This year my husband and I celebrated 20 years of marriage. Even though it sounds like a long time, some days, it feels like we're still slushing through the same interpersonal messes we faced in 1994. But there are a few things we've learned along the way.
1. Fire hardens brick
We had a pretty negative marriage counsellor when we were first married, but one thing he taught me was how our opposite ways of communicating pull us apart. The angrier I get, the louder I get and the more crazy my metaphors become: I go from feeling "stuck" to "a kitten clawing my way out of a drainpipe" to a "banshee in a burning pit" in an attempt to express the seriousness of the situation and engage my husband in the conversation.
But when he's angry, he gets quiet. His hope is that I'll see how much nicer it is to speak calmly and that will rub off on me, but his silence makes me crazier. And all my efforts to prod him into responding to me make him shut down more. Because when you put a raging fire near a brick wall, all it does is harden the brick. He already knows how intensely I feel pain; what he needs to see is my willingness to give him space to think before he responds. I already know calmness feels better than craziness; what I need is for him to show me that he cares about my pain.
The same goes for other areas. I can't convince him that saving money feels more secure by criticizing his purchases, nor can he convince me that throwing money away is fun by drinking a $7 coffee in front of me. He needs to show me that he's concerned about our future, and I need to show him that I want him to enjoy life now. I'm not here to teach him to frugal and he's not here to teach me to be carefree; that just pulls us in opposite directions. We're here to meet in the middle.
2. Everything has a history
Often the things my husband does that make me mad have nothing to do with him. When he doesn't hear what I say, I snap because it reminds me of the painful year my dad started losing his hearing. When my husband naps, I get antsy because it reminds me of when he stayed in bed for days after being downsized. When I ask him a question he can't answer, it reminds him of the French teacher who called him stupid. I didn't cause the bruise; I just accidentally bumped into it. It's freeing when we begin to acknowledge this.
3. Our marriage is an object between us, not a subject in us
When I say how I feel, even if I use "I statements" (I felt hurt by your words), invariably he'll hear "blah blah blah bad husband, blah blah you stink." We all tend to take things personally. But it's not about what one of us is doing wrong, it's about this thing in our hands called "our marriage." It's an object, not a subject. It's not about trying to change each other, it's about working together to make this thing we share better.
4. Never tear him down in front of his friends
Only speaking well of people is a good rule of thumb in general, but it's particularly important with husbands. They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach (or another organ), but I think his ego is bigger than his stomach, more fragile than anything a cup could protect. More than meat and apple pie, my husband craves respect and admiration. It can be tempting to get sympathy from friends for your side of a disagreement, but in the long run, even in a joke, it's never a good idea to make your husband feel small.
That includes bad mouthing him behind his back. Chances are you'll start a group man-bashing session, and you'll feel closer to your girlfriends, farther from the one friend who shares your bed. You won't be any wiser. All you'll have is more ammo. If you need advice, see a pastor, spiritual director, or counsellor. Save girlfriend time for bashing Sponge Bob.
5. He changes faster than the version of him in my head
1 Corinthians 13 says, "Love doesn't keep a record of wrongs." My husband and I had a disagreement recently that ended with us realizing that I was arguing with Tony circa 2002 and he was fighting with Ange 'o the 90s. Neither one of us still felt the way the other assumed we did. But we never corrected the picture in our heads. Someone once told me, every time you see someone, it's a first time. Keep an open mind and expect change.
6. We don't know what each other is thinking
This is a big one. I know of marriages that have failed because one or both partner assumed they knew what was behind the others' words.
Hints don't help. Rolling my eyes because he should know by now doesn't help. Ask for what you need. Say how you feel. Listen.
7. Dare not to compare
This is a big one for me in every area of life: finances, parenting, publishing. My husband and I get along well in some areas; others are harder for us. The tendency is to look at other couples who have what we lack and think they're better, instead of celebrating what we have.
How many couples could work together at their days jobs and a photography business and not drive each other crazy? We actually like it because we get to see each other doing what we love, in nice clothing, in the hours before we're frazzled. So what if we can't dance.
8. Connection comes in all kinds of flavours
My husband loves me the way he wants to be loved, and it doesn't always feel like love to me. I like cuddling in front of the TV. He likes frequent, quick hugs, usually when I'm in the middle of something and need my arms. I've learned that even the stuff that doesn't do it for me "counts."
Some days we're better at connecting in writing. When I type my thoughts to him, he can process them at his own pace and without all my drama. And I know he's "heard" me.
9. Do unto my husband as I want my future daughter-in-law to do unto my son
I can imagine my son's wife someday being so frustrated with the way the guy gets lost in a book or daydream. He could step over a dead racoon all day long and not notice, never mind a dirty cup. But I want her to appreciate the way he keeps his promises or makes people laugh, the sweet way he hugs goodnight, and not focus on his dirty socks. My husband deserves the same.
10. Why reread the last chapter when we can start writing the next one?
It's easy to rehash, to "what if," to regret. But moving forward is so much more...better. Here's to 20 more years!