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With This Ring
We don't "fall into" strong relationships. We build them.
When someone asks me about how I met my husband, Philip, I half-joke that I have an arranged marriage. In 1977, our mothers were assigned to be roommates in Bailey Hall at the University of Minnesota. My dad was friends with Philip's mom, and she ended up introducing my parents. My husband grew up abroad, but our families stayed in close contact. The first photo we have of us together was taken when I was five days old.
I love hearing couples' origin stories. The serendipity. The sliding doors. The magic. As romantic as these tales can be, I know this about love—it matters little how it starts. To make it last, what counts is how you show up day after day. No one "falls" into a successful marriage. They make it.
This week, my best friend and better half and I celebrated sixteen years of marriage. Not every moment has been wedded bliss, but each one has been a gift. We were babies the day we walked down the aisle. I had been twenty-two for fifteen days. The prefrontal lobe of my brain wasn't even fully formed (but on this life choice, my decision-making was fully intact).
The person we decide to marry is one of the most impactful choices we will make in a lifetime. Our partners have the power to make or break us—emotionally, physically, and financially. In the lifetime I've lived since walking down the aisle and pledging my life to Philip, I've come to appreciate some things about this crazy little thing called love.
Love is a Choice. Love doesn't happen to us. We choose it. It's a decision, not a transient feeling. It's work. And sometimes, it's bloody hard. Love requires intention. Action. Lasting love is grounded in commitment, not infatuation. You will not always like the person you marry. In those moments, you must choose: will you act out of the love you vowed or the emotion curently firing?
Stop Keeping Score. Marriage is not a series of transactions. Discuss how you want to divide and conquer, building your life together in a way that won't create resentment. Then, stop "keeping score." If you have feelings about perceived inequity, address them directly so you can recalibrate how you're operating.
Go All-In, All The Time. Successful marriage isn’t a 50/50 split. 100/100 is the only relationship math that works. Relationships thrive when people focus on bringing their best and fully back their partner. Selflessness creates a virtuous circle. If you trust that your spouse is all-in, trust strengthens. It's far easier to give and sacrifice when we believe the other person would do the same, without hesitation.
Leave Less Unspoken. When you're having a feeling or reaction, talk about it. The things we leave unspoken don't go away. They're enacted. Often, our attempts to conceal our true feelings fail. Things slip out sideways. Passive strategies to get our point across yield unmet needs and frustration. You deserve better. Your spouse does too. Don't expect the person you married to read your mind. They can't. Have the courage to have hard conversations–it's a sign of respect for you and your partner. Tackling tough topics head-on shows how much you value your relationship.
Don't Let Your Kids Distract You. Having children is amazing. It's also a tremendous stressor on a relationship. If a couple expands their family, they must continue to nurture their relationship apart from their kids. It can be easy for couples to become so focused on their children that their marriage doesn't get the attention it needs (especially in the trenches of early childhood years). Don't become roommates who are parenting the same children. For some couples, kids become a convenient distraction. Parenting becomes an opportunity to avoid problems in their marriage. Left unaddressed, these issues will compound. Eventually, your kids will leave you. When that day comes, you don't want to find yourself living with a stranger. One of the best things parents can provide for their children is a model of a healthy, loving marriage. Taking time for each other isn't taking away from kids – it's giving them a gift.
Fight Fair. When two imperfect people come together, conflict is inevitable. Managing it is hard. Many people don't have great role models for how to navigate it skillfully. People can fall on two equally problematic ends of a continuum when conflict occurs: explode or conceal. "Not fighting" is not a hallmark of a healthy relationship. It's a sign that problems are avoided. Left unaddressed, issues compound. Fighting well is a far better metric of a strong bond. A crucial aspect of managing conflict in marriage is separating a person from their behavior. None of us want to be defined by our worst moments. When someone messes up, it doesn't make them a bad person. In the heat of the moment, don't make sweeping generalizations and character attacks based on single points in time.
Use Your Partner's Love Language, Not Your Own. We tend to give others what we want and need. Unfortunately, what makes one person feel valued won't necessarily translate with someone else. Become a student of your spouse. Do they crave your time, your words, your touch? Some people appreciate gifts. Others wish you would sweep the floor. Identify your partner's love language and learn to speak it fluently.
The "For Worse" Can Make Your Love Far Better. Couples will have to do hard things together. It's not a matter of if, but when. Every love story contains its own unique narrative thread of heartache. The beauty of this inevitability is that every crisis creates an opportunity to deepen intimacy.
Lots of couples have weddings. Far fewer do marriage well. Love isn't an event or expensive party. It’s a responsibility. Healthy relationships require intention. They demand consistency. To make love that lasts, you have to do the work.
Relational success starts by looking in the mirror. The prerequisite to healthy relationships is self-awareness. You need to appreciate what you bring to the dance to clarify what's yours, theirs, and understand what you co-create together.
Love is the most vulnerable act many of us will ever engage in. It exposes us. In marriage, we are loved both because of and despite ourselves. Laid bare, we are known and fully seen. Saying "I Do" is a beautiful, brave thing. It can be the best or worst decision you ever make. Take it seriously. After the ring is on your finger, the game changes. Stop trying to find the "right" person and focus daily on being the "right" person.
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