10 Lessons I’ve Learned (the hard way) in 10 Years of Marriage

10 years.

Rich and I have been married 10 years!

I know it’s hard to believe Meryl.

That’s the same amount of time it took Einstein to come up with E=mc2. That’s how long it took Julia Child to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That’s how long it took to create the Brooklyn Bridge. And that’s how long psychology professor John Hayes says it takes to become an expert at something.

How fantastic.

On this momentous occasion (and since I am now a marriage expert!), I thought I would take it upon myself  to bestow upon you 10 years worth of my hard-earned marital wisdom. Or rather, I will share with you 10 mistakes I’ve made that turned into important lessons. Marriage is a laboratory after all, and I’ve had some doozies of failed experiments.
If you are recently married or about to be married, this is your lucky day! Sit yourself down, I’m going to give you a little cheat sheet here so you can have a smooth ride into marital bliss.
With this handy list, you can just start right off loving your spouse unconditionally without screwing things up first!
Lucky lucky you!

Marriage Lessons:

10 Marriage Lessons Learned in 10 Years of Marriage.

1. Acceptance is where the magic happens.

This is lesson numero uno for a reason. In my opinion, learning to accept your spouse whole-heartedly exactly where they are (instead of where you wish they were) is the most important and impactful marriage lesson. It’s also the one that has taken me the longest to learn.

You see instead of understanding that my job is to love my spouse, I mistakenly thought it was my job to improve my spouse. I made this mistake for years. I took the responsibility of Rich’s physical health, emotional health, and spiritual health upon myself. I picked these (plus a few more) millstones up  one by one and lugged them around for YEARS.

My mindset was- if I wasn’t helping Rich to be the best he could be, who would? (spoiler alert- the answer is Rich, who by the way is definitely not and never has been in need of my unsolicited personal-improvement-services).

I didn’t understand that the way to help him be the best he can be is simply to love him exactly as he is instead of reminding, manipulating, and encouraging him to do things I thought would make him happier and better. (If you are seeing co-dependence written all over this, you’re not wrong. Co-dependence= my well-being is dependent on your well-being).

I really thought it was my job to point out his faults to him. Guess how that turned out for us?

Let’s just say there is a reason that studies have shown men’s #1 complaint in marriage is nagging.

via Kevin Spear

I mean who doesn’t love having their imperfections pointed out to them??

I didn’t realize that these weights I was carrying that I thought were necessary to be a “good spouse” were the very things dragging me down. Keeping me from loving my spouse unconditionally.

I attribute this blog and all the interviews I’ve conducted and marriage books I’ve read to finally realizing that the answer to improving my marriage wasn’t to dig in harder in trying to “improve” my spouse. The answer was to LET GO.

There is a test given to navy seals before they can become navy seals where they have their hands and feet tied up, are thrown into the water and have to survive for five minutes. Many never pass this extremely difficult test. Many try as hard as they can to kick and squirm in order to keep their head above water. Ironically, these very attempts to survive are what cause them to fail. The harder they try to stay afloat, the less likely they are to do so.

It is not in kicking and swimming that they succeed, it is by letting go. By not moving, they sink. Once they sink, they can kick off from the bottom of the pool and get that life sustaining breathe before sinking again and starting the process over.

This has sort of been my experience in marriage. The harder I try to change my spouse, the more miserable we both are. The more I let go and just accept him exactly as is, the more I am able to love him and the closer we become.

Marriage Lessons
It’s actually quite easy to love him 🙂

2. The good news and the bad news: I determine my experience in my relationship, not Rich.

The quickest way to be unhappy in life is to hang your happiness on something you don’t have control over.

The quickest way to be unhappy in your marriage is to hang your happiness on your spouse’s behavior.

I mention some form of this lesson in every. single. post I write. I do this because it is SO crucial to understand and yet SO easy to forget.

And even though I’ve written some version of this lesson every. single. week. for the past four years, I also tend to forget this lesson every single week.

It has taken me many, many years to figure this out, but I have discovered that when I feel the MOST sure that something in Rich needs to change, these are the times when I in fact am most in need of changing.

Such a bummer, that.

The more we take ownership of controlling the things we can control (our attitude and behavior) and letting go of what we can’t (our spouse’s attitude and behavior), the happier we will be in our marriage.

