Happily Ever After: How to Stay Married for 29 Years (and Counting)
At the end of this month, my husband and I will celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary. Yes, 29 years. Holy bananas! How time flies!
Now, given the current divorce rate, 29 years is a pretty impressive milestone, but what makes it even more noteworthy is that we're not the perfect couple — not by a long shot. (See also: How to Be Happy and Married: 24 Tips from a 24-Year-Old Marriage)
Truth be told, he drives me crazy on most days, and judging from the pulsing vein in his forehead and his standing prescription to Xanax, I'd say he feels much the same way about me. And yet, here we are, totally content (for the most part) and excited about what the next 29 years will bring.
So, how did we do it?
Walk Your Own Path
My man is a big guy with a dominating personality. It's one of the things I love about him, but it's also a stark contrast to my more "accommodating" nature.
Consequently, I spent the first year of our marriage doing my best to keep him happy and avoid any arguments because, well, that's just what I do.
Until that is, my mother told me it was "okay" to disagree. "You're married now," she said, "but that doesn't mean you disappear. It doesn't mean you stop being you."
Of all the advice my mother has ever given me, that is by far the best.
All too often, we look to someone else to make us happy, believing that we have to trade our own sense of fulfillment for being in a relationship. We put our dreams on hold and take a big detour off our chosen path, expecting the relationship itself to be enough to sustain us.
And then, we're disappointed when it isn't.
The thing is, your partner never actually agreed to take responsibility for your happiness, or the lack thereof. They're not supposed to take charge of your journey — they're just supposed to be there to share it with you.
Fortunately, the fix is simple — don't disappear.
Both of you have to be your totally authentic and amazing selves.
Love the One You're With
While we're on the subject of authenticity, let's also talk about the importance of acceptance.
Many a relationship has ended due to "irreconcilable differences," and yet many of those differences are often some of the same traits and tendencies we possessed from day one. Granted, we do a decent job of hiding at least some of these traits at the beginning because we're on our best behavior and looking to impress.
It's only after we've got a commitment that we begin to let our guard down, and that's when the disillusionment typically begins.
Our entertainment adds to that illusion by showing us relationships that are steeped in an unrealistic amount of drama and excitement. We've been bombarded by worlds where true love is akin to magic, where the passion is overwhelming, where the participants always look beautiful, and where the lovers must overcome tremendous odds to win the freedom to finally be together. They'll succeed of course, because True Love always wins out.
Even though we know those worlds are fictional, we can't help but be moved by their passion and desire; we want that. And it influences our perception of what a relationship should be.
So, it's no wonder that we become disenchanted by the day-to-day grind of a real relationship. There are bills to pay, dishes to wash, carpets to vacuum, and toilets to scrub.
Your partner is consistently showing you who they really are (and vice versa), so stop being so surprised when those traits and tendencies continue into the relationship.
We have a bad habit of seeing people the way we want to see them rather than as what they're showing us. We see the diamond in the rough, full of promise and potential. They just need a good dose of our own special love and guidance to bring it all out.
And then we feel betrayed when they don't live up to our expectations.
You don't have to love everything about your partner, but you do have to love them for who they are right now — quirks, eccentricities, and all. If you can do that, you're already on the road to a long and happy relationship.
Learn What Matters and What Doesn't
If my husband and I were to take a compatibility quiz, I can almost guarantee that we'd fail.
I love books; he prefers to wait for the movie. He sees life from a very organized, black and white perspective; while I'm a more creative, many shades of gray type of girl.
He's atheist; I'm pagan. He likes meat; I like tofu and sprouts. I wanted five kids when we got married; he was "iffy" about maybe having one. And the list goes on and on.
We are, for all intents and purposes, opposites of one another. We've obviously had to make some concessions and compromises along the way.
But what we realized is that very few issues required an all or nothing approach. We come together on the things that matter: we love our kids, we love each other, and we both believe that there's always room to grow and change.
And that's been enough of a foundation to make these last 29 years work. Yes, it's been quite a roller-coaster ride, but then who doesn't love the roller coaster?
Maybe that's a tip worth noting as well.
Learn to Roll With It
I have friends who, as soon as a new relationship looks like it might become serious, insist on having lengthy conversations about everything from the number of children they'll have to the amount of money they'll make, and they're willing to call it quits if the answers they get don't match up with their own.
But having such a rigid blueprint for the future leaves nothing to chance, and if there's one constant in this universe, it's that anything and everything could change from one minute to the next.
Our different personalities and perspectives might mean we have to work a little harder to find common ground, but it also makes that common ground much more exciting and enjoyable. It also almost guarantees that we'll never have to worry about getting stuck in a rut or becoming bored, two things that almost always lead to those irreconcilable differences.
During my stint in the corporate world, I noticed that the guys in the office were able to battle it out in a meeting and then go to lunch as if the altercation had never even happened. That's not to say that all men are masters of this skill or that they aren't capable of being mean and petty and vengeful when they want to be — they definitely are. But I saw this "fight-and-forget-it" mentality happen with enough consistency, that it prompted me to think about how I approached conflict in my own relationships.
Here's what I've learned.
First and foremost, it's okay to fight. In fact, it's absolutely expected if you want the relationship to last and the closer you are to someone, the more likely you are to disagree along the way.
You and your beloved are two unique individuals, sharing space, and making joint decisions that will have a lasting impact on both of your lives. Of course you're going to disagree, and sometimes, that disagreement will become heated. But with a few ground rules, your relationship can survive and even grow from the experience.
Ground Rule #1: Don't Take It Personally
Many disagreements are just that — a disagreement, as in "I think this while you think that." It doesn't mean your perspective isn't equally as valid — just that your partner doesn't share it. And sometimes that one little insight is the difference between a "discussion" and a knock-down, drag-out, you're-sleeping-on-the-couch fight.
Ground Rule #2: Stay on Point and Be Very Clear on What You're Fighting About
It's easy to bring up past infractions when it supports your position, but then don't be surprised when your partner becomes defensive. Ditto if you use the words "always" or "never" in your argument. Because now it's not just one issue you don't agree on — it's his or her character that's in question. And when one of you is defensive, you're no longer having a productive argument.
Ground Rule #3: Learn How to Walk Away
Fights are supposed to help you get things out in the open and (hopefully) shed some light on how to move forward. When things get too heated, our emotions kick in and we have a tendency to resort to some pretty nasty tactics. That's when you both should walk away. Go cool off, and come back when you're able to be more rational and reasonable. Your fights will be much more constructive.
Learn How to Forgive
You've probably heard the old adage "don't go to bed angry," and to that, I say "get real." If we fight in the morning and have all day to cool off, then we might be fine by the time we head off to bed.
But if the fight takes place in the evening or if he just really pushes my buttons, then I won't pretend I'm not mad just because we're going to bed, and neither does he. But what we will do is set aside our anger and let the other know we love them, even if we don't like them very much at the moment.
Which is enough to allow both of us to end the day. Sometimes, we're fine by the next morning, sometimes we're not, but we both know we'll eventually get back to where we need to be.
That's how we're able to say what we need to say when we're having a fight — we know we're going to make up. No grudges, no paybacks, no penalties of any kind. It makes it easier to fight and it makes it a lot easier to make up.
So that's what's helped make the first 29 years of my marriage a pretty solid success. I hope it brings you the peace and happiness that it's brought me.
How long have you been with the one you're with? What makes it work?