My wife asked me a question that caught me completely off-guard.
“Knowing what you know now about marriage, what advice would your friends, or anyone you know, about marriage?
For a moment, I wanted to say something cheesy. Then I heard the voice of Admiral Ackbar barking.
But I knew what those thoughts were: childish shouts from my insecurities. So instead of acting like a nincompoop, I asked my wife to give me a few minutes of silence to think.
One answer quickly came into focus (it’s the last one you’ll read below). But I couldn’t stop thinking about this question for a few days. As my wife’s query swirled in my head, I realized there was more percolating under the surface.
Before I continue, my thoughts on relationships are viewed through the lens of being a heterosexual man in a monogamous relationship. But relationships and the dynamic within them fascinates me. So I read a lot about relationships and the varying degrees of how they’re defined.
My hope, is that no matter what kind of relationship you have, you can find something of value in what I’ve discovered through my experience.
Traditional Wedding Advice & Michael Bay
If you’ve ever been married, think of every piece of advice you received at your wedding. If you’re not married, think about the advice you’ve given to friends, or that you’ve heard from others about marriage.
- Never go to bed angry
- Love is all you need
- Happy wife, happy life
- Say sorry even if you don’t mean it
- Time heals all wounds
There’s a lot more you can add to that list. These were the first ones that popped out of my head. And maybe everyone already knows the truth about this advice. Or it could be something no one has ever said. But I’m gonna say it anyway: “traditional” wedding advice is worse than a Michael Bay remake of The Room.
Wanna know what your grandparents, aunts/uncles, cousins, or friends are doing when they give you that advice?
They’re laughing at you behind their backs. Yep, they straight up laughed their asses off as they left your wedding. They know what’s about to happen.
But they don’t want to tell you the truth. Because if they told you the truth, it might ruin your special and way-too-freaking expensive wedding day.
Nah, we’ll let ‘em figure it out on their own. They seem like smart kids.
“Traditional” wedding advice comes off as kind of black and white. But relationships aren’t black and white. For fuck sake, life isn’t black and white. There’s a whole lot of grey.
Aunt Beatty’s advice to never go to bed angry sounds great. But she failed to tell you what to do when her black and white advice is muddled and turns into “The Grey.”
What’s “The Grey” that your sweet Auntie B forgot to tell you about?
She didn’t clue in you in on what you’re supposed to do when you “try” to avoid going to bed angry, but wind up staring at the ceiling and contemplating grabbing the pillow and smacking your spouse in the face as hard as you can.
WHAT THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DO THEN AUNT B!?
Did you ever lay awake thinking about hard you could smash Uncle Frank in the face with your pillow? Why didn’t you cover that in your marriage advice?
“Of course, you’re gonna have rough times. But remember: love is all you need.”
So the key to a healthy relationship is the same as a title to a Beatles song? I guess it’s a good thing we bought that octopuses garden for our first home.
“Love is all you need” sounds great; it’s simple and rolls off the tongue. But no one tells you what to do when you think about how much better life would be if your partner, I don’t know, disappeared into the ether.
OH MY GOD! Did you really just think that? Are you bad person for thinking that? Do you love your partner less now?
Is it okay to love them less one day than another? Is there a recommended daily allowance of love?
Cliches like “time heals all wounds” have some nugget of truth to them. But if you never make your wounds known, over time, they become like a thousand tiny cuts that never heal.
Spouting cliches or platitudes about love makes your guests feel like they’re helping. But everyone knows they’re bullshitting you.
No one tells you the truth.
The truth is: in any long term relationship, you’re going to go to bed angry. It’s gonna happen. You’re going to get into bed and think for a minute, “man, I wish a chasm would open between us tonight and swallow you.”
And that’s okay. It’s normal. “Happily ever after” is a Disney trope that we’ve all been drunk on for half a century.
It’s in your best interest to ignore the typical wedding advice your loved ones give you. Especially that whole “happy wife, happy life” nonsense. Because that, my friend, is straight up codependency.
