House & HomeMom's LifeThe KitchenWork and Passions

I have a great marriage.

And I’m not delusional. I have seen good marriages, not-so-great marriages, and so-so marriages. I know mine’s good. I know because once, it was bad…really bad.

In fact, it was so bad at one point that my husband and I actually separated…and divorced. We had two little kids at the time. Though there was a lot of pain, hurt, and anger, we got back together a little over a year later, eventually remarried and everything has been great since. It’s hard to say, in retrospect, if the divorce was really necessary. But I learned a lot from it, and am determined never to let it get anywhere near that point again.

If your spouse is an addict, abuser, adulterer, or just all-around A-hole, you probably need to go see a therapist rather than (or in addition to) reading this post. But I think most of us are basically good people, partnered with basically good people, who misunderstand each other and make mistakes. Having young children adds a lot of stress and highlights those misunderstandings and mistakes.

In our case there were some complicating factors and plenty of blame to go around, but I see so many of the basics of my experience during that dark time mirrored by mothers around me, especially moms of young kids. So I’d like to share my own personal rules for keeping a marriage intact.

You’ll notice I don’t give advice about planning date nights. To me, that bit of wisdom has been thrown around so much it’s become trite. A date night is a great way to connect if everything’s going well, but if there are deeper issues, they can’t be resolved with a dinner out. And while sex is important, I’m too squeamish to publicly discuss my romantic life, so I’ll leave that topic to The Mominatrix.

What I’m talking about here is overhauling the way you look at yourself within a marriage, and the way you interact with your spouse. It’s not always comfortable, and sometimes it means letting go of your pride. But honey, it’s better than the alternative.

I’d rather be happy than right.

I know, I know, it’s a Dr. Phil-ism. But it’s the truth. For years I dug in my heels during arguments, sulked, pouted, and refused to yield because…well, because I was RIGHT, damnit, and why should I have to give in?

But 99% of the time, I am happier letting go. Even – perhaps especially – when I “shouldn’t have to”. Deciding to be the first person to drop an argument, apologize, or give in doesn’t make you a pushover. It just means you’ve made a choice to focus on the things in your relationship that bring you joy rather than frustration.

Forgive, but more importantly, forget.

“Forgiving” a transgression doesn’t really count if you continue to bring it up to use as ammo, or as an example of why “you always do X” or “he can’t be trusted to do y”. Even if you never vocalize the memory, if it’s still there taking up residence in the forefront of your mind, it’s going to poison every interaction you have with your spouse or partner.

Believe me when I say there are arguments my husband and I had in the midst of our roughest hours that I have completely set aside. They’re still in my memory, of course. But I look at them almost as though they happened to other people.

I’m not suggesting you be stupid about it if there are deep dark issues at hand (like, say, choosing to forget that your husband stole last year’s tax return to bet on the races). But run-of-the-mill hurtful conversations, mistakes, arguments? Forget. Forget. Forget. Once they’re over, they don’t do you any good to hold on to.

Only you can make yourself happy.

When my marriage and children were both young, I spent a lot of time waiting for my husband to figure out what it was I needed to make me happy and then give it to me.

Guess what didn’t happen?

My marriage saw a lot of sighing in those days. A lot of eye-rolling. A lot of violent fantasies.

“The kitchen sure needs a good cleaning,” I’d say, watching the hint clatter around on the floor and waiting for my husband to pick it up. Instead, he’d just step right over it. “Yeah, it does, huh?” he’d say as he settled down in front of the TV.

Eye roll. Heavy sigh.

“I’m so tired,” I’d complain, thinking he’d get the hint that I was up all night with the baby and maybe offer to take over so I could go to bed early.

“Me, too,” he’d say, yawning for effect. And I would picture myself wringing his neck.

“I never go anywhere or do anything,” I’d complain.

That was true. Yet I rarely made plans to do anything specific. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted Jon to create a life for me, or make a grand gesture that said “I accept you having a life outside this home! You are free! Run!”

That also never happened, and I continued not doing anything or going anywhere for quite some time, rolling my eyes and sighing and wanting to wring his neck for much of it.

All these years later, I can see why my approach (or lack thereof) didn’t work, but at the time I simply felt like a victim. I thought he didn’t understand me, that he didn’t want to put me first or make me happy. The reality was, he didn’t know what I wanted because I never told him. And that’s because I, myself, didn’t know.

That was one of the good things about being divorced, actually. It forced me to stand up and be accountable for my own happiness. It forced me to figure out what I wanted, and figure out a way to make it happen for myself. But it was a high price to pay….and truth be told, I could have done it from within my marriage, if I’d just known where to start.

Now, I ask for what I want. If I need a nap, I hand him the baby and take a nap. If I want him to do a specific task, I very clearly state what I want. And if he doesn’t do it fast enough for my liking, I either do it myself (and shut up about it) or avoid the kitchen while I wait. Does he keep the house to the same standard that I would? No. But who ever said my standard is the one everyone else has to live up to?

I don’t allow myself to feel guilt (okay, not much guilt) for leaving my husband in charge while I head out for a night at the movies or dinner with the girls. And he’s one of the most competent dads I know. He gladly takes all five kids out to restaurants or the grocery store alone, he holds down the fort while I take weekend trips. He’s wandered the streets of NYC and Chicago with an infant and toddler while I attended writer’s conferences. Could I really expect all that of him if I’d never given him the opportunity to figure out how to do it himself?

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of times I feel like I’m pulling too much weight, or that my needs aren’t being heard. But now, we can have a reasonable, adult conversation about it. It’s not as emotional as it once was. It doesn’t feel like a personal insult if he never gets around to unloading the dishwasher. I won’t pretend it never annoys me, but I haven’t wanted to strangle him in a long, long time.

Don’t Go There.

To this day, when I watch movies or TV shows in which a character is considering getting a divorce, I have an intense emotional response. Stop, I want to say. You think it’ll be better, but you’re wrong. It’ll just be a different kind of awful.

No matter what, once you’ve had a child with somebody, they’re in your life—for better or worse—for years to come. Only divorces have a way of making psycho adversaries out of formerly reasonable people, and unless you and your husband are both very unusual people, it will get ugly. Plus, you’ll still be, well, you. You’ll still bring all your issues into future relationships. When possible, you may as well work on your issues from within your marriage…because you’ll have to face them at some point no matter what.

Of course, there are circumstances in which divorce is a reasonable choice. But too often, I think we allow ourselves to start thinking about divorce as a way “out” of a situation that’s become stressful or uncomfortable, but that will eventually change. The shuffling around of priorities, dreams, funds, and roles that inevitably goes along with learning to parent together can create a lot of friction in a marriage. But that doesn’t mean the friction will last forever. Divorce, however, usually does. So just don’t go there. Once you allow a thought like that to take root, it’s only too easy to start nurturing and feeding it rather than focusing your energy on the better outcome—an intact relationship.

I apologize for the length of this post. It’s a topic I feel very passionate about. As in life, as in motherhood, we are not victims of our relationships. We have choices to make every day about the way we interact with our spouses, the way we choose to either build up or undermine our own relationships. And having been on the other side of the fence, I know the grass is rarely greener. It’s so much better, for everyone, if you can find a way to tend the grass you’ve got.

What are your rules for happier marriage?

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