As a relationship columnist, people often ask me for advice, and, most of the time, I’ve got a lot to say. I’ve got plenty of opinions on topics ranging from first-date etiquette and how to navigate those new feelings of love to body language and how far is too far. But when it comes to how to make a marriage work, and how love changes over decades, children, good times and bad, I need as much advice as the rest of you.
So I asked several older-marrieds to share their advice for us young up-and-comers. Here are their top five (with many extras) pointers:
#1: Love Changes through the Years
“When we first got married, we were two survivors looking for a life boat; anything looked like a potential oar. He wanted kids? Great! I wanted kids. Let’s get married!! He liked fried chicken? I liked fried chicken! Let’s get married!” writes Sheila, who will celebrate her 31st anniversary next month. “It took about 10 years for us to fall into what I came to recognize as true love. We have been through some huge and scary issues, we have seen the flames of Hell licking at our married feet. We have a love now that holds a deep respect for each other’s strengths, less scorn for the faults and a shared history that is a strong shield against the often unkind world.”
#2: Ingredients for Success: Humor, Respect & Great Chocolate
Cynthia and David, married for 19 years, write that a shared sense of humor and respect are their top two ingredients for a successful relationship. “You have to laugh together. You have to be able to let the past (arguments especially) be left there.”
Candace, married for 37 years, says common values and interests and “an unselfish willingness to encourage one’s spouse to be the best he/she can be and to fulfill his/her potential” has kept her union strong.
And for some added spice, Sheila says a good bottle of wine, some amazing chocolates, great friends and a little bit or surprise goes a long way. It’s also important to know hot to apologize in two languages: “English for when you’re strong, another language for when you can barely bring yourself to say ‘sorry'” She also encourages “irregular surprises left in irregular places, with notes that would make your mother blush.”
#3: Marriage Includes the Mundane and the Sublime
Looking back on life, there are a lot of things we’ve learned – and a long list of things we often wish someone had told us. I asked these marriage-survivors what they wish they’d known years ago:
I wish someone had told me …
“… just because you hear the sound of rushing water, it does not mean there’s a waterfall right ahead. Not every rock of the boat means you’re capsizing.” –Sheila
“… that marriage is work. By that I mean, every day you open your eyes and start your ‘job’ of marriage, but it is a job that you (if you are happy in your marriage) want to go to, you look forward to making plans for and the benefits can be great.” –Cynthia
“… how stressful having children would be.” –David
“… how sublime it can be.” –Candace
#4: And Baby Makes Three…
Having children adds a whole new dimension to marriage, and makes you and your spouse into a family. On Mother’s Day one year when I was a little girl, we were giving my Mom her presents and cards when I announced that I wanted presents as well. My logic was sound: “Without me you wouldn’t be Mommy and Daddy, you’d just be Beth and Steve.”
Cynthia and David say that having children strengthened their love for each other… although it also altered their life quite a bit. “Having children in my marriage has made me love my husband more as I see how unselfish he is by giving so much to our boys with his time and attention,” writes Cynthia. The downside, David notes, is that kids ruin your sex life and increase your stresses many-many fold. But, in end, children have made their marriage so much more intense. “It brings you to a new level of love for another human being that you could never have predicted.”
#5: Loose Ends: Some Final Advice
• Be real. Think life, not lust, brains or money.
• Look for someone who has experienced pain, who is not afraid of the very hard work marriage is, who understands that wounds will heal. Who knows when to cry and when to suck it up.
• Find someone who thinks you are the best thing that ever happened, that makes you smile even when they are miles away.
• Recognize that the ‘lust’ component is short term, but sexual attraction won’t fade, just the urgency will go away. When that is gone, it will be the relationship you have with your partner that will determine your level of happiness.
• Ability to laugh together and most importantly, to COMMUNICATE openly, will dictate whether you have a relationship filled with frustration, or a relationship that leads to a partner who is a best friend and not just sex toy.
• Find the right person who pops the zit on your back one minute (ewwww!) and kisses you passionately the next. Seek someone who will wade into battle with you, even if it’s in a war of their own making.
• Look for a person not afraid to grow, who embraces lifelong learning and who knows for sure they don’t have all the answers.
• Be sure you share the same God, that’s too big of a hurdle otherwise.
• Look before you leap…serious young Catholics should consciously search for each other – search for that Catholic commonality; it is at their future peril that they “open-mindedly” experiment with relationships bereft of profound spiritual commonality
• Figure out the four things you simply can’t compromise on, prepare to flex on or discard the rest. Drop the number to three if you must to stay real, because it’s impossible to stray very far or for very long from your true self.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever been in love? How did you know? How did the feeling change over time? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.