Today is my silver anniversary, but marriage isn’t always about silver linings in the cloud. The blog photo is us twenty five years ago (I changed this photo to today just for the sake of variety). My wife and I have been married for a quarter of a century. We’ve been with each other just shy of half of our lives. This really is nothing to brag about compared to some old couples who have been married twice that long, but in our day of quick divorces, twenty five years are supposed to be a long marriage. Here, I would share lessons I’ve learned in my marriage. I’m under no illusion that we’ve gotten this whole marriage thing figured out. I’m fairly sure that we’ve got much more to learn than what we’ve learned so far. Since each marriage is unique, this is only MY lesson. It may not apply to you, but if it helps somebody, I’m glad to share it.
Quality time is also quantity time. Make time to do stuff. I think many couples get caught in the busyness of life so much so that they no longer spend time together. When they do, they celebrate it as spending quality time. Quality time can’t come without quantity time because everything worth cultivating takes time. A lot of couples thrive on spontaneity, but I think planning is underrated. My secret is planned spontaneity. Sure, the movies want us to believe that a great relationship is about ripping off our clothes and making wild love everywhere in our house with no regard for timing or occasion, but life functions the very opposite. Sometimes, we can do things on the fly, but rarely do we do it well when we don’t plan. Even if we want to surprise our other half, we may plan badly and completely flop.
Never say die. Many couples give up too easily. I certainly am not saying that all divorces are unjustified, but many couples could’ve tried harder. Our marriage has experienced numerous trials in two specific areas: finance and relocations. With my ambition to study for my PhD, finance had been hard at times. Helen’s been quite gracious to accommodate those tough times. The worst thing is we move a lot. I don’t think we as a couple have lived in anywhere for more than 5 years. Helen is the detail-oriented person in our partnership. With every move, the details would drive both of us crazy, me being not so careful about important details and her being quite meticulous about every detail. Especially harsh are our moves across the globe to England and Hong Kong. Of all those involved, I think she sacrificed the most. Through it all, I think our commitment to each other and to our faith held us together during those hard years. By God’s grace, I hope I can stop moving now. People ask us often whether we’ve ever thought about giving up. Of course we have. We’re human after all, but the bottom line is our commitment to each other and to God make the mess work out somehow. Marriage is an endurance race. There’s no glamor of quick successes and struggles are ugly, but we soldier on.
Overlook the small things and a few big things. Every couple fights, and with every fight, people experience anger and hurt. Sometimes, trivial things bother us. Sometimes, bigger issues make us angry. I think love is at least half blind. The sooner we accept that both we and our spouses are imperfect human beings or just humans wired differently, the happier we will be. Not everything is worth arguing over. I’m sure there’re days when Helen just wants to lay into me for some missteps, but most likely, she’s decided to overlook them because in the greater scheme of things, these things aren’t the core values of our marriage. In other words, if we have to fight, we have to fight over stuff that’s worth fighting about instead of fighting over every trivial thing. One reason why couples fight over trivial things is because they want to create their other half in their own image, and sometimes, fighting over trivial things is an excuse to take one’s anger out on hidden and more important grudges. The longer I live, the more thankful I am that Helen isn’t exactly like me. The similarity would be freaky. That acceptance should help us to iron out what exactly should be the core value of our family, and we just operate from there. The longer we’re married, the more we figure out what the petty things are. The process can be painful, but it’s well worth it.
Never correct your spouse in front of others. This is a big one. I see this a lot. Whether the issue is clothing, hairstyle or just getting some facts right, remember your other half has his or her personal dignity. No matter how right you feel you are, when you correct your spouse in public, it’s never going to end right for you. I’m talking about respect. Respect your spouse in front of others by withholding your tongue, and he or she will blossom with confidence. If you don’t, watch your other half wilt. The marriage will wilt along with the lost dignity. A professor commented to me in a counseling course during seminary that he could always tell how great a husband was by how beautiful the wife had become by being married a while to him. I hope I’ve made Helen more beautiful. I think his point is simple: dignity gives beauty genetic can’t.
