I'm no marriage counselor, and I haven't been married for fifty years. But I do think that couples have bits of wisdom and should share them. And since I'm obviously just half of this couple, I've asked Josh to add to this post.
*Act on your (good) impulses. By this, I mean that if you feel affectionate, be affectionate. I think couples can fall unconsciously into withholding affection out of insecurity, bitterness, or just laziness. If you want to kiss, hold hands, hug, or say something sweet to your partner, do it. I have to be really conscious about this. Sometimes, I'm exhausted or cranky, and all I can muster is placing my hand deliberately on Josh's arm for a moment. I can tell that it matters.
Life is bloody-well exhausting. As the readers know, we've just finished moving into our new home. During this time Becky and I have spent late nights working on packing and building boxes in total silence. This silence wasn't because we had nothing to say to one another but because we were wholly and miserably devoted to our task. Even so, little moments of a slight touch or a word were huge – these things are helpful reminders.
*Be generous with praise. I often tell my students, "We're all little children. We all need praise and treats, and tiny bits make such a difference." I wouldn't think that Josh saying, "This was a great dinner. Thanks for making it," would matter that much to me, but it absolutely does. I think praise is something else that couples can tend to withhold from each other, consciously or not, for various reasons. I just thanked Josh for sweeping, and I could see his face and body relax. How much effort did that require of me? Basically none. And normally, I would have thought about how I appreciated him sweeping, but I wouldn't have said anything. When couples are stressed or upset with each other, they may only pay attention to lack: "Well, sure, he swept, but he hasn't done this, this, and this." I think voicing gratitude is even more important at these times. Gratitude, even semi-forced, begets gratitude. That's part of the reason I began this blog. Here, I focus on what makes me happy, on my hopes, and on what I appreciate about Josh. As a result, I'm happier, more hopeful, and calmer, and Josh and I are enjoying a happy, peaceful stretch in our relationship despite some stressful circumstances. Blogs aren't magical. Gratitude and praise are.
Performing small tasks and/or chores is one of my main methods of expressing how I feel. This isn't to say that rather than tell Becky that I love her I'll just take out garbage, but actions speak louder than words, right? (Horrible cliché, but I'm tired). Becky and I are both incredibly sensitive people and as such, a lack of thanks can be just as bad as a full-faced insult.
*Try to let go of annoyances. I tend to be critical and a perfectionist; Josh tends to be forgetful and absent-minded. This is a bad combination. I think that early in our marriage, I criticized Josh far too much for silly mistakes (or what I saw as mistakes--sometimes just when I thought he could have done something a better way). I remember one day, we had gone out to lunch with my family. We had leftovers, so I got a box and was looking forward to enjoying the food later. For some reason, Josh and James went home first. I asked Josh to take the leftovers and put them in Mom's fridge. When we got back, I saw the rain-slicked box sitting on my mom's patio table, where Josh must have set it down while he unlocked the door. I was so pissed (this kind of thing was a very common occurrence before Josh started gaining confidence and such as a teacher). But I paused. I realized that I had been a very critical wife, and I wasn't helping him or myself. Some things are important, like safety, money, and making me feel secure. This was not an important thing. I never said a word about the leftovers (though I guess he's reading about it now, years later!). I think about that often and try to let little things pass. I'm not saying I'm good at it, but I do try to be aware.
I didn't know about that but it sounds like something I would have done and probably still might do. I'm not a perfectionist – at all, in any way. I'm far too widely flung, insofar as my mind is concerned, to be able operate that way. I try to keep in mind the fact that Becky and I differ greatly in this way. I'm horrendously relaxed and laid back and that can lead to mishaps such as the one mentioned above. I hope it wasn't Spaghetti or something like that. That would have been tragic.
*Encourage. This is in a similar vein. When I realized that my critiques were not helpful to Josh and really didn't make me feel better, I started trying to put that energy into praise and encouragement. I started telling Josh what I believed he could do and what I saw that he had already accomplished. While I don't take (all the) credit, I know that he has become a different man since then. I'm also less bitter and more at peace, and our relationship is much more joyful.
