20 years ago today, my wife and I were married. As in most marriages, we have had our ups and downs. While I am not professing to know anything really general about marriage, these are my thoughts on how we have survived this long:
1. The most important thing in our relationship is probably the most basic – we like each other and have many different things in common. We both are pretty (very?) liberal and have similar views on religion, science and education. Both of us are pretty nutty about certain things, like farming (her) and computers (me). We like talking to each other and get along with each other really well. I have never had a roommate who I got along with better. My wife truly is my best friend.
2. Along with that, we both have very similar levels of cleanliness. We both feel that the floor needs to be vacuumed at about the same time and that the dishes need to be done at about the same time. This makes it so it is roughly a coin toss as to who will be doing these types of chores. I think that this has helped a lot. For a while, there was a fair bit of inequality in this, since my wife stayed at home with the kids and felt a fair bit of pressure to do laundry and dishes and such. That made life “a bit” more stressful, since there was resentment. It was hard to deal with this, since one of us was at home all of the time and one of us was at work (all of the time?). And there wasn’t a great deal of understanding about how this whole thing worked.
3. Many years ago, we read a book about relationships (ok, let’s be frank – my wife read the book, and I read the first chapter or two. She is able to digest self-help books much better than I am.) The most important thing that we got out of this book was a very simple concept – a relationship can be thought of as a bucket. When you give someone a compliment, or do something that they interpret in a positive way (dishes, holding hands, saying nice things, making a phone call to the refrigerator repair person, etc.), it is like adding a penny into the bucket. When you do something that pisses them off (snarky comments, not doing the dishes, leaving your computer on the dining room table, etc.), it is like taking a penny out of the bucket. The general idea is that you want the bucket to be increasing in pennies all of the time. If the bucket is empty, or decreasing rapidly, then there is significant resentment, and things will not go well. If one person is putting more pennies in than the other, then there is resentment. Resentment is the killer of relationships. Understanding this has made a world of difference.
4. Let’s be perfectly honest. I can be sort of an ass hole. My personality is such that I find flaws in things and constantly try to fix those flaws. I am never happy with the way things are, and am always looking to optimize the situation. Imagine living with that. I need to add a lot of pennies to the bucket in order to simply stay even. Another piece of advise that hit me like a ton of bricks at some point in our relationship was that when people complain about things, they are not always looking for a solution to the problem. And offering them a solution just pisses them off. Sometimes people just want to vent. So, you need to know when to just listen and say things like “That must have been really hard…” instead of things like “Maybe you should have done….” It took me a long time to understand that in the second case, this “advice” sounds more like a put down. So, instead of (in your mind) adding to the bucket, what happens instead is that you are taking from the bucket (in her mind). This is a real killer, since you are sort of clueless that you are destroying your relationship.
5. Sleep can actually be a pretty big deal. My wife has a different sleep cycle than I have – she tends to stay up later and sleep in later, while I tend to go to sleep earlier and get up earlier. This sort of complicates life a bit. I would say that after 20 years of marriage, it still is a struggle. I can totally see why people have separate rooms or separate beds or a bed so big that you can hardly see the other person. While I don’t like this, sleep is a pretty crucial part of life. The person who needs to stay up later and sleep in later, most likely is on the receiving end of the resentment, since they are constantly wanting to delay going to bed a bit and not wanting to get up to put kids on the bus or whatever. This is really hard to deal with, since it is a constant reality.
6. Kids are a big part of life. Interestingly, I don’t think that they fundamentally change the dynamic between people, they just make everything much more extreme. For example, if your thresholds on action are vastly different, then when your kid cries, it will probably be the same parent that responds every time. That can build massive resentment. Sleeplessness. Just that one word describes the utter horror of the first year of being a parent (or in some cases, the first few years….) which can stretch a relationship beyond the breaking point. When you are sleep deprived, resentment grows exponentially. Happiness does not. In many ways, parenting is the ultimate “chore” – who is going to change the diapers, who is going to do the laundry, who is going to shuttle the kids from one place to another place, who is going to ….. This can lead to all sorts of resentment, which leads to not great places.
We have realized that there are many different stages in life and in a relationship. It is interesting to look back and see the different eras. It is hard to look forward and know that this era will change too. When the kids leave for college, what will change? When one of our parents needs to be taken care of, what will change? It is hard to understand how life will be different and how that will change our relationship. But, hopefully, after 20 years, we have some idea of how to deal with the challenges life throws at us. We have built up a toolset that allows us to build our relationship up instead of tearing it down. While I am sure that we will have problems along the way, I am hopeful that we can get through them together.