it. And every once in a while, when things get tense, you'll know how to clear the air."
Yup. He nailed it. That's exactly what has helped us through our five years of pressures, of sadness, loss and stress. Sure, it's about communication, and "working" at the marriage etc... But it's more than that.
It's about knowing that your perfect mate, who stood at the altar making the most grand of romantic gestures to share a forever with you, was going to have something that crawled up under your skin and, especially during times of stress, made you burn with irritation or rage. Knowing it was okay, and couldn't undo you. Learning to name it, talk about it and be open to changing and taming those qualities. If we could do this, we could deal with anything else.
That, I suppose, has been the secret to keeping our young and often chaotic marriage together.
Well, that, and taking walks.