Shortly after I got married, my (ex-)wife and I were invited to a party in our favor that was hosted by a local church. She was the accompanist for the church choir, and the pastor wanted to do something for us, as did the congregation. There was a big reception, cake, and a lot of words of congratulations and encouragement.
I distinctly remember one man coming up to congratulate me. He looked like he was in his late 50s. “I’ve been married for 31-1/2 years,” he said, jokingly, “and the first 31-1/2 years were the hardest.” I took this as a joke at the time, but reflecting back on what he said, I can see how true his words ring.
When we meet our soulmate, we are so full of love that we are convinced that we could not be wrong about our choice. Generally speaking, I’d say that most people probably are not wrong about their choice. When we get married, we are filled with joy, wonder, and optimism. Life does seem like a figurative bed of roses; regardless of how much or how little one has, everything just seems perfect. Neither I nor my new bride had much when we first got married: I had a low-paying academic job and she was still in grad school. I downsized from my two-bedroom apartment to move into her one-bedroom, yet our lives were filled with the abundance that only love can provide.
That love carried us through the first several years. We did not really need to maintain our marriage, because our love for each other was doing just that. However, sometime during our fourth year of marriage, she remarked that our relationship was shifting out of a romantic partnership and into a more long-term “friendship” type of partnership. I had sensed this as well; the passion of the initial years was fading and the reality of work and of life in general were starting to feel very present. So it seemed that we needed to move into a different mode of relating with each other.
How very, very wrong we both were.
This point of transition arguably comes in all marriages. The lucky few out there figure out the ways to maintain the marriage to keep it at least somewhat healthy. One of my family members has been married nearly 20 years and owes this in part to the fact that they have a weekly “date night” during which the kids stay at home with a babysitter. I don’t know who told them to do this or if they figured it out on their own, but this is just one of the components every married couple needs to keep the marriage healthy.
If I could turn the clock back about 10 years or so, I would be able to intercept that message from my (ex-)wife and suggest that we do something about it. Here’s what I’d do:
- I’d tell her that we need a weekly date night. This is so simple and obvious: dating should not stop after marriage. Dating keeps the relationship fresh and the romance alive. We wouldn’t need to do something fancy every time; we could even just go out for coffee. The whole point, however, would be that we were going out just to be together and to connect with each other.
- I’d tell her that we should set aside all of the logistical and “business” aspects of the marriage and take care of them during one specific weekly meeting. All the scheduling we’d need to do, all the planning of events, all the managing of finances and paying of bills would be discussed and taken care of at this time. This also seems so simple; the “business” of the marriage all too easily gets in the way of the relationship itself. So, take care of the business all at once (there usually is not so much to do that it cannot be taken care of in an hour or so of concentrated effort) and leave the rest of the week for the relationship.
- I’d make sure I gave to her every day. This does not mean that I would buy her presents every day of the week, but rather that I would give her things that she loves. I still know exactly how she likes her coffee. I’d make it for her at least a few times a week (if she didn’t make it for me on that day) and surprise her with it on occasion by bringing it to her while she’s in bed. I’d draw her bath in the evening and put in the water the essential oils in that she likes. I’d bring her a single red rose every now and then. I’d buy her chocolates, or her favorite fashion magazine. You get the picture.
- I’d make sure that I stay in touch with her during the day while I’m at work. I’d call her for no other reason than to say hello. I’d tell her a silly story or reminisce about something we did together. I’d never call to discuss anything logistical unless it were urgent. Oh, and I’d never work a job that did not allow me to put my marriage first. Period.
- I’d make sure that we get to spend an entire day together at least once a month. This would be our mini-retreat during which we’d do nothing other than be together. Maybe we’d go somewhere; maybe we’d stay at home. Either way, there would be nothing on the agenda other than being with one another.
- I’d make sure that we get away for a few days each year. This would be our “re-boot” retreat where we could rekindle our romance. I’d take her out to the coast where we got engaged. Or, I’d book a cabin out in the forest near a lake. Or, we’d have a weekend in one of our favorite cities—Vancouver, San Francisco, Chicago, or somewhere else.
- I’d make sure that I keep getting to know her better and better every day. I’d do everything I could to discover what she likes and what tickles her fancy.
- I’d make sure that every week we do something together that we both enjoy. Perhaps we’d cook together, or we’d work in the garden. Maybe we’d just do something fun with our dog.
- I’d always make her my priority and think about her and her needs before thinking about my own. Always. No exceptions.
That’s what I’d do. If you’re married, you should be doing all these things right now. If not, you can expect your marriage to deteriorate over time if it has not done so already. It may stabilize into something you both can “settle” for, but it will probably never be as rich as the relationship you had when you first married. Yet a marriage should mature, deepen, and blossom ever more fully with each passing year.
Really, it’s not that hard to maintain a marriage if you break it down into pieces like I’ve done above. Successful couples do these things and stay happily married in extremely robust relationships. What makes it “hard” is that these things take effort and require shifting of priorities in some counterintuitive ways. Most of us who have been married for some years begin to feel as though our careers are most important, and then next come our kids if we have any. After that comes caring for the home, the finances, and so on. In last place comes the marriage itself.
This is totally backwards. This is a paradigm that leads to mediocre marriages, or even marriages in decline. It is a paradigm that leads a disintegration that lays the marriage vulnerable to affairs, separation, and divorce. Reversing that paradigm keeps the marriage healthy and prevents anyone or anything from unduly challenging it.
I don’t know if I will ever get the chance to do all these things with my ex-wife. Yet every day I wish that I could do those things right now. I am paying the price daily for my unwitting disregard of the single most precious thing I have ever had.
Take care of your marriage by putting it first. Everything else will fall into place.
Please, care for your marriage.