Last week, while whittling down the rest of the debris from the attic in my still-early-phase of packing up the house, I dug down into a box that had a metric buttload of stupid stuff on top (like… a melted candle. I put a candle in a box destined for the attic of a house in South Louisiana, where summers routinely hit the high nineties. Clearly, my brain cells and common sense had not agreed to play together that day). I dug past a couple of broken vases, some weird toy parts (without the toy anywhere in sight), and some mouse-eaten papers that I never could identify. I almost chunked the whole box, but it was a big box and would’ve been heavy to haul out to the trash can; I had to empty it enough to carry it, so by the point that I was half-way through, I figured I might as well dig the rest of the way down. Curiosity alone compelled me; I had stored this stupid box in the attic, surely there was something in there that I had believed worth keeping.
And there was.
Down on the bottom, saved somehow from the mouse, were two things I’d been looking for, for over twenty years: my wedding album and our oldest son’s first photo album (his birth photos). I’d given them up for lost at least a decade ago, and sat there, stunned, that they were finally back in my hands. I opened them up and wept — the photos were still intact. A lot yellowed with age and probably the heat from the attic, but still there.
Then it hit me like a brick: we’ll be married 30 years on Monday, the 26th. (Though, weirdly, both of our copies of our marriage license have the date wrong; one says the 22nd and one says the 28th.) Thirty years. Thirty. I don’t even feel thirty years old, yet. I’m not grown up enough to have been married for thirty years, much less have two kids (29 and 25) and two grandchildren (4 and 4 1/2 months). How on earth did this happen?
I remember being completely overwhelmed at that time, knowing for absolute certainty that the bravado I’d had as a teenager, whereupon I was 100% convinced that I knew it all, had fled me entirely. I knew nothing. And I was suddenly married. And then with a baby. That we actually survived should be one of those wonders of the world things.
Along the way, I learned. Sometimes from mistakes, sometimes just the old common sense showing back up, unpacking its knapsack and staying a while. On the off chance that these will amuse you, I offer them up.
- Crunchy or creamy. Turns out, it doesn’t matter if you buy one of each. If you can’t afford one of each, suck it up and take turns. It is not the end of the world.
- Same goes for how you squeeze the toothpaste (or fold towels or don’t fold towels as the case may be). You didn’t marry him to have a carbon copy of yourself. That means he’s going to do some things differently than you. This will work in your favor more often than not.
- Ironically, the big fights won’t matter nearly as much if there are constant, small gestures of affection. Weird how that works out.
- He/She is not a mind reader just because they married you. Unless you marred an actual mind reader, in which case, you’re crazy anyway. Tell him/her what the hell is wrong.
- When he/she tells you something is wrong, do not pout. Or get defensive. You’re not a mind reader, either. How the hell else do you want to find out? When they’re leaving?
- Solve the problem. If you can’t solve the whole problem, start working toward a resolution with the information / assets you do have. Treat everything as an opportunity — a tool — and see how you can turn it toward the resolution. Solve. The. Problem. And then the next one won’t intimidate you both quite so much, because you’ll have gotten through one. And then another. And then another.
- The previous note might mean you have to suck it up and grow up a little bit. You can procrastinate, but it’s only going to make things worse.
- Be fair.
- Keep it fun. Probably the single most important rule. Keep it fun. Best advice my dad ever gave me.
- Back them up in public. (This includes in front of the kids.) Unless they’re being violent/dangerous/mean/racist, obviously. But for basic disputes on how to do stuff, don’t humiliate your spouse/S.O. in front of others.
- Hash that stuff out in private. All of it. As often as it takes to get to a mutual conclusion. If you let that stuff sit, it sours and really, you don’t want to live with sour hash, or sleep with it. Trust me on this.
- When you feel like leaving / throwing things / committing murder, sit down and write a list of ten things you like about your spouse / S.O. If you blow through those and think murder is the right choice anyway, write down ten things about them that you admire–traits or skills that you don’t have and would like to acquire. If you STILL feel like killing them, read the lists out loud, to them. Then try to go back to whatever the problem was and talk about it like you’re talking to the person that was on that list, not the current meathead you’re facing, who may or may not deserve the killing.
- If you’re gonna throw things, aim well. [Hey, nobody’s perfect all of the time.]
