How to Keep Your Head Above Water Cultivating a Marriage, Our first 9 years

My husband and I married 9 years ago today in the dusty border town of Piedras Negras, Mexico. We made our vows at sunset in an old Spanish Mission and then celebrated with Greek dancing, a live donkey and bottomless margaritas.

The weekend ended and I found myself back in the lecture hall instead of on a honeymoon.  Over a few short months my husband watched the fun loving, easy going girl he married quickly dissolve into a irrational medical student who could not even begin to unwind on a weekend get-away. He who had once been considered a bit of free spirit found his creativity quickly confined by the lifestyle required by his medical student wife.

It probably didn’t help that we dated for only six months before we married and even during that time we were living in two different countries.

We had neither a blissful first year nor a wretched one.  We got along and enjoyed each other, it was just that being together took a lot of work.  We both did our best to be supportive and kind but it took every last drop of our emotional energy to keep the wheels of our marriage turning.  Overtime we moved onto residency, a home remodel, a church plant and a baby. We came to see our patterns, our weaknesses, our unrealistic expectations and all that helped. We continued to grow, but we had to agree with all the premarital advice we had been given, marriage was hard.

I finished residency and then worked for another year which kept me busy and kept his options for work pretty limited.

Finally two years ago we did an about face, he took a job which moved us onto a 7,000 acre ranch, an hour from the nearest grocery store and shortly afterwards I stopped working entirely.

It took a while for me to unwind, as in it took the better part of a year.  But somewhere in there our tense and tearful discussions which had been part of our routine for years disappeared. And we began finding common ground where we never expected it.  After 8 years of striving we woke up and realized that we had a great marriage, one that was far easier than I had ever imagined.

I share this story as a celebration. Marrying my husband is undoubtedly the best decision I have ever made. But I also share it knowing that some of you are struggling. Nearly half of marriages end in divorce and I can’t help but think that some of them are people just like us who wore out before they got to the other side of the struggle.

Every marriage is unique and complex and so I hesitate to give advice after my 9 short years of experience.  But I want to share some habits, some intentional choices you can make no matter the state of your relationship. These alone won’t totally transform your marriage but they can give you some goals to work on and  to help carry you through hard times.

Of course all of these are written assuming there is no abuse or addiction involved. Certainly if you are in danger get somewhere safe, if you find that you or your partner can’t implement some of these it may be a sign that you could benefit from professional help. And please do seek it, the joy of a healthy marriage is so worth it.

Habits for Cultivating a Marriage

1. Be kind. It sounds simple enough. But it is easy in the heat of the moment to resort to name calling or under your breath comments about how much your partner reminds you of their mother. Resist those urges. Much of the damage that comes from disagreeing comes from hurtful words that have nothing to do with the original discussion. Agree to be kind and hold the other accountable to this.   If you can’t argue without saying unkind words it is probably a sign that you need professional help.

2. Stay connected physically. It is natural to want to physically isolate yourself when you feel emotionally alone. It may feel safer but most of the time it does not help build a marriage. Part of marriage is being vulnerable and physical intimacy lets you do this even when you can’t agree on what color to repaint the bathroom.

While in the midst of an argument you may need to retreat and be alone for a bit, always make sure you come back together. Try finishing the discussion holding hands on the couch. Make hugs and kisses part of your daily routine even if you aren’t especially affectionate. Don’t withholding sex until everything is worked out, sometimes physical intimacy is exactly the key to helping you find a connection with your spouse. Of course if you have had past physical or sexual abuse this is going to feel different for you and you may want to get help to work through these issues.

3. Talk it out. At the end of an disagreement you should have both had the opportunity to be heard.  Don’t stop talking it through until you have both expressed how you feel.  You don’t have to agree with each other entirely but you do need to respect each other enough to hear the others’ side.  This process is exhausting but overtime it will give you insight into your own and your partner’s behavior. If you can’t do this go to a counselor who can teach you better communication skills.

4. Don’t underestimate the effects of stress.  At the time I thought we were handling our stress well.  But over the last year I have seen how much we were affected by stress every day.  There was so much about our work that we loved but it wore us out emotionally and we had very little capacity left to deal with each other.

