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How to Make a Marriage Work

I’ve been happily married 11 years, and I’m still as in love with my beautiful wife Eva now as when I first fell for her 13 years ago.

That’s not to say we don’t have our problems and arguments, but we’re getting better and better at making it work. I realize there are lots of people who have been happily married four, five, six times as long as us. And I bow to them, knowing that I still have lots to learn.

But a young friend of mine told me recently that he’s engaged, after only starting to date a very short time ago … and I offered him the advice below. Marriage is hard work, and getting married young you have the odds stacked against you, but my friend is intelligent, determined, adaptable, honest and good-hearted, so he’s got a chance and I wish him happiness.

I had a failed young marriage, which I now think was not the fault of either me or my ex-wife, but it taught me that I had a lot to learn and made a lot of mistakes. I’ve applied the lessons to my first failed marriage to helping make my second marriage better.

So … some thoughts on making a marriage work:

Learn to resolve disputes with the other person’s heart in mind. The most important thing is to be able to talk about problems and feelings calmly and with the other person’s interest at heart — not just wanting to be right. If you’re going to make it work, you’ll have to work on a way to talk about tough things, and this means you both have to try to see it from the other person’s perspective, and find a solution that will work. You’ll likely be bad at this in the beginning, but whether you’ll last depends on your ability to come back together after a fight and figure out how to get better at communicating/resolving things the next time.

Eva and I have gotten much better at this, not blowing up over things like we used to, but we still struggle. Recently we’ve come up with a system: have a mandatory cooling-down period (say, 2 hours), then talk about it starting with a neutral description of the situation and what happened, then share our feelings about it and acknowledge the other person’s feelings, put aside wanting to be right, then focus on finding a solution that will work for both of us. Afterwards, we then do a review of how we did with the resolution process. To be honest, we are still figuring this out.

Most disputes and other conversations are about two things: do you care about me, and can I trust you. When you argue about putting the toilet seat down or whether we should go to the in-laws’ for Thanksgiving, it’s only partly about those actual things. What it’s really about is this: I care about the toilet seat (or going to my parents’ house for dinner), so can you show me you care about what I care about? If you ignore the other person’s desires (continually leave the toilet seat up when they ask you not to), then you are signaling you don’t care about what they care about. And what it’s really about is, I’ve given you my heart and opened up to you, so can I trust you with it? Will you reject me?

Unfortunately, most people don’t recognize this and can sometimes think the other person’s concerns are silly and so they dismiss the issue. The other problem is the person who cares about it doesn’t explicitly say they care about it and want the other person to care — they just imply it and hope their partner gets the message. So the responsibility is on both partners to figure this out.

I should note that ideally, the care and trust of the other person doesn’t need to be continually tested and questioned — you know it. That’s not always the case, though, and it often takes time to build that trust.

Finances are the biggest source of friction for most couples. The reason is that they really are an emotion-packed way to show what’s important to people, and when you think you’re talking about whether you want to buy a boat, what you’re really talking about is whether you want a certain kind of lifestyle, whether you value her point of view, whether you respect her opinion on things, whether you care more about the boat or your relationship, and so on. There’s a lot that goes on under the surface of conversations like this that most people don’t realize is there — bringing it out in the open is a smart move.

Sex is another source of friction. When preferences are the same, all is well, but when things change the guy can feel frustrated while the girl can feel like she’s not enough and not appreciated and only wanted for her body (to bring up a common example, not always true). Being able to work out how to resolve these differences is an important skill.

Don’t have kids early on. One of the most wonderful people in my life is my daughter Chloe, who I had young and in the earliest stage of my first marriage, and I wasn’t even 20 years old yet. I am incredibly glad I had her. That said, for other young couples I recommend waiting. Learning to make a marriage work is much, much harder when you add the pressure of kids to the equation. Get good at the relationship before even considering a kid. Get to know each other’s values around parenting, really well, before diving into parenthood. It’s pretty much irreversible, once you have a kid, and I know lots of people (myself included) who grow apart or fall out of love with their partner, split up, only to leave the kid in a split home. And if you have a kid you have to deal with the ex-spouse for the rest of your life, even if you hate each other. I’m lucky in that my ex-wife and I get along, but it’s often not that easy.

Be good at being alone separately. And secure in yourselves and each other when you’re apart … not just good at being together. This is important, because lots of people aren’t confident in themselves and so look to the other person to fill a void, to meet an emotional need, and that ends up being not healthy in the long run.

But make time for each other. Time to be together, even when things get out of the honeymoon phase and get more routine. Never take the relationship for granted. Make weekly dates so you spend time alone together. Eva and I like to go to dinner alone (without the kids) and take walks together.

You will both change. That means the person you fall in love with now will be different in 5 years, and more different in 10. How you feel about that person will be different than how you feel about the person you love right now. And vice versa — you’re changing and she’ll feel differently about you. You might have an expectation that she stay the same, and yet she changes — how will you resolve this? She’ll feel like you don’t love her as she is, you’ll be frustrated that she’s not who she was before that you loved, etc. And vice versa.

How do you handle this? Learn this skill:

Appreciate the person for who they are. Very often we wish the other person were different, were better, were more considerate, could instantly know what we want, would match up with some fantasy (strong, tender, caring and romantic, perhaps, or sexy, always passionate about sex, nurturing). We don’t always realize this is happening, but it can cause lots of problems — resentment, disappointments, frustrations. I’ve learned that when I see my wife for who she really is, not who I wish she were (though I sometimes fail), I am happier. I appreciate her, love her, am not dissatisfied.

You can appreciate the person as they are right now, instead of who you thought they were when you first fell in love, instead of who they might become later. This is an ever-changing thing, so the skill of seeing the person as they actually are at this moment is one that you have to practice each day, each year, not just once and then hold the picture in your head.

And when you can appreciate the person for who they are, tell them. Show them. It means more than you might realize.

So that’s what I’ve learned — it’s only a start, and I’m still learning. It’s a lot of work, and there will be struggles. But that’s the best thing: the pleasant days when all is well are amazing, but in the struggles you both grow as people, you learn, you can find a path to growing closer.

I don’t know what the future holds for my marriage, but I know that in this moment, it’s all that I could want it to be.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
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