My husband and I recently celebrated our eighteenth wedding anniversary. We did it without a lot of pomp and circumstance—we were supposed to go camping as a family, and those plans got changed by rain. No big deal. We went for a walk on the dike instead.
Why wasn't it a big deal to take a simple walk together instead of a big, elaborate plan? I often see posts or hear women express the expectations they have of their spouses, sometimes quite demanding ones. But that's not how we roll, Jason and I.
My sister-in-law is getting married on Saturday, and thinking about that has me pondering what it is that has made my marriage to her brother work so well. Why are we so happy?
I could chalk it up to commitment—we were both "all in" from the very beginning—but you can be in a fully committed marriage for years or for life, and still be completely miserable. To quote Jennifer Aniston's character in Mother's Day, "No one goes into marriage expecting to get divorced. You just can't do that."
I know there are hundreds of books written on this topic. I've read some of them. They helped, especially in those early years when we were figuring out how to be together.
But this post isn't about that. This post is about the top, stand-out things in my marriage that make it healthy, happy, and helped us survive some of life's greatest catastrophes—and gave us a foundation that will keep us going strong for years to come.
It's how I hope my kids approach their future relationships. And I hope it helps you, too.
1. Make No Demands
I wish this went without saying, but I have seen the "expectations trap" in many relationships (not just marriages), in varying degrees along the spectrum from "I need to get my husband to do this for me" to "If you don't do this/tell me this/fulfill this expectation, I'm out the door."
No one can be free to fully participate in a marriage (or friendship) where their participation has a condition that must be met or expectations that must be filled. Beyond the basic vows we made to each other ("forsaking all others" being a big one), my husband and I have learned the art of letting the other person be, and expecting nothing that the other hasn't voluntarily committed to. To let them be themselves, make mistakes, and just say, "I love you. I'm not going anywhere. We'll figure out this mess that [one of us] made together."
We've both made messes. We've both made mistakes. But because we had the freedom to do that, knowing that our marriage wouldn't hit the rocks because of it, those mistakes usually turned into opportunities for us to draw closer to each other and become better people instead of driving a wedge between us.
In a friendship, you have even less claim upon a person—expecting them to "forsake all others" would be foolish and needy and constricting, for example. No matter what relationship you are in, real love doesn't put people in a cage, even a pretty one.
"Are you saying I shouldn't ask for anything?"
Not at all. In fact, most spouses (my husband and myself among them) appreciate it when our partner lets us know how we can bless them. Because we love that person, we want to give them the desires of their heart. But there is a big difference between asking for something that would please you, and expecting that that person will fulfill your request simply because you said something about it. Or, worse, expecting them to fulfill a desire you NEVER asked for. But that would probably be the topic of a different post.
Ask without expectations, and you will never be disappointed.
And, the bonus? Your partner will feel free to love you in a way that might even surprise you.
Making demands is a fear-based way to communicate. We think we won't get what we want unless we take control of the situation. We are afraid to see how our partner reacts to a simple request—what if they ignore it? What if they forget? Does that mean they don't really care about me?
Usually, the answer is no, that's not what it means at all. If they don't do the thing you asked, does it mean that you should throw it in their face?
That leads us to my next point:
2. Give Them the Benefit of the Doubt
This is something I had to learn the hard way. For many years, I was convinced that if I had asked my husband to do something or take care of something and he didn't do it, it was some kind of intentional slight—either he hadn't made remembering a high enough priority, or he remembered and had decided that my request wasn't something he wanted to put in the effort to grant.
Yet, he very rarely, if ever, held me to that standard or brought up my personal failings and errors in the same way. It was from him that I learned this valuable relationship lesson: Give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
There are a lot of nuances to how this works out in an actual relationship situation, but throwing it in their face is never the right answer. Communication has ended the moment someone attacks.
Love listens. Love asks questions, it doesn't make accusations. And love also realizes that one's partner's life doesn't actually revolve around you, though you are probably the most important part of it—they have more than one plate in the air, just as you do. So if they can't or don't do that thing you wanted within the time frame you'd hoped?
If it's urgent, get it done another way (preferably with your partner's knowledge and agreement).
If it's not urgent, let it go. Remember all the things that your partner does because they care about you—those are probably why they were too busy to do what you asked in the first place.
For instance, if the issue was a household chore that my husband hadn't gotten to yet, I learned to do things myself or hire a pro, when the budget permitted. He works pretty hard. Why should I condemn him for not coming home and working for another six hours when I'd much rather he took that time to spend with me and the boys, or even to refresh himself to tackle everything again the next day?
3. Give Without A Balance Scale
This is pretty easy to do in the early stages of a relationship. Your new romance is magical and your partner is perfect and of course you want to do things for them because you want them to be happy and mostly, you want them to be happy with you.
