Last week my sister Sarah got married. I thought long and hard about the appropriate wedding gift and decided that I should give the newlyweds some unsolicited advice. Here it goes.
No, it’s not a compromise
Someone once told me that marriage is a compromise. I disagree very strongly with this notion and yet it is somehow almost conventional wisdom, so I must explain. To see why, suppose that instead of a lover you have a very close friend. It helps to think about a specific person in your life. This person is so close to you that you can share your innermost secrets without embarrassment or fear of being judged. You can ask and respect their opinion on subjects that are important to you. And so on. Now imagine that you view your relationship with this person through the lens of compromise. I bet you will not be friends for very long. There is no quid pro quo in friendship, and there should not be one in marriage. Do things for each other because you want to, not because you have to.
Some of my biggest disappointments in life came from expectations. In my field of work, statistics, we love expectations. We can not work without them. But in relationships, I found, it helps not to have any. Think about it. You come home from work and you spouse was home all day, but the dinner is not ready. Do you get immediately mad? Why? Because you expected dinner. Too bad for you! You should instead ask if maybe you partner wants to go out to eat or cook something together, or heavens forbid, skip a meal. But what if the dinner had been made? Be surprised and be thankful. Personally, given the choice, I would rather be pleasantly surprised than severely disappointed. Wouldn’t you?
Relationship changes, people not so much, but there are exceptions of course
There are some people who are capable of change. For example, I know people who used to vote for Republicans and now they vote for Democrats. But these cases are quite rare. (It had been shown for example that one’s political opinions are formed in the 20s and tend to stay constant over your lifetime.) So what does that have to do with marriage? Everything! If you think that your partner will change for you, you are crazy! Most likely they will be the same person they are today. Love that person, not the person you think he or she will become.
Two marriage stressors: kids and money
Tolstoy said that: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There had been a lot of studies trying to figure out what breaks marriages apart. Two things stand out: kids and finances, but wait, I am not trying to convince you not to have kids or chase after money all your life. Instead recognize that having kids will put a lot of stress on your relationship and if you choose to have kids, you should be ready for it. I know I was not, and my (first) marriage suffered as a result. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert in his book “Stumbling on Happiness” showed the following chart of marital happiness. All four studies point to the fact that once families start having children their marital satisfaction decreases (*). So what to do? Get a lot of help! We got some help when my kids were young, but it was not nearly enough. When kids are young both of you will be stressed and tired. It’s not a very romantic time. If you can afford a live-in or more or a less full-time help, do it! Make sure to schedule regular date nights, when the two of you can go out without the kids. Go on weekend getaways. In short, do what you can to protect your relationship from stress. Which brings me to the second stressor, finances, or lack thereof. Here, I am not much of an expert but having a budget and a financial plan will likely help. Today there are lots of services that are not too expensive and will help you with that.
[(*) Statistically speaking, the figure is missing a control group: people who were married but never had any kids. If that group shows similar pattern as above, we are likely observing some kind of a generic marriage fatigue, but if it is more or less constant (straight line), then perhaps the change in satisfaction is due to kids.]
Don’t go to bed angry
Jacki told me about this one and I like it so much I thought I would throw it in. Don’t go to bed angry means that you should try to resolve your disagreements before going to sleep. Don’t hold it in, talk about, understand each other’s point of view, and only then go to sleep. As a side effect, you will probably sleep better.
You are married, but you are still individuals
Back in the old days, people assumed their partner’s identity. Women were especially prone to this because they were relying on men financially and often emotionally. We don’t have to go too far back into the past to find examples. My maternal grandmother lived her life in the service of her husband. She relied on him for everything. He made all the important decisions and she did not question any of it, at least to my knowledge. It was not a very happy marriage, but they survived as a couple. When my grandfather died of cancer, my grandmother fell apart. She could not stop talking about him, she was lost in every possible way. Thankfully, her daughter was there to pick up the mantle. I have no idea what would have happened to my grandma if my mother was not there for her during that time. Nothing good I suppose. What is the point of this story? Don’t lose yourself in one another. Even though you are married you are still thinking, feeling, contributing individuals. You are stronger together, but you don’t collapse when you are apart.
Time together, time apart
Sometimes being apart is great. You can get lost in your own thoughts, reevaluate your decisions, reflect on all the good and bad things that happened. This summer Jacki rented a small apartment by the beach and spent almost an entire week there by herself. I was very supportive of this and happy that she was able to do it. I missed her a lot and she told me she missed me too. Towards the end of the week, I took the kids and joined her. We had a great time together, but we did not collapse when we were apart.
Last words, I promise…
In closing, let me say that I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. Some, I can not correct, but I can learn from them and I can change, for the better I hope. I also hope that you can learn from my mistakes, if only a little. I wish both of you love everlasting, respect for one another, and a strong enduring friendship.