- Learn better communication skills. This is a given, whether you’re already pretty decent at it or not. Star with the basics: when something pisses you off, don’t start out with the accusatory form (“you did X, Y, and Z!!) but start out with the reflective form, (“when you do X, Y, or Z, it feels like you do not respect me”). Or whatever the feeling is. “I feel angry/frustrated/overwhelmed/jealous/anxious/insecure, etc.” is a way to show your spouse/S.O. where you’re coming from before they hear the item causing the problem. It gives them context.
- Sometimes, people are buttheads, even when they love you.
- Sometimes, you’re a butthead.
- Neither of the previous two points mean you (or he/she) have the right to be buttheads. It just means buttheadedness happens.
- Tell the other person one good thing about themselves every single day. Every. Day. It can be small, it can be large, but if you’re looking for the good and show them that you’re looking for the good in them, the problem times won’t seem so drastic.
- Being able to be the kind of person who says you’re sorry when you’re wrong shows that you’re a person of strength.
- Making sure you don’t keep doing the thing you were wrong about and sorry for means you’re a person of character.
- Be your spouse’s cheerleader, especially with regard to their dreams.
- Small acts of random kindness will be remembered for years.
- Keep it passionate.
- Be interested in whatever it is he/she does or loves (or both, if there’s a passion beyond and separate from work). If you know what’s going on, day-to-day, in their world, then you’ll get the stress they’re under long before they wig out; they’ll know you get the stress because they’ll feel you’re in their corner, and it’ll make a big difference in helping them.
- Absolutely make time to be together, whenever you’re home. This may mean forgoing TV or time in front of the computer, but the person you’re married/committed to deserves your time. What you spend your time on in life is what you value. That is ironclad, and don’t think for a minute they won’t feel it if you’re spending all your time elsewhere.
- Note the things the other person really loathes doing, and take up the slack on those.
- Be a gracious winner, whenever you win your point.
- The whole “don’t be a sore loser” thing–yeah, start early.
- Tell them, on their worst days, in their worst moments, when they’re being complete idiots who do not deserve to breathe that you love them anyway, even if you don’t like them very much right at that moment, because love isn’t about loving them if they do X or Y or Z or become a certain kind of person or perform a certain function or live a certain way or think the way you want or agree with you all of the time or even most of the time. Love is beyond that. Love is saying to them that you will love them even when they don’t deserve it, because love isn’t about deserving: it’s about who they are to you, in the long run, and who you are to them. It’s about the grace of knowing that this person is yours and you’re theirs and good, bad, or ugly, you’re going to stick, and they need to know that during the bad times. Fear drives wedges. Eliminate the fear. Make it clear that, yes, they’re being an idiot dunderhead on this particular thing that you’re arguing about, but it does not, will not, sway you from loving them anyway. It’s not a magic potion, these words, but they’re healing, and they’ll build a foundation of trust over the years.
- Try not to gloat when your spouse eventually claims that creamy was his/her favorite all along.
Long term commitment / marriage is like that huge box up in my attic. It starts off big and full of nothing more than hope and the first few memories we pile in there, but life has a way of tossing it around, dropping other random crap in there, unexpected moves and difficulties and losses. Life has that way of melting crap all over it, breaking parts of it, rats gnawing on the edges, and if you look down and only see the crappy stuff, you’re missing the point entirely. There’s a box, a commitment, a hope. There’s a past. Dig down through the debris and see if there’s something there worth saving. In some cases, there may not be. There are times that damage is done and the box is too far gone to save. I had to toss out several things that had once been very important to me, but they could not be saved. But… I did dig through to see.
In my case, I got extremely lucky. I married my best friend, who made it his goal to always build me up, to encourage me, to stand by me no matter what. He’s always made me laugh, (and sure, we’ve had arguments, but they never really matter, because he’s always always always done his dead level best to put me first). I learned what real love is, from this man. Every single day, he intrigues me. Surprises me, constantly. Never fails to tell me he loves me. Sure, he’ll drag a hair dryer into the house and then turn it into a “time machine” (http://postcardsfromla.com/timemachine) and that’s mild, really, compared to the crazy stuff that goes on in his head, but I wouldn’t trade a single minute–even the really rough times–of being married to him for anything in the world.
Thank you, Carl. I love you. Happy 30th anniversary.
Thirty years. Who’da’thunk?
How about you? What things have you learned?
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