This has absolutely been my experience.  (I write about all about this in what I call the very first step to your happy marriage).

Its good news and bad news. I mean I am in control of my own happiness in marriage?! Great! But also, oh, I am responsible for my own happiness in marriage?

Thankfully, I married someone who makes it pretty darn easy for me to choose happiness 🙂

Marriage Lessons
It is, isn’t it?

3. It’s not about what I say, it’s about what I feel.

My number two marriage tip after focusing on what you can control is to hold weekly marriage check ins. Rich and I call ours companionship inventory and we’ve been doing it for over 10 years (we started when we were dating).

These Sunday night chats have been a HUGE mechanism for personal growth for me. Maybe more than anything else I’ve done.

One of the biggest lesson these inventories have provided me is that my words are not nearly as important as my thoughts and feelings.

Oh man, did this one take me a long time to learn.

I can remember SO many inventories when I would think and re-think of how to say something, falsely believing that if I could just find the right words, then Rich would understand my side perfectly and act exactly as I wanted him to (this, I believe is a common misunderstanding- when people say the main problem in their marriage is “communication”  what they really mean is – I can’t find the words to get my spouse to understand me or do what I want them to).

The problem was not our communication or words. The problem was that my heart was in the wrong place.

I was asking the wrong question.

I was focused on, “What can I say to get Rich to see my side?” When the more important question was, “What is the state of my heart? Is there love in my heart?

I have found if I start with love in my heart, I can communicate what I need to a million times better than when I am focused on getting Rich to see my side of an issue. (I write all about this in a post called forgive before you fix– one of my most helpful marriage hacks).

A loving heart is the most valuable commodity I have to offer in my marriage.

I wrote about this in a Facebook post recently:

4. Oh and have fun!

The first and only time I’ve been skiing, my friend who went with me frantically listed off a bunch of instructions on the lift up. “Just keep the top of your skis together.” “Bend your knees.” “Just go from side to side if you want to go slow.” “Lean into the curves.”

“Oh and have fun!”

Have fun?!? I have a million things to remember to keep from falling of this mountain and you want me to focus on having fun?

I wonder if marriage advice isn’t the same way. “Focus on making your spouse happy, but make yourself happy first!” “Be completely giving and selfless, but you also need to set boundaries!” “Your spouse isn’t a mind reader, you need to tell them exactly what you need, but don’t be demanding!” “Oh and have fun!! Savor every moment!”

Riiiiiight.

But seriously have fun in your marriage 🙂

Sometimes when we’re in a rut, I often think the answer will lie in airing out all our grievances in big, deep serious conversations where we get to the heart of our disconnect.

And sometimes that’s true. But often, things get solved all on their own when we just have fun together. When we plan activities regularly where we laugh and have fun (even if its just from our couch), this tends to nip problems in the bud and smooth over existing disconnect.

Fun is healing and helpful and . . . fun!

Here are some things Rich and I like to schedule regularly:

1. Getting together with other couples. THIS. This helps us have fun faster than any other activity. When we’re with other couples, there is just a new side of us that gets brought out. We’re playful, we’re laughing. Sometimes if I haven’t spent much quality time with Rich for a while, I will think we need to be alone, but often we bond just as much or more if we get together with friends. Game nights are our love language.

Marriage Lessons
Guess who won this particular game night? (thus earning the coveted winner’s hat)
So many good times on this couch. Ah, Calvin Court where the livin and monitor swappin was easy.

2. Playing as a family. We started doing these quarterly bucket lists where every member of the family gets to choose two activities that we HAVE to do that season. And it has been so fun. Everyone is so creative and the list helps us get things on the calendar that we just wouldn’t do otherwise. We’ve filled our whole tub with Orbeez gel balls, we’ve recreated a Good Mythical Morning episode together, we’ve seen how many apples we can balance on our heads. We have fun 🙂

Marriage Lessons
family talent show.
Marriage Lessons
Anybody know who’s hiring apple-head-balancers? Clearly I’ve missed my calling.

3. Watching hilarious things while eating junk food. Occasionally, Rich and I will kick back, watch some funny sitcoms or YouTube videos while eating sugary cereal. We call these nights week nights. 😉 I’ve been a bit harsh on TV watching as a couple (as opposed to spending quality time together sans screens ) on the blog in the past, but seriously, laughing together with Rich at the end of the day with my cereal is MY FAVORITE PART OF MY DAY. Everyday. Forever.