If you aren’t getting along and you have significant stress from work or family recognize that this, rather than your partner, may be what is taxing your marriage.   Often we hold ourselves together for the folks at work or even for our kids but by the time we are alone in the evening we are exhausted and it just takes something minor to have us up in arms with our spouse. Perhaps the most important piece of advice in this whole epic of a blog post is this: Be willing to walk away from just about everything for your marriage.

5. Don’t assume that a weekend away will cure it. For us, during the long stretch of medicals school and residency, a weekend away was certainly going to involve an argument, I just could not decompress the way I needed to in that time-frame.  It took us about a year after we changed our lifestyle to feel like we fully embraced a new way of functioning. Weekends away are great but if you are dealing with significant stress and a challenging relationship you will probably need to make more dramatic changes to see improvement.

6. Don’t complain. While it is important to have mentors and people we can go to for advice (specifically those who have successful marriages).  It is also equally important that we avoid complaining about our spouse.  Depending on your environment this is not always easy. We love to share our misery and in this case we probably make it worse by doing so. If you need help seek it, but refuse to engage in conversations where you end up complaining.

7. Keep Learning. When we first married we made it a routine to read some sort of marriage enrichment book or go to a weekend seminar every year around our anniversary. While I didn’t love every book there was at least some nugget of helpful information in each one and  it gave us a great neutral place to start a conversation about areas that we needed to work on in our own marriage. Scroll to the end of this post for a list of a few books that we found helpful.

8. Pray together. If your spouse is open to it make it a habit to sit down in the morning or evening for a few minutes, be quiet and pray together and for each other. You can do this even when you aren’t getting along. Trying to stay on the same page spiritually is a huge asset to a marriage.

Start by simply reciting something like this together:

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and
light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all
our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou
wouldest
have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save
us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see
light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

9. Don’t bottle it up but don’t let it explode. Make a habit of bringing up small issues as they arise. Bottling up feelings can lead to resentment. At the same time be mindful of when and how your bring things up. Use affirmative language not accusatory, “I felt neglected,” not “you neglected me.” And be considerate don’t bring up an issue in the car on the way to a party, right before a big exam, right before bed, or especially in front of other people if you can help it. Talking about issues regularly can be exhausting but trying to ignore them can lead to more hurt feelings and more intense discussions when they finally surface.

9. Create a common life. While we were never able to schedule a regular date night we were intentional about inviting over friends for dinner and trying new hobbies together. In our hectic lifestyle doing something like reading the same book or just making sure to sit down for meals together is a step towards keeping a family unified.

10. Take care of your health.  This is probably the most overlooked area and it is so important. We have been, for the most part, healthy, and have probably always eaten healthier than the average American. But I still look back and realize where we were failing to take care of ourselves.

Most of us need 8 hours of sleep, not just on Saturday but everyday. We need a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, we need to be active during the day. We need to drink water and avoid pesticides. We need sunshine and time outside. We need to limit sweets and starches that affect our blood sugar and we probably need to limit caffeine too.

Chronic stress can deplete many of our essential vitamins and minerals and exacerbate physical and emotional issues.  Taking 400 mg of Magnesium everyday is a simple and valuable start to rebuilding health that has been affected by stress but there is so much more that can be done.  Don’t overlook this.  There are some things in our health that are out of our control but much of it isn’t.

 

For Further Reading

No book, or blog post can really do what it sets out to do, giving meaningful advice on marriage in this format is almost impossible.  Each marriage is so unique that it’s rare to find a book that feels entirely applicable. Still from each of these we gained some insight that helped us along the way.

 

Boundaries in Marriage

Love and Respect

For Men Only

For Women Only

Marriage Takes More than Love

Passages in Marriage

The Five Love Languages

Marriage, Our Wedding

 

For some more of my thoughts on marriage check out:

Why Practicing Hospitality is Good for my Marriage

Marriage and the Long Haul

On Marriage and Mystery Celebrating 8 years of Living Sacramentally (last year’s anniversary post)

 

Marriage

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