I have been married for seven years and a half, which makes me an expert on absolutely nothing about marriage except what makes my own marriage work, and my knowledge about that is sometimes sketchy. I don't know what makes a perfect marriage, or even a very good marriage for everyone, but I take pride in the fact that I've found someone willing to tolerate me through long-distance dating, living together, planning a wedding, becoming a stepfamily, buying a new house, getting pregnant, having a baby, a year of sleep deprivation, juggling a career and parenthood, changing jobs, and the occasional root canal. I like to think I've been as patient with my husband through all of these situations too, minus the pregnancy and root canals, lucky bastard.
Over the years, I've asked for and usually ignored a fair amount of advice from other marrieds. Every once in a while, someone asks me for advice, which I hesitate to give because if the person asking is like me, she won't listen to a thing I have to say. Also, I'm not sure that seven years as a married woman entitles me to be doling out marital instructions. Shouldn't she be asking the person who's been married for 50 years? Still, there's something to be said for making it past the seven-year itch, so I must have learned a few things worth sharing. Here they are.
1. Marriage isn't always equal.
Marriage isn't perfect balance. It's a balancing act. At times you'll shoulder more of the household chores or work longer hours or change more diapers. Then things will change. Sometimes your relationship will be a 50/50 split. Other times it will be 10/90. Be flexible. This is hard because when you have the flu and you still have to get up and get the kid to school and walk the dog because your husband is on a business trip, you're going to be pissed off. I speak from experience. It's going to feel unfair. It is, but marriages aren't fair every minute—they can't be. The goal is to have a marriage that's fair in the long run.
2. Teach your partner how to treat you.
The first few years of marriage are when you learn how to treat each other. You discover who can handle yelling and who needs space before you hash out a problem. It's when you must stand up for yourself in a loving way and learn to ask for what you want and what you expect. If you don't, you'll spend the rest of your life unhappy that your partner can't read your mind and resentful that he or she doesn't communicate the way you'd like.
3. Separate sinks.
I cannot stress this enough. I don't much care about separate bank accounts or having your own stash of money, but there's something important about having space to brush your teeth. For that matter, separate TVs so you can watch Orange Is the New Black while he tunes into True Detective wouldn't hurt either.
4. Get your finances in order
This bit of wisdom comes from my friend T who has dealt with nearly every financial scenario you can imagine. She appreciates the romance of the early years of marriage; she just doesn't want passion to preclude practicality. Get out of debt, including student loans. Rent, don't buy (yet). Start long- and short-term savings accounts that can't be tapped into unless both you and your spouse agree. And budget, budget, budget.
5. You married a person, not a paragon.
Accept the person you married, celebrate the things you love, and as my neighbor K says, "Try not to think about the other things." This does not mean you can't be irritated by your partner's annoying habits or flaws. It does mean that you have to accept your partner for who he or she is, right now, sitting across from you at the dinner table texting instead of talking to you. If this really bothers you, say something, but remember we are all imperfect. Learn to deal.
6. Admit when you're wrong. Don't gloat when you're right.
The first is hard, but necessary. The second is tempting, but pointless.
7. Use your words.
Words are powerful things. Criticism is destructive and hurtful, but loving and honest observations are necessary if you're really going to communicate with your partner. Before you say something critical or challenging, ask yourself why you're saying it, what you hope to accomplish by saying it and how you would feel if it was said to you. If your words are meant to explain, gain understanding, work toward a common goal or meaningful change, heal, or grow, go ahead. Otherwise, zip it.
8. Be a little brave.
Marriage is a leap of faith, a tumbling into the unknown with another person for all the days of your life. Trust that the person you're jumping off the cliff with believes in you, loves you, and wants what's best for you.
9. Wait to have kids.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. If you marry young (or youngish), wait to have kids. Give yourself some time to learn to be a married couple before you add infants to the mix. My friend M encourages people to build the foundation for their marriages without distractions so that when the distractions come, they're ready for them.
10. You're a team. Act like it.
You got into this legally recognized union for a reason, and I hope part of it was to have a partner with whom you can face all of life's challenges. Remember that when things get rough. If you can't or won't work together, what's the point of being married? Don't put each other down, in public or in private. As another friend told me, "You want to always have one person on your side no matter what—and it's awesome and rewarding and sexy when that person is the person you married."
11. There is no perfect marriage.
Everyone's marriage is different because the people in it are different. If you want a "traditional" marriage, go for it. If you want to live in separate houses connected by an underground tunnel and see each other only on weekends, that's fine too. Don't let other people judge or undermine your relationship because they aren't in it. That being said, if something feels wrong to you, it is. Don't accept a marriage that doesn't fulfill you because it looks good to outsiders.
12. It's OK to go to bed angry
I don't care what anyone else says. It's OK to go to bed angry. Sometimes I get tired and I can't stay up until 3 a.m. fighting when I know that things will look better, and feel calmer, in the morning. Not all disagreements can be resolved in an evening or even a day, and there's no sense in being sleep-deprived while you work this stuff out. While not ideal, the occasional night of silent seething will not end in divorce court.
13. Play to your strengths.
You like to cook and do laundry? He likes to take out the trash and pay bills? Fine. Divvy up the household in whatever makes them the most palatable and ignore if that division is "sexist" or "traditional."
14. Don't run.
In the heat of the moment, it's easy to slam doors, leave the room or even the house, or make ultimatums, but that's just a tantrum. Stay in the room and stay engaged with your partner. If you need a break (see No. 12 above), ask for one and table your disagreement for the next day.
15. Marriage is fun.
You just married the one person you can't imagine living without. You get to spend the rest of your life with this person—enjoy it! Stay up late, drink lots of wine, eat decadent meals, travel, go to the movies, tell bad jokes, read the paper in bed, have sex. Life was good before, but it gets infinitely better when you've agreed to stick together for better or for worse. Enjoy the ride.