Sara and I are celebrating our ninth wedding anniversary today. It’s amazing to me that we’ve been married for that long: the time just flies by.
What else is amazing to me, is that we are still very deeply in love. I can honestly say that I’m no less captivated by my wife than I was when we were first married. She can’t walk by me without drawing my eyes with her grace and sheer sexiness. I can’t walk by her, without stealing a kiss or a hug or a little cuddle. Or at least an appreciative pat on the bum. 🙂
We’ve got plenty of difficulties at home, but the one difficulty we don’t have is relationship strife. Even being at odds with each other is fairly rare; we virtually never fight.
And the thing is, it’s not even hard. It really isn’t. As far as I can tell, it just takes a very firm dedication to just a very few policies: mutual respect/acceptance, forgiveness, and a real and genuinely honest and open communication with each other.
I should qualify my “not even hard” assertion. If you have and can cultivate these things, it’s not hard. If you don’t have the things I mentioned, obtaining and keeping them can be very hard, and even impossible for some couples. And, they can’t even be sufficient for everyone: no matter how much I may respect you and your beliefs, if they are fundamentally opposed to mine, we probably aren’t compatible enough to be living together, and we almost certainly aren’t compatible enough to be living together. (If you want to teach our children that there are “many roads to heaven”, while I wish to teach them that without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ they’ll wind up in a fiery inferno for all eternity, I daresay we’ll find it hard to maintain a partnership!)
I also believe that for some, the “mutual respect” policy may be mutually exclusive with the “genuine honesty” policy, or with the personalities, interests, and ideologies of the couple, in which case a truly good relationship is practically impossible. A pro-life lobbyist and a doctor who practices abortions will find it awfully tough to respect each other. Another extremely common example would be religious/spiritual divergence. I’ve met secret agnostics/atheists whose spouses don’t know that they no longer consider themselves Christians. It’s impossible to have a meaningful relationship with such skeletons in the closet. And I’ve met others who have informed their spouses, family and circle of friends about their deconversion, and whose relationships with their spouses have become irreconcilably strained: that’s an example of where “mutual respect/acceptance” is incompatible with an honesty about who you’re asking them to accept. I’m very thankful that my marriage with Sara has weathered my own switch from Christian faith to atheism; I’m very aware how unusual it is to survive that as well as we have.
Mutual respect and acceptance means the following to me: I appreciate you for who you are, despite your flaws. I may not understand some of your interests and loves, but I value them because they are special to you. If there’s something I don’t like about you, I’ll let you know (“genuinely honest communication”), but with tact and care, and without nagging you about it. If that aspect of you never changes, I’ll still love you till the end of our days. It means I will never, ever, resort to short, biting remarks (to me, that’s a very sure sign of a damaged/damaging relationship). It means I respect your opinions enough to be willing to reach a compromise with my own. And, of course, vice versa on all of those things (“mutual”, remember?).
Note that just because mutual respect and acceptance is required to make a loving relationship, it does not mean that it’s wrong to deny your partner respect and acceptance: it just means that it’s required to make the relationship work. Some things are not worthy of respect or acceptance; some relationships should not work. Many cases of verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive relationships are held together through the victim’s desire to maintain the relationship, out of the hope/belief that the abuse will stop. In my view, any relationship in which abuse of any kind plays any part must immediately be ended. Do whatever’s necessary to help the abuser stop the pattern, but don’t even entertain the possibility of re-entering a relationship until the pattern has been completely eradicated. And don’t be too optimistic about the chances of such an eradication: it takes radical alteration of personality in many cases; best just to assume it’ll never happen, and move on. Let someone else take the risk the next time.
Forgiveness. In a nutshell, this means, “don’t bring up shit from the past.” It’s not forgiven if, the next time you have a little fight, it’s suddenly back on the table, along with a lot of other little friends from the past. Forgiven means: I’m not bringing it up against you ever again.
This doesn’t mean let’s be stupid. Forgiven is not equivalent to forgotten. If I’ve had fidelity issues in the past that I’m working on, and you’ve forgiven me, that does not mean that you don’t say a peep when I offer to give Maureen a ride back to her studio apartment. Part of forgiveness is taking part in building your partner’s ability to do better in the future. It means not allowing past mistakes to cloud your respect for your partner; it doesn’t mean being unrealistic about the possibility that mistakes will repeat themselves.
Sara and I don’t have any terrifically huge issues we’ve had to forgive each other from and work through, so perhaps time will tell how well we weather such things. However, a lot of relationships without huge mistakes get battered down due to constantly rehashing the same old small things. One of the things I appreciate the most about Sara is that she does not throw up old mistakes at me, and I do my best to give her the same courtesy.
Honest Communication. Remember in Jerry McGuire, how Jerry’s fiancé had that “brutal truth” thing (Jerry: “I think you added the ‘brutal'”)? She used it as an excuse to make awkward and inappropriately-timed revelations about her sexuality (“You know, I don’t think we need to do the thing where we tell each other everything!”), and pound him into the ground when he lost his job for having some principles. That’s not what I mean. 🙂 Honest communication is one of the best things about our marriage; but honesty is worse than useless without tact and respect. If I think you made a bad decision, I don’t believe that it’s right to tell you that you did right, or even to just keep my mouth shut; but that doesn’t mean I get to be an asshole to you. If you’ve got a problem with me, I wouldn’t want you to be a prick to me, either—but I do want to know you’ve got an issue with me.
