Most people dispensing marital advice either have great credentials or great marriages. After 19 years, my wife and I have a good enough relationship but I don’t think we’ll end up in the Marriage Hall of Fame. Also, I’m not a marriage counselor; nor do I play one on TV.
So who am I to say a word about marriage? Well, we’ve kept it together all this time and given our children a stable home. That must count for something. My oldest daughter is contemplating marriage, and since the last person she would turn to for advice is dear old Dad, I thought maybe some other folks could benefit from what I’ve learned along the way (and what I’d love to tell her).
The first rule of marriage, of course, is that there are no rules – every couple figures out what works for them. But if my daughter asks, there are a few commonalities to successful relationships that I would share.
Number one: in most cases, couples that divorce had pretty much the same problems as couples that stay together. It’s just that the latter group decided to stick around and try to work things out. After all, any problems you don’t resolve in your first marriage you’re likely to recreate in the next, and the next, and the one after that.
Second guidepost: if it’s important to you, it’s Important to me.
If your spouse likes fly fishing, or skydiving, or Beethoven, it doesn’t mean you have to put on waders or a parachute or the Ode to Joy.
It does mean that if your spouse wants to talk about what he or she is passionate about, listen passionately, not passively. Don’t judge, don’t criticize, don’t be a downer, and above all, don’t point out that it’s a waste of time and money.
If it doesn’t violate your values or put your life at risk, then maybe learning to fly fish or appreciate the Appassionata isn’t the worst idea.
Parachuting? You’re on your own.
Third, get help before you realize you need it. Tiger Woods has a swing coach, and all he does is hit golf balls. Marriage is infinitely harder than winning the Masters (just ask him), and yet most people think they can just figure it out on their own.
If you aren’t seeking to improve your relationship skills, you’re probably just diminishing them. There are plenty of great books, therapists, weekend seminars and other tools for tightening your game. Marriage vows, like babies, do not come with an instruction manual.
Fourth, the first three to five minutes when you walk in the door belongs to your spouse – not to your kids, not to technology, not to the fridge and certainly not to your parents. It’s the two of you against the world. Having that face-to-face check-in time is invaluable, especially when children arrive with their unique ability to turn their parents from lovers into roommates.
Fifth, don’t argue – just discuss. Never, ever call your partner names. And if there’s physical violence, get out immediately and take the kids with you. Remember also that when you’re arguing, you are simply standing up for your unconscious, unwritten rules about how people should behave, while your partner is doing the same for his or her rules. So remember you’re not really arguing with your partner – you’re just debating rules.
Next time, before you start defending one of your rules to the death, stop and ask just how important it is to you. Here’s why arguing doesn’t work – if you win, you lose. If you tie, you lose. And if you lose, you absolutely lose.
Above all, remember that people aren’t forever, that you, your spouse, and ultimately your children will never be this young again. Treasure the moments, because you never know what’s coming down the pike.
And If my daughter happens to read this, I hope she doesn’t judge her dad too harshly. He was always doing the best he could to help keep things on the right track, and in marriage, that counts for a lot.
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