My parents celebrated their 30th anniversary this week. There’s a saying: “The grass isn’t greener on the other side of the hill. It’s greener wherever you water it.” A good marriage doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of sustained effort. My parents are my primary example of a good marriage. You don’t make it to 30 years without some solid skills and habits. Here are seven rules I learned for marriage from watching my parents. I can’t claim to be good at these yet, but I have a great example to follow. Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad!
NEVER speak ill of your spouse to others When I entered the workplace I noticed for the first time that people love complaining about their significant others. My spouse needs to be able to trust me – do I have his back even when he’s not around? How you speak about your spouse influences the way you think about and act toward your spouse. Break the cycle. Be the one who brags about your spouse instead. I’ve never heard my parents make negative comments about each other to others, but I’ve often heard my Dad tell a relative or someone at church that “Annette is very good at…” or my Mom share positive tidbits from the week about Dad with her friends. That extends to their kids as well – my parents frequently praised one another to us, building our respect and admiration for each parent
My parents are one unit, and they act as a team. From them I learned that disagreements are private. If you have an issue with your spouse, you address them directly and privately. You don’t whine to your friends about your spouse’s annoying habits, you don’t share stories about that thing she did, you don’t “ask for prayer” just to be able to gossip, you don’t argue in front of the kids or make annoyed “well, your father…” comments to your children, you don’t give the kids permission to do something if the other parent has said no. Your troubles are just between the two of you (short of needing wise experienced counsel from a pastor, priest, or older married couple, of course). Your joys, the satisfaction you find in each other, the pleasure and help from working and living together? That’s for everyone to see. My parents together? They can take on the world.
Say ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘I’m sorry’ for everyday things My parents constantly thank each other for ordinary things all day, including the jobs or services that are someone’s responsibility anyhow. They don’t take the other person’s help, companionship, or work for granted. “Thanks for taking out the trash.” “Thanks for cooking dinner.” “Thanks for going on a walk with me.” If one needs extra help, or the other forgets to do something they politely ask “will you please do me a favor and clean out the car?” Or “Will you please help me by putting those socks in the laundry?” Again, followed by simple, genuine thanks. What a difference from huffing “Ugh! it’s just like having an extra child! You NEVER pick up your socks!” When my parents thank each other, notice one another’s efforts, and speak with respect, each feels appreciated, happier, and more willing to do it again. We all could use some extra motivation to push through the daily grind. On top of that, thanking someone reminds you of why you’re grateful for them. Frequently focusing on a spouse’s failures or ignoring their hard work demotivates and annoys them. And when they do screw up? An “I’m sorry” instead of pretending nothing happened or passing blame goes a long way. Do I want my home to be a place of mutual appreciation, or nagging and irritation?
Love is a verb Who cares if they don’t feel like they love someone at the moment. My parents made an “until death do us part” oath to love, so they act like it, even when their spouse isn’t acting very lovable at the moment. In a nice chicken-or-the-egg cycle, loving actions toward someone regardless of your current emotions often result in loving feelings returning. Another side of love that I learned from my parents is that Everyone needs love and respect. Men, in particular, rarely feel loved if it is not accompanied by respect for who they are and what they do. You can cook them endless nice meals, put sweet notes in their lunch box, and coo “I love you so much” at every opportunity, but if you tease and embarrass them in front of friends, belittle them at home, ridicule their abilities, or focus on their incompetence, they won’t feel loved. Many women, myself included, are the same way. Don’t just avoid negative commentary, show genuine positive affirmation and admiration for your spouse: “I’m proud of you.” “You did a great job with ________.” And also? Respecting your spouse means not micro-managing them, trusting instead that they are capable, responsible human beings.
Bite your tongue Does something annoy you? Is your spouse doing something “wrong”? Think long and hard before opening your mouth, and if you must speak, think carefully about your words. So often we pick at others for things that aren’t faults but merely differences. Allowing your spouse the freedom to do things their own way (and even positively affirming that way!) makes them much happier to listen when you have a specific request for change on something that really bothers you.
Express frustration appropriately I’ve never in my life heard my parents rant at each other, or even raise their voices at one another except in incidences where the other was in danger (it’s perfectly appropriate to scream “Look out!” when someone’s stepping in front of a car….). They don’t pretend it’s a happy-clappy world, or that they don’t feel hurt, anger, or sadness. They do discuss problems in a calm, non-accusatory manner, find a resolution, and then, once it’s over, drop the subject and move on. Growing up, my Mom constantly joked that the most important skill in marriage is being able to laugh. Many times, my parents have prevented frustration and arguments just by Having a sense of humor, and using it. You can get annoyed at someone else and stand on your pride, or you can share a grin. Often, we assume someone else is deliberately trying to aggravate us, slight us, or avoid responsibility. Realistically? The only person who puts that much energy into thinking about you is…you. So have a laugh at yourself and move on.
It’s not about you. Lay down your life for others and quit keeping score My parents go out of their way to make the other person feel special and cared for, each in their different ways. They don’t keep score of who did more each day. Mom is quick to bring Dad a cup of tea. Dad washes her car. When you focus on the joy of doing something for someone else, rather than grudgingly taking care of basic needs, it’s fun and satisfying. You get to demonstrate your love, and they get to feel loved. Bonus points? They’ll probably be excited to do something for you as well, even if it’s something completely different. My Dad doesn’t express “I love you” by jumping up to refill peoples’ plates with seconds. Mom doesn’t say “I love you” by planning a special dinner at a restaurant with a bottle of wine. But they’re both saying it, loud and clear.
Every moment, every sentence, every action, you have the choice to build your spouse up, or tear them down Every interaction is an opportunity to make your marriage stronger and happier. It’s also an opportunity to make it an arena for dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and increasing separation. The thing is, countless positive statements or nice actions in one area can’t make up for or excuse the one cutting comment or unkindness in another area. What am I broadcasting to my spouse at this moment? You annoy me, you’re a burden, you’re incompetent, you can’t do anything right, I’m better than you? Or you are loved, you are needed, your are talented, you are appreciated, you are respected, you’re a pleasure to be around?
Does all this make my parents sound like a chirpy, obnoxious, gushing couple who are constantly making forced statements and slaving over each others happiness? They’re not. They just have sound habits of appreciation, communication, and love that result in quiet security and happiness. Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad! Thanks for being such a good example. And here’s to another thirty years of marriage, because I’ll probably need at least that much longer to pick up your tricks.
For more “Seven Quick Takes” posts visit Jen at Conversion Diary. Family photo by my middle brother, Pete.