It’s important to understand that part of genuine, open and honest communication, is communication. It’s easy to have the whole trifecta: respect, forgiveness and honesty, if no one’s ever saying anything to each other! But it’s still impossible to call that a great relationship.
Paridoxically, honest and open communication can very frequently lead to unpleasant conflict. Nobody wants a marriage full of conflicts and quarreling. But I strongly believe that addressing conflict is better than ignoring it, or avoiding it by keeping silent about how I really feel. In earlier years, Sara and I got into a few big, boiling, even screaming (just once) fights, because I made the conscious decision that I wasn’t going to silently allow her to nurture an attitude of bitterness about some people who’d hurt her. I’m ashamed of the screaming. But I don’t regret the argument: I’d rather have a short-term, volatile fight resulting from “open communication”, then to let something persist in our relationship that I can’t “respect”. (This was during a period of adjustment to getting a handle on a severe mood disorder that was afflicting her: she would sometimes get an exaggerated impression of genuine malice or utter lack of regard from people; she has learned to recognize
Part of open communication is being quick to communicate (with care) whenever there’s a grievance. A couple of years ago, Sara had a very, very close relationship with a young girl we knew from our church named Cassidy. Sara and I both felt like she was virtually family, and appreciated her down-to-earth, no-nonsense sensibilities. She was also a very quiet person. We still think about her pretty frequently, though we’ve had no communication with her for a couple years.
One day, Sara took it upon herself to share with Cassidy that she was feeling hurt by the way Cassidy would let her older sisters talk about her, and relay these insulting things back to Sara, but not defend her at home. Cassidy’s response was to write a long letter with a good dozen grievances of her own against Sara and our family. Some of the things in that list were ridiculous, and some were quite possibly legitimate concerns. But any of the things that might have been legitimate were from months past, or else were potentially ongoing issues—in either case, she should have brought them to our attention as soon as it was a problem. Saving them all up to dump on us the moment we have one issue that concerns us isn’t a discussion, it’s a torrent! It’s impossible to have a meaningful conversation about a dozen things at the same time. Several of the illegitimate accusations were very serious, and Cassidy refused to consider the possibility that she had misunderstood. In the end, Sara and I decided it was best to sever ties with Cassidy, as Sara simply could not emotionally survive another ordeal like this one; it would have been impossible to maintain the same level of friendship with her anyway, as she intended to “forgive and forget”, without actually addressing the problems she’d brought up, which were too serious just to bury like that.
Sara and I both have a particular sensitivity for when we’re angry with each other. When we’re pissed off, we are very aware of the rift; it’s like a sliver of glass in the brain. I’m not sure that every fight can be resolved before the sun goes down, but so far we’ve always managed to do so. We don’t have a specific policy on that or anything; we just both can’t stand to go to bed angry, and stay that way. This has the nice effect of ensuring that we communicate until we can return to a position of acceptance and affection for each other.
Sexual honesty. I suspect that a huge number of marriages suffer from an inability to honestly communicate about sexuality. Sara and I are at a point where we speak freely about who we find attractive and why. When watching a movie, or watching people on the sidewalks while driving the car, Sara and I are equally likely to drop a comment about how sexy they might be. That’s not particularly unusual these days, but it is relatively unusual to people who came from churches like ours, I think. A lot of Christians feel like, once they’re married, they’re supposed to suddenly stop experiencing (or, more typically, pretend to stop feeling) any physiological reaction whatsoever to members of the opposite sex, except for the one person they married. It might be a small thing, but it amounts to a small skeleton, a small secret that you never admit or talk to your spouse about, and I think that’s a potential bad seed.
So she’s hormonal, a waiter at the restaurant has a great butt, and her eye happens to follow him a bit while he passes the table. So I turn my head to follow a female pedestrian on the sidewalk as we’re driving by. So friggin’ what? Are we to shoot each other nasty looks, and add another tally against each other, as many couples do? Why pretend that sexual attraction is a choice, or pass judgment on each other for what amounts to aesthetic tastes?
I think where it becomes a problem, is when the “female pedestrian” can draw that kind of attention from me, while my wife can’t. My eyes are captivated by Sara every moment that she passes in front of them; why begrudge a random stranger a half-second of my fleeting attention? If you find yourself in a situation where you’re ogling strangers more than you’re lusting for your spouse, then you might look to what’s going on in other areas of your marriage: I don’t think it’s because he or she’s “unattractive”. It’s pretty damn hard to ogle your spouse more than your neighbor, if much of the time you’re too pissed-off at each other to even look them in the eye. Conversely, surface beauty isn’t such a huge deal when you’re literally married to your best friend. You become much more willing to overlook physical shortcomings. I’ll note that most, if not all, of the instances of marital infidelity that have involved people I’ve known, started life first as simple, innocent friendships, and progressed from there. The opportunity for infidelity usually arose when the marital relationship went through a normal period of difficulty, where the “cheater” then felt less close to the spouse than to the “friend”. Is it little wonder why secretaries make the stereotypical affair partners, when one begins to spend significantly greater numbers of hours with them than with the spouse?
Sara, you are absolutely the source of my greatest joys in life, along with the three beautiful/smart/sassy/spunky kids we’ve had together. I’ve treasured the nine years we’ve had, and look forward to many, many more to follow. Keep being you, and know that you are deeply loved.