Marital platitudes abound in our culture. You hear it from therapists, counselors, and your mother-in-law. There’s an aspirational, calligraphy-heavy culture, as advice for couples is earnestly Etsy’ed and pinned on “Marital Bliss” Pinterest boards.
But it’s time we re-think some of the most common advice for couples.
Because a lot of it is wrong.
My husband and I have been married for 15 years. We are not the paradigm of marriage by any means. We’ve had highs and lows. I’m not anyone’s idea of a wifely saint when it comes to making our auto insurance premiums rise, and I’ve long thought “failure to use a coaster” might count as an irreconcilable difference.
Marriage is hard work. But my husband and I still like each other after all this time. And I attribute a big part of that to how we’ve taken the standard advice on marriage . . . and thrown it out.
We go to bed angry sometimes.
There should be an asterisk next to those insufferable “Always kiss me goodnight” pillows and frames you see in master bedrooms.
Always kiss me goodnight.*
*Unless I am actually quite angry at you (or vice versa) no matter what this monogrammed marital imperative says.
Sometimes we absolutely go to bed angry. No matter how mad I am, I’d rather keep those I’ll probably regret saying that comments and comebacks safely in the holster, never to be brandished in the light of day.
And that means that sometimes you go to bed without having an argument resolved, and that’s OK with me.
Cool off. Sleep it off. You need a night to get perspective and clarity. When we do this, we’re not tabling the issue indefinitely or hoping it will blow over. We’re just making the decision to approach it with a clearer, cooler head.
It’s about respecting the conflict and giving us an opportunity to resolve it in the most productive way. This gives us the space to own our hurt, consider how we want to frame our side of things, and ultimately helps keep the discussion clean and focused.
We don’t always have a 50/50 partnership.
We hear a lot about equal distribution of labor in marriage. Some people will approach it with calculating precision. But equality isn’t always measured in mathematical terms. And a partnership shouldn’t be about keeping score.
Sometimes, one person shoulders a bigger burden or responsibility. It could be financially or with child-rearing. Home maintenance or social calendar planning.
The delegation of duties can be circumstantial. At various points, you’ll tag in or out. You’ll play to your strengths while leveraging the strengths of your partner. At the end of the day, consider these questions: Are we each pulling our weight? Do we value our partner’s contributions? Does it all even out at the end when we know that there is no slacking, no shortchanging, but a smart way of putting in our best effort to benefit everyone?
We definitely don’t do everything together.
Sure, we have date nights and plan vacations with our shared interests. But there’s compatibility in having everything and nothing in common with each other.
We’ve maintained and honored our separate interests. At some point, the jig will be up and so you quit pretending like you’re ever going to enjoy that Steven Seagal movie marathon and stop trying to convince your partner that bouldering until your fingertips bleed is everyone’s idea of a blast.
We are better partners when we can pursue what we love and enjoy individually. This comes with two requirements: the opportunity and time to cultivate our passions and none of the pressure of thinking this is something that’s necessarily better with the other partner. We have things that we look forward to doing without each other. There’s no resentment, just a renewed sense of self from knowing we’re free to do our own thing.
We try to change each other.
A lot of people are adamantly against the idea of changing their partner. HOW DARE YOU? They know who they married, and they love them, warts and all.
But we’re open to growing and changing—especially if it’s for the better. You’re going to change and evolve. My husband is infinitely nicer than me; he’s also smarter and more patient. He makes me want to change—whether that’s being open to delayed gratification, giving people the benefit of the doubt, or not running away from life’s more intimidating encounters (that would be parallel parking, in my case).
Conversely, I hope I’ve compelled him to evolve into a person who more readily embraces emotional vulnerability and beholds the possibility that anything covered in chocolate can solve anything covered in stress/people who reply all/unfavorable sports outcomes.
We know it will only get harder.
Then there’s the notion that marriage gets easier and better with time. After all, you’ve put in the years and your longevity has to mean something, right?
But we’re not resting comfortably or complacently on our laurels.
In other words, we know to buckle up because it can get harder. We have been tested. We will be tested again.
Marriage is about weathering the seasons of life with another person. And those seasons can be unforgiving, brutal, and unpredictable.
Parents will become ill and die. Professional disappointment and personal reckoning are all but assured. And, oh, then there’s the behemoth undertaking of raising children together. These will all test your marriage to your core.
My grief from dealing with my father’s death last year was a formidable test of our marriage. At alternating times, I’m sure my husband and I both googled “how to support my grieving spouse” and “effect of grief on marriage.” From that experience, we learned not to constantly steel ourselves against difficulty, but to better anticipate change. We know it’s paramount to be more alert to the unexpected, mercurial nature of life.
Marriage is rewarding and affirming.
And part of that is building a relationship that acknowledges how you can willfully toss the advice you’ve always heard, and simply rewrite your own.