Never speak for your spouse. This is a big one that’s also related to respect. I’ve seen partners representing the other half all the time in public, sometimes even with their partners present. While there’s no intent to disrespect, let’s think about this. Your spouse has her own mind and heart as well as her own mouth. She can decide on when and what to say when a topic needs to be addressed. Sometimes, when we speak for our other half, we deny her the right to speak for herself. In some relationships, this creates unnecessary conflicts. Sometimes, even when the spouse is in agreement, she still deserves the right to her own voice. If respect is one key ingredient for successful relationships, then respect is the main ingredient in this instance.
Always say something edifying, daily if necessary. Probably every failed marriage lacks one element: praise. For some reason, many are quite generous with praising others but stringent in praising their spouses. The only explanation I have is that they’ve gotten so used to living with their spouses that they’ve taken everything for granted. Sometimes, they’ve lived with their spouses so long that they saw only flaws and miss the praiseworthy. Nothing is “fresh”. Freshness is overrated. Freshness can wane, if we let it. However, if we LOOK FOR stuff to praise our spouses, we’ll inevitably find freshness. In other words, we CREATE freshness in marriage. Saying something edifying takes work and takes observation. If we can just stop and observe the good in our other half, our marriage will certainly stay fresh. The most romantic thing my wife can do in our marriage is simply saying “You know what I love about you? …” One thing I must caution couples is to never badmouth your ex’s in praise of your present partners. Comparison is always negative and can inevitably lead to unnecessary conflicts, even if the comparison is a positive one. Get your mind out of your past and focus on the present. There’s enough to focus on in the present as it is. There’s no need to drudge up the past in saying something edifying or otherwise. She doesn’t care to hear about your ex. Neither should you care. Focus on her.
Don’t change your spouse. Change yourself. So many people marry in hope that somehow their spouses over time will be the ideal they’ve been dreaming of. Never mind they themselves aren’t the ideal. The worst is when people talk about their ex’s as if their ex’s were the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Then, how did the “ex” become the ex to begin with? We can’t change our spouses. When I hear people break up badly, they often put the blame square on the other. One question I often want to ask (but don’t often do in fear of offending people) is why in fact they fell for such a terrible person in the first place to either live together or get married. Whatever fault we find before we marry will magnify manifold after. For the singles reading this blog, you should keep your eyes wide open and be realistic when you’re dating because your fantasy will ride away with your rainbow unicorn as soon as reality smacks you right in the nose. Some couples try living together for a few years. Try 25 years! As a Christian, I trust that God is changing my spouse for the better. I’m sure she can say the same thing even more so. Many of us are trying to be a therapist and a parent all at once to our spouses. Some of us even try to play God. If you want your marriage to last, you have to stop doing that. Sure, there may be critical issues that are exceptional dealing with abusive behavior or moral faults, but these are few and far between compared to the mundane and normal.
Support your spouse in front of your children. Almost nothing causes greater anxiety and insecurity among children than inconsistent parenting. Some parents play the good guy to earn the children’s good will. This unhealthy pattern creates manipulative children. More importantly, this parenting pattern hurts the marriage. When one person in the marriage tries to team up with the children for his own purpose, he robs the other person of her dignity. When we parent, we have to do it together as a team. Parenting is tough enough. Without teamwork, it’s nearly impossible to raise healthy and happy children. Obviously, I’m talking about normal household here. There’re exceptions when abuse happens. I’m not a perfect parent, but I don’t abuse my kids. I also appreciate Helen’s gentle private words to remind me of my shortcomings in parenting, but not in front of the children. Her reminder allows me to think and improve my communication with my kids. We don’t need to agree with everything our spouses do in raising our kids, but we also don’t have to make the disagreement disagreeable, unhealthy and worse of all, public.
Make time to do your own things. Helen and I couldn’t be more different. While we share some interests, we’re basically opposites. Early on, the differences can play havoc in our marriage. Over the years, we’ve learned to give each other space. Some days, she meets up with her friends in a book club to discuss the books she reads. Some days, I meet up with my soccer buddies to play ball. This healthy separation makes our time together special when we finally find something we both like to do, whether it’s as mundane as watching a TV program or as exciting as taking an exotic vacation. Every couple can find the balance between their time of separation and times together. Each couple is different, but time of separation is healthy and necessary.
Feel free to add to this list if you decide to share. Someone will benefit.