Two days after Christmas our bank called us to tell us that we were the victim of credit card fraud, that some person had spent almost three thousand dollars on our card. This person wasn’t very intelligent, using it to book a flight and pay bail, making their name very easy to track down. The story ended up ok, but it did mean headaches of hours on the phone with the bank, cutting up cards and awaiting new ones, and generally stressing. In the moment that it happened, I looked up at James and we both had kind of the same expression: Of course. Of course this would happen now, at Christmas, after a year that – if you have been following along – has presented itself as rough in multiple ways. Of course.
When you get married, you don’t think about things like “how will my spouse and I navigate tense moments like finding out someone blew through our credit cards.” You imagine all the happy things, and you imagine hard things too, but of the grand variety. Those things can break you, but they also prompt people to rise to the challenge. What I’m talking about are the little things that eat away at you, slow water over stone.
Honestly, when people said that the first year of marriage was hard, I laughed at them and I still do. The first year of marriage was so easy, so effortless and fun. The second year started out the same, but as we started rounding into that third year, this year, it got hard. I guess marriage didn’t get hard, but life got hard, got uncertain and stressful, got messy and busy, and marriage exists in real life, is made up of real life questions. The last 6 weeks of 2014 were by the far the hardest in our entire relationship. James was home, which was awesome, but we were still waiting to sort out some important job stuff and that stress hung over us, making us tense and on edge. Plus he was HOME, as in, constantly in the 600 square foot space where I work most days.
In those trenches of 2014, I learned a lot about marriage, a lot about the things that are essential that you don’t realize until it is too late and you need them. Humor me for some reflections on “What they should tell you when you are dating.” The alternate title of this post was going to be “You should break up,” but I learned the hard way that if you give a post a spicy title, people will just skip reading it and jump straight to vehemently disagreeing with you in the comments. But I’m serious – many, many people should break up instead of get married. Because I believe in a forever sort of commitment in marriage, I believe in not committing to just anyone. Everyone is always trying to “work things out” while they date, and I am in the background chanting – “Maybe don’t?” The traits that I have come to value as essential to marriage over the past year are the ones that we too often overlook in dating, and thus the ones that end up ending marriages. My mom used to remind me of the three most important characteristics of someone you marry, and I still think she’s right. Some things are non-negotiable. But on top of those things are other things, things that have nothing to do with the other person by themselves, but with the couple you make, the team you become. This year we learned a lot about how to be a team and what it takes to be a good player.
Marry someone who is patient with you. If someone loses their temper with you when you miss a turn while driving, when you forget to go to an appointment, when you don’t take out the trash even though they told you five times – this is a problem. We all have (should have?) patience when we are dating, but whatever patience you have in dating will be cut in half by marriage, and probably again in half by children. Start with a lot. Someone who is prone to anger will be someone who is miserable to walk through life with, because there sure are a lot of reasons to get angry. And before you get lofty ideas – I am NOT a patient person. But I married someone who is, who diffuses my frustration and elicits calmer responses in me, and then calls me on my crap when I fail. We might not be patient in general, but we are patient with each other.
Marry someone who is your advocate. You are supposed to be each others’ biggest advocates, to always want the best for the other person. Sometimes in marriage it seems like no one else, or nothing else, is going for you and you want someone in your corner who cheers you on, pushes you further. Someone who makes you better, but loves you when you fall short of that. Someone who is encouraging. I feel like that should be a given, but I am startled by the number of people I meet who are dating someone who discourages them. Life will discourage you, so pick someone who doesn’t.
Marry someone whose career you can get behind. This proved really true this year when James’ career meant he left me for 6 months. I remember sitting at Applebees in Coldwater, Michigan (because we are classy and love us some fiesta lime chicken!) when we were in college, hearing him talk about career plans. I remember the moment when I realized – wait, he will not be like my professor father who was able to be home at 6 for dinner. He will have a job that is constantly stressful, that is at the whim of voters, that doesn’t respect regular hours. I chose that, which meant when his career made our lives rough, I didn’t resent it (much). The same is true if you love someone who doesn’t want a career or constantly switches or has no clue what they are doing with their life. Figure out if you can get behind that.
Marry someone you like talking to about things other than your relationship. We all know those couples, right? The ones who are always having drama, and we all know it’s because they secretly like drama and don’t actually have much to talk about beyond defining the relationship? Yeah… that get’s old real fast in marriage. The relationship is defined. When we were back to talking on the phone and writing emails, it reminded me that I like James, as a friend, not just as husband. I think he’s interesting and funny. If I didn’t, life would be boring blah punctuated with a little romance. There was a point in James’ work where I may have said that all I knew about his job was that he sent emails all day long. In return, James gave me the gift of three questions I could ask each day that allowed him to share with me the key parts of his day, questions I wouldn’t have known to ask by myself.
So there you have it, my thoughts from my lofty wisdom perch of a whopping 27 months of marital bliss. I am no expert. Even beyond that, there are many different kinds of good marriages, and part of maturity is accepting that relationships don’t all look alike. But there are similarities in what helps couples navigate the frustrating times, and those are what I have tried to list above. I’ve been taking the time lately to take stock of my marriage, to be thankful for the blessing of it and be mindful of the areas where it needs more attention.
(A note: Married people are not an elite special race. The above qualities, invested in relationships with roommates, friends, co-workers, etc., also kind of just make you a nicer person. The only real difference is that if you realize late in the game that your friends are poor teammates, it’s a lot easier to walk away.)