4. See lesson #6 of this post 😉  (more on how to make that fun here)

5. Creative projects. Rich and I are at our best when we’re working on something completely meaningless (no deadlines, nothing important) yet creative together. Be it lip syncs, Halloween costumes, gingerbread houses, or video invites to our parties, we love to create epic-ly awesome projects.

Rich’s sense of humor and his eagerness to go all in in our creative endeavors is one of my very favorite parts about him. We’re hoping our new podcast, Marriage Theraoke (where we give therapy to popular love songs and then re-write them to be more emotionally healthy- debuting Sept 1!) will fall into this category for us.

Marriage Lessons
Donny and Marie Osmond lip sync- a running Christmas party gag in our last church congregation.

A video invite to a Christmas party we threw 🙂

Marriage Lessons
Late night Halloween costume creation with Rich is my fave.

5. Every effort to improve life in the bedroom is worth it (and fun!)

Who knew right?

I talk about coming around to this whole “having a good sex life” thing here and here.

Basically, through a series of experiments where we worked hard to improve both the quality and the quantity of our sex life (and by gaining new information via books and e-courses), I found that by improving this particular area of my life, positive ripple effects spilled into literally every other area of my life.

Everything about my life is better when I focus on improving our sex life.

I still find this revelation shocking.

And fun!

(I know, who knew right?)

family council meeting

6. It can be surprisingly easy to become unhappy in marriage (alternate title: you find what you seek).

Even though I run a marriage blog, even though I think about how to have a good marriage all the time, and even though I’m married to freakin’ Rich Davis (aka the easiest person in the world to be married to), I am shocked at how easily I can slip into being unhappy (which, as we established in lesson #2, is on me, not him).

It all starts with a thought. Just a little thought. An innocent little thought (noticing something that I wish was just a little bit different) that can slip in and if, instead of letting it go, if I hold onto it, before I know it BAM! Misery.

Rose-colored glasses can be replaced by what John Gottman calls negative-sentiment override simply by holding onto those negative thoughts that creep in.

Our thoughts create our feelings, which create our actions, which create our results (thanks Jody Moore!).

Thoughts –> Feelings –> Actions –> Results

Ergo, if you want to change your results, focus on changing your thoughts. Watch what story you are telling yourself and question it.

Truly, you find what you seek. (here’s my best tip on focusing on the good rather than the bad).

14 Days of love letters
I mean, there is just so much good to find in this guy.

7. Empathy and active listening don’t just happen, they are skills to be forged.

Because you’re my friends, I’ll be honest with you . . . I like to think of myself as a good person, as someone who is basically compassionate and sympathetic to my fellow humans.

I had this idea going into marriage that I was going to be GREAT at it. Better than most due to aforementioned good-personness, which I possessed in spades.

Get it? Humble pie? . . . . Did ya get it? via dribble

Marriage is the best teacher, and it has humbled me. As Dr. Shefali Tsabary says, “Every relationship is a mirror into how we have yet to grow.”

The mirror of my marriage has taught me (among many other things) that even though I thought I was a good listener, I really wasn’t.

When Rich would be talking (particularly if the topic was something I was emotionally charged about), I would spend that time in my own head figuring out what I was going to say next or how I could get him to see my side of an issue.

A few years ago, I had an experience where I actually really, really wanted to understand Rich. To understand where he was coming from, what he was thinking, what made him sad and glad and what was going on in his head.

I’m so grateful for this desire because it was my first step into learning how to actively listen and empathize (and it only took me eight years to get there).

As I tried to practice, I realized how far I had to go.

My default is still to not actively listen, but with practice I can feel I’m getting better. When Rich opens up to me now, I really try to listen to what he is saying and put myself in his head instead of my own.

It’s SUCH a powerful tool. I highly recommend forging this skill.

Marriage Lessons

8. Fill your own love tank and it will spill over.

If you’ve been following along for some time, you’ll know that I think at the very heart and root of most marriage problems isn’t a connection problem with your partner, it is typically an integrity problem in one or both partners- a weak sense of self, an inability to self-confront, or a need for validation from others.

This is why this is the YEAR OF THE SELF on Marriage Laboratory where all of our love experiments will be focused on developing a stronger sense of self.

