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Five lessons learned from 18 years of marriage

Ball and chain

Ironic metaphor for marriage

My husband, Rael, and I have just celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary. I’m pretty sentimental about a lot of things, but anniversaries aren’t one of them. Ours are usually simple occasions: maybe a card and a nice dinner out and a few jokes about buying matching walkers.

Somehow, this year felt different.

This year, I felt like we had scaled something…like we had survived something…like we had accomplished something. This year wasn’t just another 365 days gone by and “isn’t that nice,” it was a year to be grateful. A year to be proud.

This was the year my son regained his confidence and his smile. The year we lived the grand experiment of home schooling. The year my daughter grew strong. The year we “cleaned house” in many more ways than one.

So, in honor of our 18th year, I humbly offer five things I’ve learned so far about marriage.

1. A strong marriage is built of tiny actions.

“It’s the little things.” Such a cliche! Such bad sentence construction! And such truth.

Each time you discuss instead of demand, you strengthen your marriage. Same goes for speaking with respect instead of sarcasm, and listening instead of dismissing, and engaging instead of eye-rolling.

Each action is like a brick. You choose whether to use it to build a foundation or a wall.

2. But don’t forget the grand gesture.

Buying flowers or surprising your spouse with a vacation, an iPad, or a day off from dishwashing won’t make your marriage. But it will cause your partner to snap out of the day-to-day routine and take notice. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get the ball rolling in a very pleasant direction.

3. Never underestimate the importance of a good laugh.

Sometimes life as a grownup can be hard, boring, and downright drudgery. Another cliche fits here: “If I didn’t laugh, I’d probably cry.” So laugh. A lot.

What do you both find funny? Comedies? Jon Stewart? Silly t-shirts? Private jokes? Sneezing pandas? Write a “funny” list, then commit yourself to experiencing at least one of these things together every day. You’ll thank me.

4. All good marriages have a supporting cast.

There’s an odd fallacy about marriage (middle-class, American marriage, perhaps) that it should somehow stand on its own. If two people love each other, have shared values, a little chemistry, a decent job, maybe a kid or two…that they should be able to figure it out. That a good marriage can withstand life’s slings and arrows, if not unscathed, then at least intact.

Guess what? Life’s a lot bigger than two people. Sooner or later, a sneaker wave will knock you down, and you’ll need a hand to find your balance again. Perhaps it will be something small, like a messy house or a bad habit. Or something big: job loss, a health crisis. It may be something good: starting a new business, or winning the lottery. Or something bad: a death in the family, or an affair.

Whatever it is, there are people who can help.

Everyone’s supporting cast looks different. Some include a housecleaner or a babysitter. Others include a marriage counselor or a psychiatrist. Some need a financial advisor. Some just need their extended family or their friends. But everyone needs someone.

5. Treat your spouse as you hope your children will treat theirs.

Little eyes are watching. Little ears are listening. And little minds and hearts are learning about partnership and marriage from your example.

I say this not to promote guilt, paranoia or dishonesty. The worst thing we could do is to project a facade of shiny perfection to our kids. They’re smarter than that, and such playacting hurts and confuses them.

But it’s worth remembering that kids really do follow our lead, and we owe it to them to be mindful about what we’re teaching. And we owe it to ourselves to dig deep for the good stuff. We’re worth it.

I’d love to hear your pithy marriage wisdom. What have you learned so far?

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