What Makes A Great Marriage
I recall my parents 25th anniversary. I made the 4-hour drive ‘back home’ to celebrate it with them and my six siblings at a local restaurant. Growing up, our family rarely ate out so dinner at the Blue Moon Chinese restaurant reflected the significance of the occasion. Twenty-five years. A quarter century. Longer than my entire life at the time! Wow. I was sure that by the time anyone had been married for that long, they must feel old and past it.
Which is why I find myself almost surprised to be sitting here, overlooking the sun setting on the Cinque Terre, my husband Andrew beside me, celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. Because I don’t feel old. And I don’t feel ‘past it’. And if anything, I am a little incredulous that 25 years have passed since I walked down the same church aisle to the same church alter where my parents, and both of their parents, made their wedding vows years before. I was very much the traditional bride, in an ivory satin dress, long ivory gloves and a voluminous white veil. (A little kitsch, I know, but I was not long out of the 80s).
While our wedding day was steeped in tradition, the last 25 years have been filled with adventures that have taken us a long way off any traditional path (whatever that means). We’ve moved continents multiple times, overcome the challenges of having four kids in five years and then juggled parenting them around the world while pursuing our own aspirations.
As Andrew and I hiked the rocky trail along the steep terraced clifftops this morning, we listed all the things we are grateful for. There were the obvious ones– our four children, enjoying our first week alone together since we had them, our friends, our health, our parents’ health, doing work we enjoy.
Yet, we also listed the times that we have been challenged, and stretched, and challenged some more. The multiple, and often unexpected, moves around the world with Andrew’s career. Rebuilding community in new countries. Uprooting my own career and leaving opportunities I’d worked hard to create. And then there the countless times we just felt pissed off with each other as is inevitable. Yet somehow through it all we have managed to keep our love alive and remain deeply grateful for each other.
Which is why I wanted to write this blog post today. While I am not a marriage therapist, I’ve gained a few insights about dealing with the myriad of pressures that can wear love down and pull a marriage apart. Did I ‘strike it lucky’ by marrying a person I can only describe as a very good man to begin with? Sure. But I think there’s more to keeping love alive over the long haul than that. So I wanted to share a few words of encouragement to all and every couple who ever wonders if it’s worth the effort. Here’s my top seven which I discuss at more length in my Live Brave Podcast (click here to listen).
Work toward a shared vision
Well before I ever walked down the aisle Andrew and I would spend hours talking about the kind of life we wanted to create together. We both wanted a relatively big, at-least-three-kids kind of family, to live overseas, to travel off the beaten track and pursue meaningful careers (though I had no idea what that was at the time). So whether you are just starting out, or knee deep in toddlers or teens, invest time to create a picture of the life you want to create, the values you want to honor and the future you want to build together.
Accept them for who they are… and who they aren’t! Andrew would love it if I didn’t leave my shoes scattered around the house (or put the car keys in strange places and forget where). I’d like it if he were more spontaneous and loved cooking gourmet meals like some of my friends’ husbands. But who we are is who we are and while we try to be considerate of each other, we’ve also learnt to accept each other for our preferences and personalities. My things will never be completely orderly, and Andrew will never take a day off work on a last-minute whim.
So respect your partner for who she or he is – and more so, for who they are NOT. This doesn’t imply you should tolerate being treated with a lack of respect or kindness (just the opposite!), but it does mean you don’t try to change their personality DNA to conform to some idealized perfect partner prototype. There is none.
The hardest conversations I ever had with Andrew were early in our marriage when I was working through all sorts of hang-ups. Hang-ups around money. Hang-ups around eating and body image. I felt acutely vulnerable sharing my inner struggles and wished I didn’t have them, but I did, and sometimes they would cause me to act in ways that weren’t who I wanted to be. I recall Andrew always being incredibly kind and offering to support me however he could. Just knowing there was someone with whom I could share anything helped me to confront the issues I needed to work through and emerge out the other side a more whole, healthier and abundant minded person. It took time, but he was very patient and incredibly supportive. He still is. I’d like to think I’ve been as worthy of his trust in his vulnerable moments too (though he had fewer hang-ups than me to begin with!).
It’s the conversations we least want to have – that require us to dig deep and to bare our souls – that are the ones we most need to have over the course of any marriage. The ones where you fear rejection or humiliation, or some sort of emotional discomfort, that makes your stomach turn. Have them anyway. Because the quality of a relationship is determined by the quality of the conversations that occur in it. Issues that aren’t talked out get acted out , often exacting a steep hidden tax on intimacy, love and connection (and children who pick up on their parent’s unspoken resentments). So far better to speak your truth than to let issues fester in the vain hope they will just sort themselves out. They rarely do. Just do so with courage, kindness, and the highest intention for your relationship clear in your mind.
No secrets. That was something we committed to from the outset and has ensured that our relationship has always operated on complete trust. Accordingly, I have a ‘no secret’ bank account for a rainy day. Andrew also knows that if I go out to lunch with a man – which I’ve done many times– that nothing else is going on. Without that trust, neither of us could have thrived in our marriage. Trust is the number one currency in any relationship and keeping a strong balance in the ‘trust account’ requires constant regular deposits and immediate action when something is done, intentionally or not, to damage trust. This means not making excuses when you’ve let them down or acted impatiently (and who hasn’t?) or just failed to keep a promise (even a small one like getting milk on the way home).
Take responsibility for becoming your ‘best self’
None of us ever arrive, we are always in the process of becoming a better version of who we have it within us to be. Kinder. Wiser. Calmer. Braver. More joyful, accepting, playful, patient, organized or disciplined… and patient again (I need to work on that double). Of course, it would serve your partner if they also did that but you aren’t responsible for them. Just yourself. So commit to doing whatever it is that helps you grow and learn and stretch and evolve as a human being. Encourage your partner to do the same and give them space to do it in their own way. What matters most is that you are doing what you can to bring the best version of yourself to your marriage. And on the days you don’t… forgive yourself, forgive each other and decide to do better tomorrow. Which brings me to my next point…
That’s it. Forgive them for being fallible and falling short of the ideal person you want them to be. And ask them to forgive you for the same. This said, sometimes people have to draw the line when the ‘trust account’ has had a long string of withdrawals with few and meagre efforts to make meaningful deposits. Far better to be alone and respecting yourself than stay married and losing your soul.
Stand on your own two feet, together
I hope that my kids will one day choose kind, brave and grounded people to spend their lives with. Key to that is not letting fear have any part in the decision about who they marry. Too often over the years, I’ve seen people get married for the wrong reasons – because they think another person will validate their worth and lovability, or just fear they’re getting too old or that they’ll never find anyone better.
I believe that only when we have the courage to stand on our own two feet – don’t feel we ‘need’ someone to make us whole or compete – can we attract the kind of person who will help us become the best version of ourselves. Andrew and I are independent people, but we just know that who we are together is better than the sum of the two of us alone. We lift each other up, cheer each other on and challenge each other to be better human beings than we otherwise would.
I hope that you have someone in your life who will do that for you. And if not, then I hope that what I’ve shared will help you be the kind of person who attracts someone who will. It starts with you. Only when you own your innate worth, and know your value, will you attract the kind of people who will value you fully .
Whether you’re starting or ending a relationship or, like me, have been in one for over half your life, I’d love you to head over to my podcast episode What Makes a Great Marriage for more insights and stories of forgiveness and love.