1. There’s no such thing as unconditional love for your spouse.
I just blew your mind, didn’t I? Here’s the thing: Your spouse isn’t your child. Your spouse is your partner, a fellow adult whom you chose to spend the rest of your life with. You are not guaranteed to love that person every single day (or month, or even year) and guess what? They don’t have to love you back.
My whole life, all I’d heard was, “You’re not going to always like your husband, but you’ll always love him.”
So when we came upon hard times I was worried that our marriage was over. After all, there wasn’t much love when we were acting so awful toward one another. And isn’t marriage about unconditional love?
“No way,” said our fantastic marriage therapist. “Who told you that? He’s not your child. You’re not guaranteed each other’s unconditional love.”
When I realized that unconditional love was not a requirement of marriage, a lightbulb went off. Maybe we can still be a happy couple, a happy family, even if there are rough times when the love isn’t flowing. For us, the love did flow again stronger than ever.
Bottom line: You have to earn each other’s love – even five years, ten years, forty years in.
2. The first two years after having a baby can be the hardest of your entire relationship. Don’t let that become the model for the rest of your lives together.
Yes, a baby is one of the greatest joys in life for people who want to have a family. But even if you’ve wanted to be parents your entire lives, things are going to be shaken up when that bundle arrives. You’ve probably had years to establish routines and ways of resolving conflict, and routines for how you connect. But that’s all going to get shot out of the water.
People tell you to be sure to put your marriage first – and I agree with that (obviously, as long as you’re also prioritizing the health and happiness of your children). But I want you to know that it can seriously suck having a new baby at times. You don’t sleep, your hormones may be messed up, you may be “touched out”, your entire frame of mind may change.
But do not – I repeat DO NOT – let this hard time become the model for the way you’ll see and treat your spouse the rest of your lives together. It’s tempting to let resentments build and to stop framing your partner as the person you fell madly in love with, but you need to fight that. Do the personal work to be forgiving. Watch your temper and practice building your patience.
I know, easier said than done. But that’s what therapists, elders, or religious leaders are for (or whomever you trust to guide you and give you perspective): Ask for help. Accept help. Get support. Do better and be better.
Bottom line: Don’t let hostility become the only way you know how to relate to one another.
3. Your relationship isn’t always going to be about sexual desire.
Sorry ladies and gents, but as much as you love sex, it’s not always going to be as plentiful as you think. Over the course of a lifetime, you’ll probably come up against times where you have mis-matched libidos.
I wish I had brilliant advice for these times, how to make someone want more or less sex, but I don’t.
A friend of ours who is a successful marriage and family therapist tells his clients, “Your sexual desire isn’t your partner’s problem.”
But a huge and growing sex issue is both of your problem.
You need to do what you can do to not let your sex life die off completely over a long period of time. You shouldn’t have sex when you don’t want to, instead, try everything you can to get yourself to where you have genuine desire: a sex therapist, a romance novel, sexy photos. I don’t know what your values system includes here, but don’t give up on yourself.
And if you’re the one who has more desire? You don’t get to be a jerk about it. Ever.
Bottom line: The best thing you can do is appreciate all the forms of desire you have for one another and really focus on those. You desire to hear their voice on the other end of the phone when you’re sad or when you have great news. You desire to snuggle up while you watch TV. You desire to make them happy by cooking for them or watching their favorite movie or whatever. You desire to make them laugh. You desire the feeling of their skin against yours in the middle of the night – sex or not.
Those things matter too. Those things build a life.
4. Doing a lot of nice things for your spouse every single day will create real joy in your marriage.
It’s not about presents or flowers or keeping the house clean or having sex.
Well, sometimes it is. But it’s also calling your spouse “sweetie” or whatever makes them smile. It’s about telling them the good things you feel when you feel them. Say, “I’m so happy to hear your voice right now” or buy them the cookie they like at the store and say, “I was so excited that they had these because I know you love them.”
This sounds hokey, I know. I grew up in a stoic Dutch Reformed town and I’m a bit locked down in the warm-fuzzy emotions department, so saying, “I’m so happy you’re home, I love you,” wasn’t the easiest thing for me to learn to do. It felt raw and weird. But I decided that if I felt a happy, warm feeling, there was nothing wrong with saying it. I can’t tell you how happy it makes my husband.
Bottom line: Lots of little moments of happiness make a happy marriage. So step up and do a little nice thing almost every time it comes to mind. It’s worth it, I promise.
5. Never, ever, be the person who isn’t willing to do the work or fix a problem in your marriage.
Caveat: I don’t mean that any individual should be the one doing all the work. In fact, just the opposite.
Here’s the scary truth – no matter how much one partner may want to work on fixing the problems in a marriage, no matter how much therapy that one person goes to or how much they change, a marriage with cracks and breaks (are there any other kinds??) will not survive without both of you diving in, head first.
I have seen my friends’ and family’s marriages succeed through hard times, and I’ve seen them fail. Some had to end. Most of the time the ones that had to end were the ones where one person was trying so hard, while the other person was not. The partners who don’t do the hard work sometimes simply choose not to, but often times it’s much more complicated than that. Maybe they weren’t raised to ask for help. Maybe they aren’t really invested in the marriage. Either way, they just give up.
More scary truth – you’ll need to be patient and let the flailing partner catch up sometimes. Give them time to get there on their own. Sometimes you’ll be doing more work, and sometimes they will be, but over the long run it’s gotta be pretty equal.
Bottom line: You don’t want to look back and wonder if you pulled your weight. After all, a canoe can’t move forward if you’re only paddling on one side.
6. Don’t ever fight about who is doing more work: the at-home parent or the at-work parent.
Nope, don’t do it.
Being a parent is a ton of work. It doesn’t matter if you’re the at-home parent or if you’re a parent who leaves the house to work. You’re probably working your ass off in ways your partner can’t see. Assume the same of him or her, too.
A marriage therapist once told my husband and me, “Don’t even start the discussion. You’re both working hard. It’s not a contest. Nobody will ever win this one.”
And we still don’t fight about it.
You can negotiate chores, you can express resentments over feeling like you’re the only one doing something (if you have a productive solution for the problem). But don’t question how hard your partner is working.
Bottom line: Appreciate your partner for the hard work they do, even when you aren’t seeing it with your own eyes. Tell them thank you.