Anyway, I’ve found again and again that if I focus on filling my own love tank- be it through healthy self care, time to myself to read or write, meditation, listening to uplifting podcasts, going for a run, praying, or scripture reading- that my good energy fills me up and then will spill over onto everyone I encounter, specifically my husband and children.

Often I want someone else to fill my love tank for me (namely my spouse) because that is so much easier and less work for me, but when I focus on filling my love tank and by extension others’ love tanks, the love comes right back to me. Every time.

It’s the best kind of cycle.

What is your spouse's best quality?

9. Love really is a choice (a very mature choice).

Marriage expert Dr. Terry Real talks about the three stages of love:

Stage one is LOVE WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE. This is the butterflies, head-over-heels beginning stages of the relationship that songwriters love to write about. Typically, in this stage we aren’t fully educated on our partner’s imperfections (hence love without knowledge).

Stage two is KNOWLEDGE WITHOUT LOVE. Inevitably a few years into the relationship, we start to become intimately familiar with our partner’s faults. We start to see that they can’t meet all of our desires. The love part of our relationship becomes overcast with wishing things were just a little (or a lot) different.

Both stages one and two are IMMATURE LOVE. Love based on “what am I getting out of this?” It is reactive love. It is focused on love happening TO you.

Stage 3 is LOVE WITH KNOWLEDGE or a KNOWING LOVE. This is I love you because I choose to. I see all of your faults and imperfections and I see that you can’t meet all of my needs (that’s my job) and I love you regardless. It is a PRO-ACTIVE love (instead of a reactive love).

I’ve certainly traveled through stages one and two, and I can feel I am getting closer and closer to stage three (I talk more about stages of value maturation here).

When I feel myself slipping into immature love thoughts, I try to remind myself I am married not to have someone love me, but to have someone to love. When I love another person, I feel love.

Having someone to love is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Marriage Lessons

10. Marriage is a laboratory.

Hey! That’s the name of this blog!

Perhaps my very favorite marriage researcher is Dr. David Schnarch. He says that marriage is the best people growing machine there is.

If you are feeling unheard, lonely or frustrated in your marriage. Usually, this is not a sign that anything is wrong with your marriage. It just means that someone else is pushing you up against your comfort zone or your values or boundaries.

Sometimes this means we need to set stronger boundaries, sometimes it means we need to figure out how to be ok even if we don’t get our way, sometimes it means we need to forge more integrity in order to sit with the anxiety that comes with growth.

But it does mean growth.

awesome spouse love letter

It is easy not to confront our weaknesses when we live alone. But when we are in a close relationship to someone else, our imperfections and weaknesses will inevitably bump against those of our partner’s.

This doesn’t mean anything is wrong. Or that we made the wrong choice in partner.

It means we need to experiment a little to find out how to grow, how to be ok when we don’t get our way, how to set boundaries, how to forge more integrity.

And if our current experiment is failing?

No matter, let’s switch it up and try another approach. Now we know what DOESN’T work, let’s find a new mindset or attitude or therapist or ritual that WILL work.

My marriage has been my laboratory of growth. I’ve figured out who I am, who I’m not, what I like, and what I don’t. I’ve grown. I’ve loved.

I’ve got a long way to go to be sure, but I’m infinitely grateful for the experiments I’ve lived through with Rich- both the failures and the successes.

I mean, is there anything better than becoming a better person? No! (that’s why where here).

And I love that I get to experiment with my very favorite lab mate in the whole world- this guy.

Note Six of 14 Romantic Love Notes. Click through for free printable
The most patient, funny, caring, smart, compassionate and fun lab mate around.

Thanks for 10 years of experiment failures and successes, of too-late nights, early morning runs, sippy cups, hiking adventures, cheap vacations, tooth fairy letters, stinky sheets, messy storage rooms, loving texts, inside joke side eyes, stolen halloween candy, embarrassing tennis matches, lost keys, temple trips, hot tamales, burned dinners, sushi dates, game nights, GMM, kid-wrestling, Valentine fancy dinners, salsa dancing, huevos rancheros, scenic bike rides, GBBO, sleep training, monitor-swapping, snow shoveling, elevator kisses, and LOTR marathons.

I would never want to spend these 10 years with anyone else. You are absolutely irreplaceable. Thank you for making me the best version of me. Love you Rich.

 

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