Wait. Isn't that, in itself, asking for something in return?
The answer: Yes.
You know that saying, "If you love something, set it free, if it comes back, it was meant to be, if it doesn't, it was never truly yours?"
This is where that comes in.
When you love someone, you can never keep a ledger. You must give because you love your partner and want to serve them and fulfill their needs—not so that they will fulfill yours in return, but just because you love them. And in a healthy relationship, your partner does the same thing.
"But I give everything for my partner, and he/she never does anything for me."
Okay, this is different. This is not a healthy relationship, and the dysfunction usually exists on both sides. The chronic giver is usually trying to buy approval and love and control their partner with how much they give or use their unreciprocated actions to feel better about themselves in some way, and the taker is selfish and is probably controlling their partner through neglect in some way. And that is the subject of a different post.
That's not how real love works. If you see yourself in either of the roles I just described, you need help setting boundaries. Take a look at this post: Drawing the Line: 5 Loving Reasons to Say No. And go get the book Boundaries (or one of the more specific books in the franchise) post-haste.
4. Stand Up for Each Other
Whether it be with your children, your best friend, or your mother, you are always "Team [Partner]" first. There is a time and a place for asking for help with relationship issues—but there is never a time and place for gossiping about your spouse.
When you need to discuss some of your partner's negative qualities, it should always be in the context of asking for help to find creative solutions to overcome the barrier those qualities present between you, not to gripe. In other words, the purpose needs to be constructive, not destructive.
"The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands, the foolish one tears hers down." (Proverbs 14:1 NIV)
This goes both ways, though I find women do tend to be more guilty of this than men.
In our house, the best thing ever is when someone tells me about something my husband said about me that was bragging me up a little.
Plus, when he wears this shirt:
5. Communication, Not Manipulation
Don't use manipulation tactics as a tool in your relationship. And don't let your children do it.
Manipulation is a form of control, and control is fear-based, and fear has no place in love. The loving thing to do is to present your thoughts, feelings, and desires openly, like an adult who knows that your partner is probably not a mind reader like you and probably isn't quite as perfect as you, either. Oh, wait . . .
Kids are master manipulators, and more so if they see it modelled in their parents.
In our house, the number one crime is lying. The number two crime is trying to get a different answer from one parent than the other, or in any way playing us off each other. Our kids know—if one parent says no, the answer is no. If we disagree with our partner's decision, we address it privately and if it changes, the parent who gave out the decision in the first place talks to the kids about it.
I was over half done this post when my husband showed me this video for fun. Let J.P. Sears and his significant other, Amber, show you how not to communicate in a relationship:
Remember, if you wouldn't want your partner to treat you that way, they probably won't like it, either.
6. Forgive Fully—Let Bygones Be Bygones
I wish I didn't have to explain this, but again, bringing up past issues is another way of controlling your partner. When an issue arises, deal with it.
Some issues will come up more than once, because as humans, we have weaknesses and tend to make the same mistakes over and over. This is where we need to give grace. If our partner is trying to change, is it constructive to bring up the other times they have made this mistake? (The answer might be yes, but it all depends in how you present it. Attitude and intention is everything.)
I am not recommending for you to turn a blind eye to addictions or abuse or any such thing like that. If you are affected negatively by your partner, or in danger because of your partner's actions, you need to set boundaries to protect yourself.
You can't control your partner. You can only control yourself. And trying to control your partner by unforgiveness, manipulation, or any other fear-based tactic is not love, and is a recipe for relationship failure.
If their actions are continually hurting you or affecting you negatively, you need to set a boundary to protect yourself, and that looks like different things in different situations.
Just remember that boundaries are never about control of others. They are only about taking responsibility for yourself.
7. Never Take Them For Granted
Again, early in a relationship, it is easy to feel grateful and amazed at every little thing your partner does . . . but that can be difficult to maintain as time goes on.
Practice gratefulness. Do this with everything, but nowhere more than with your relationship with your spouse.
This is something that needs to consciously happen. Sometimes, it is harder than others. That means focusing on what you love about them instead of what drives you crazy. And remembering what they do for you because they love you instead of what they don't for whatever reason. And remembering that of all the people in the world, they chose to be with you, and you with them.
That doesn't mean that everything about your relationship is a given, so be grateful for the things you love about it.
Jason has been my favourite person to be with since we became friends in 1998. That's twenty years of figuring out how to love each other.
And it just keeps getting better.
I hope that these seven "tips from the trenches" help you, especially if you are in a place where you are trying to figure out how to heal a broken relationship or establish a healthy foundation with a potential life partner.
May you love well, friend.