When someone who has zero self-confidence begins to face criticism, that criticism doesn't tend to help. I think that my entry into teaching helped Becky realize that she could enter into teaching as well, especially given the fact that I am who I am – which would make more sense had the reader known me as a teenager. That being said, and being horribly confusing, I know that Becky needs encouragement just as much as anyone else, even if she is a taskmaster.
*Have clear boundaries. Know what you can live with and what you can't. Be clear about these. What makes you feel insecure in your relationship? Are you okay with your partner having friends of the opposite sex? How do you define friends? What is and isn't appropriate in your eyes? Assuming that your partner has the same boundaries you have is a major problem. Don't wait for a painful or uncomfortable situation to arise. Josh and I naturally have different social boundaries. We've had to talk about this a lot to reach an understanding we both can live with. We never talked about it while we were dating because it didn't come up, and we assumed we were on the same page. It's not about fidelity. It's about making a partner feel safe and precious. And this isn't just about social boundaries. What words can you not bear to hear? What level of voice volume and anger can you tolerate? Make sure your partner knows how to make you feel safe, and make sure you know how to do this for your partner.
These things are tremendously important, oh lord, are they ever. This is one of those instances where my nonchalant flippantness has been damaging.
*Accept help. Josh is always jumping up to serve me in little ways. I really appreciate this. But as I've said, I'm a perfectionist, and he isn't always. So sometimes, I get caught up in trying to do too much by myself, so it will be exactly right. I'll especially have to watch out for this once our Little comes. We were spending our last day loading up miscellanea from the house and cleaning. I was sitting on the floor in the no-longer-air-conditioned, terribly hot house, cleaning the fridge. I'd been on go pretty constantly for four or five days. My feet were swollen, I was overheated, my round ligament pains were increasing, and I just felt...strange. We still had so much to do. Suddenly, my mind said, "This is wrong. I can't do anymore." I called Josh, who was taking a trip to the recycling drop site. I told him what I'd felt. He said, "Go home. I've got this. I'll finish the cleaning and get everything done. Go lie down." Guilt for leaving him to the task of cleaning a huge, hot, muddy-from-so-many-helpers house and worry that everything wouldn't be perfectly spotless bubbled up, but I drove home, showered, and got in bed. I called Josh a few times to remind him of something or give him tips. He was so cheerful every time. The next day, I resisted the urge to "check behind him" at the house. What was the worst that could happen from just letting him take care of it? I sent him to drop off the key. When I said I was surprised he was so cheery (he has a terribly low tolerance for heat), he said, "I was just so glad that you told me what you needed and let me do that for you."
That house was tremendous. Really, imagine something from “Gone With the Wind” and then imagine the entire Confederate Army undergoing marching drills in their bare, muddy feet up and down hardwood floors. Then imagine three cats. Even though I can still smell the bleach spray clinging to my nosehairs, I was happy to do this – Becky had been able to allow me to do something she was all ready engaged in. I'm very keen to help her with things and, when she allows me to assist, I'm flabbergasted and thrilled. There's nothing more dangerous than a pregnant woman in a house with no a/c, inhaling bleach fumes and touching cat vomit.
*Think aloud; share. All sorts of weird, cool, or pointless thoughts pop into my head all the time, and because I like my husband, I tend to feel a pressure in my chest that says, "Say it aloud!" When I don't, I know something is wrong. This morning, I thought, "All my Madame Alexander dolls are blond, and my other dolls are brunette." Brilliant, right? I felt that pressure. What a stupid thing to say, I thought. But I said it. Josh looked up at the dolls and nodded. I felt better because I thought aloud to the person to whom I am closest. This creates an open atmosphere and sense of safety for me. We also show each other or talk about photos we find online, books we're reading, our nightmares, what we notice, and what we want to try. Don't be silent. Share some of your mind chatter.
