I used to think “saving your marriage” was only for dire situations. That “marriage saving” was like last-ditch, life-support, right-after-the-marriage-counselor-and-before-the-divorce-attorney kind of work.
And then I grew up.
Saving a marriage is like saving a bicycle tire that isn’t brand new: it probably needs to be pumped up regularly. It may even need a patch. If you know how to save your marriage, you can save it BEFORE it becomes an emergency.
One Panic At a Time
The first marriage lesson I learned was my sophomore year in high school. That was WAY too early to start thinking about marriage advice, but TV star Paul Reiser’s book Couplehood had come out, and somehow I ended up with a copy as a gift. I still remember, all the way back to February of 1995, the advice Reiser gave about being upset in a marriage. He said only one member of a couple can be “up a tree” at any time. Only one of you can be upset, frustrated, or just plain losing it. And if your partner is “up a tree,” as he called it, then you have to stay on the ground and be the rational one.
I was just starting to experience, at the time, how easy it can be to freak out when your partner is upset. Their frustration feeds your frustration in a big ugly loop, and suddenly you’ve both lost your cool and pffffft! There goes the healthy relationship. (It’s as easy as that when you’re 15.) As an adult, my husband and I both have been able to cultivate really calm reactions when the other person is freaking out – it’s almost a little unnatural, but it helps us keep the situation from spiraling out of control. One person up a tree at a time, like Paul Reiser said.
You Don’t Win Without Him
My mentor and dear friend, Lee, is in her 90s. With the life she’s lived, she’s offered me lots of great advice over the years, especially about running my speaking business. But she gave me one warning that really stuck with me: don’t get too big for your britches, or your marriage will suffer.
She told me about how, early in her career, she was so proud of succeeding on her own. In her day, women running businesses were an exception, not a rule. Clients were flying her all over the world, and money was coming in. She told me she was getting treated like a star on the road, and when the applause ended she came home to her husband, she couldn’t shake the expectation that she was still The Star. Her husband felt ignored, unloved, and taken for granted. And she didn’t even notice until he warned her to change or he was going to leave.
“You BOTH have to win, for it to be a good marriage,” she told me. “Every success of yours, you have to thank your partner, because it’s shared. And if you don’t see the role they played in your success, you aren’t looking hard enough.” Every success is shared.
Stop Worshipping At The Altar of Quality Time
I’m on the road a lot, which is where I was when I heard this next bit of good advice. I was talking to some audience members after one of my presentations about being excited to go home and spend time with Jamie, my husband. I said “what I really need is some quality time.” Her response surprised me…
“Quality time is great,” she said. “But we’re all so obsessed with quality time that we don’t’ realize TIME when we have it. Don’t wait so long for quality time that you miss opportunities for ANY time.”
I realized she was right. That nighttime Netflix “Office” binge isn’t time I ever thought of as “quality time.” It’s too short and too late for deep conversation or fun activities. But I can either replace it with something I value more, or turn it into an intentional bonding experience with Jamie (we’re currently going with the latter, and keeping a running list of new inside jokes thanks to the Dunder-Mifflin crew). Thanks to kids, jobs, dishes, and life, you may not get a lot of dedicated quality time, so stop waiting around for the perfect moment and just make meaning out of the moments you DO have.
Your Marriage Isn’t Your Dumping Ground
The final lesson is one my husband, Jamie, and I learned ourselves the hard way. It had been one of those days. One of our rescue dogs had barked and lunged at another dog on the trail. I had warned Jamie earlier that he wasn’t choking up on the leash enough, so when the dog acted up I immediately launched into I-told-you-so mode. That afternoon we’d run ourselves ragged with work and chores, until it was time to feed the dogs AND make dinner AND put away the dishes, at which point Jamie snapped at me that he couldn’t reach the dog bowl because I had opened the dishwasher in the way. I was about to snarkily respond about how easy it was to just SHUT the dishwasher when I realized…
We were taking the stresses of the day and basically making them the other person’s fault. We were tired and busy, and we couldn’t snap at anybody ELSE in our lives, so we turned to the person closest to us and made it THAT person’s problem. Which is a great way to build animosity. The fact that my life is stressful isn’t my husband’s fault. 99% of the time, he makes my life easier, not harder. So it’s not fair to make him my dumping ground for all the blame of the stress I’m carrying around.
Your marriage doesn’t need white knight on a horse saving, it just needs a gentle, nudging reminder saving. What are you doing to pump up your marriage every once in a while?