Codependency Killed the Cat
I’m gonna leave this definition from Wikipedia about codependency here:
In a codependent relationship, the codependent person’s sense of purpose is based on making extreme sacrifices to satisfy their partner’s needs. Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy “clinginess” and needy behavior, where one person does not have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties depend on their loved one for fulfillment.
Codependency’s something my wife and I discuss at length. It’s a common behavior amongst humans. But we’ve only been able to deal with it and recognize it in the last two years. If we had not sought out a counselor to help us improve our communication skills (and recognize this behavior) we’d probably have called it quits awhile ago.
I have a little bit of a “hero complex.” Much of that stems from my parents; my Dad verbally abused my Mom and my sister and I. And for many years all I wanted to do was “save” my Mom from my Dad.
Accepting that it’s not your responsibility to save a parent, nor should your happiness be tied to theirs, is a hard thing to come to terms with as a young adult. Unless you deal with that baggage appropriately, it can carry over into your romantic relationships.
My wife has her own shit she has to deal with. Much of hers goes back to her parent’s relationship as well.
But it’s not my responsibility to “save” my wife from her problems. Her happiness does not equal my happiness.
She’s an autonomous being. If she’s having a bad day, I can recognize that she’s having a bad day. I can be there for her if she asks me — sometimes all she needs is a hug and acknowledgment that everything will be okay. But choosing to let her mood affect my day or my happiness puts me on the fast track to Codependentville.
Depending on others for your fulfillment isn’t healthy. It takes away your autonomy, and is a thief that steals joy from your life. Recognizing those tendencies aren’t easy, either.
Everyone — you, me, your Mom, your Dad, the Pope — has their own biases and blinders that aren’t easy to see past. My wife and I needed help to better recognize these blinders and the behaviors that empower them. Then we needed help building a system that allows us to stop those behaviors before they get out of control.
Having a third party who can help you both reframe and look at things differently isn’t something that should happen “when things are rocky.”
If you’re in a long term relationship, improving your communication skills is vital. You’ll hear people at weddings say “communication is key.” But no one tells how to communicate or how to navigate and get past misunderstandings.
My advice, find a great counselor who can help you learn to be a better listener and communicator.
I guess the wedding advice I would give people would be this:
It will be hard, and it will challenge you. But work on improving and developing your ability to have more courageous communication.
Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
“Your success in life is predicated on the amount of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have.” – Tim Ferriss
Variations of this quote can be attributed to a few others. But Tim Ferriss was the first person I heard say it, and I’m going credit him with it in perpetuity.
What I love about this quote is that it’s 100% applicable to everything in life. And this has hands down been the greatest lesson I’ve learned since my wife and I got married.
Our success as a couple hinges on our ability to have scary, and sometimes, uncomfortable conversations with one another.
And I don’t mean the ones where one person tells the other that they’d appreciate it if you’d clean your explosive poop stains off the back of the toilet. Or that they feel like they’re the only one that ever takes the trash out. Those are still important (and for some people) hard conversations to have.
But I’m talking about the stuff that terrifies you to tell your partner. The stuff that leaves you wondering if your partner will burst into tears and turn into a blubbery mess, or that they’ll explode like Mount Visevius.
Creating a relationship where you can be open and honest with your partner takes extreme courage. Not only do you have to be willing to open up and tell your partner the truth, but you have to open and free of judgment to hear their truth.
Can you express your feelings to your partner confidently and with kindness? Can you also sit and listen to your partner express themselves with kindness and empathy?
Being able to do both takes courage.
Hiding your feelings and burying them deep doesn’t lead to a fruitful relationship. I look at my relationship as a co-creation. My wife and I are both creating the entity that is “our marriage.”
If neither of us is willing to share our thoughts or concerns, no matter how hard it may be, we’re doing a disservice to our co-creative project.
Of course, the hardest part of courageous communication is discovering how to share your truth without personally attacking your partner. And no one tells you on your wedding day how in the world you’re supposed to do that.
Relationships are hard. Love doesn’t work because you want it to work. Love might make you feel like you’ve been showered by a Skittle-farting unicorn, but it takes a helluva a lot of work too. And patience. Good God does it take a heaping load of patience.