Part of being in a family is being tolerant of plethoric weirdness. If you can't feel at home in your own home, speaking what's in your own head – then you need to get said head checked. There are serious places in the world and there are safe places where one can be oneself. Avoid the serious places if you can and only visit the safe ones, but failing that, ensure that you and your spouse can openly share your brainness with one another.
*Don't be afraid to like each other. I wrote about this before, briefly. I've observed that liking one's partner (especially if one is married) is uncool. Josh and I are usually very affectionate and happy around each other. This prompts people to smile with good-natured condescension and ask how long we've been married. When we say, "Four plus years," which is really outside the acceptable range of newly-wedded bliss, those people tend to get confused, catty, or downright offended. I don't really understand this. Josh and I have not had a rainbow-unicorn relationship or marriage. We have experienced tragedies and have hurt each other deeply. We have doubted and had periods of just coexisting. But despite that, we genuinely like each other. We have a great deal in common, enjoy being around each other, and want to be sweet to each other. Yes, even many dating couples tend to snap at each other, put each other down, or ignore each other in public. That doesn't mean we should. Don't be afraid to like your partner and let other people see it. You will only set a good example, whether it's for people decades older than you or for children. You can change what marriage and love look like. And some people will appreciate it.
I actually enjoying breaking the thin, filmy and sitcom-infused eggshell of preconceived notions that most Americans carry around with them. I like my wife and I love her, and if that makes people uncomfortable or unspeakably sweaty, then so be it – they can just spend the rest of their lives watching movies on Lifetime and believing every one-liner spat out on Everybody Loves Raymond.
*Establish intimacy. Inside jokes give birth to friendships. I'm sure this happened to you in school. Find ways to build and strengthen bonds, even in the smallest ways, with your partner, even if you've been together for decades. Josh and I have inside jokes, we speak a language born of family baby talk (mine, my brother's, and even my uncle's) and silly words, and we write letters to each other in a composition book (I think we're on our sixth). The think aloud; share idea helps with this too.
Intimacy has been hard for me. I never had a friend before Becky and, though this was not an issue for me prior to Becky, it did lead to a steep learning curve once we began dating. Early on, I had to learn most everything about basic, close human interaction. Becky was, for whatever reason, very patient and an excellent teacher. This really goes back to what I mentioned earlier in the post in regards to being comfortable.
*Stand up for your relationship. Don't let an argument go too far. Don't let a wintery rut become more than that. Reconnect. Be the one to step in front of the door, grasp your partner's hands, say, "Let's hold on to this." We were on a huge Scrubs kick for a while, and something Dr. Cox said has stayed with me (who would have thought such a silly show could be so wise?): "Bottom line is, couples who are truly right for each other wade through the same crap as everybody else, but the big difference is they don't let it take them down. One of those two people will stand up and fight for that relationship every time. If it's right, and they're really lucky, one of them will say something." Be deliberate. If those couples in movies think their 24-hour-old love is worth causing scenes in airports and stadiums, your love is worth quiet declarations and anchoring embraces.
Well, that's all we know. If you blog your bits of wisdom, comment with a link--I'd love to read them.
Lovely final line there, Becky, just lovely. I hate those scenes in movies and what I'd really love to see is a TSA agent tackle the next goofy-haired romantic lead who tries it. Love is bloody-hard work and don't doubt it – but it's also bloody-well worth it. It doesn't take much to write an adequate script for a television show, in fact, all that seems to be required is sincerity (and that's why good television is so rare). The fact that a moment like the one Becky mentioned was able to worm its way into an otherwise wonderfully absurd show - that speaks volumes about the truth of the advice. Love is not not not easy and, though you'd think we wouldn't need reminding of that fact, sometimes we do.
Well, that's all we know. If you blog your bits of wisdom, comment with a link--I'd love to read them.