I cannot believe it. We’ve been married for five years this week!
And before you ask, yes, we got married super young. I mean, when you know, you know. You know?
Our anniversary is officially on Friday, but I figured I’d use this opportunity to dole out some good, old-fashioned unsolicited advice.
Just kidding. For some reason, this is actually one of the things that people ask me to write about the most. How to stay happy (we aren’t always happy). What we do that works (inappropriate jokes and folding laundry together). What we’ve tried that doesn’t work (yelling, picking paint colors together). How we deal with mental illness within the construct of a marriage and a partnership.
For frame of reference, we are both millennials and adhere to the construct of a heterosexual monogamous relationship. We operate as egalitarians; there is no one person who has more control than another. We follow no strict rules about societal or gender norms and don’t rely on any religious construct. This has been the basis of our relationship since the formation of it and we’ve found that it’s what works for us. While reading, keep in mind that everyone is different. What works for us may not work for others.
I say “forgive yourself” to encompass a few things.
To start: heartfelt apologies are super useful because you are going to say some dumb stuff during your time with your partner. Like, supremely dumb. Like, I’m-so-embarassed-to-even-think-about-what-I-said dumb.
Likely, these will be words coming from a place of pain and hurt, so don’t beat yourself up too much and take an introspective assessment of where the pain begins.
If it feels too deep, perhaps consider seeking help from a professional. For me personally, professional help in the form of a therapist has lead me to do some incredible work for both myself and the relationships in my life.
Forgive yourself, too, for the times you find other people attractive. For the times you wonder what your future would be like if you weren’t with your partner. For mourning the life you had before you decided to embark on a journey like this one. It’s all perfectly normal and healthy. We are human beings, after all. It’s all in our nature to be cognizant of our situations and very much in our nature to find more than just one person attractive.
Forgive yourself, too, if you drift apart. If your marriage ends in divorce. If you fall out of love. We are wholly our own person, and you’re no less so after a divorce or a separation or a breakup. You are still your own.
Which brings me to my next bit of advice:
Keep Yourself Close.
I don’t care what love songs on the radio tell you: someone else cannot be the best part of you. Nice in thought but poor in practice. Someone can bring out the best in you, sure, but they cannot physically be the best part of you. That’s a job for you and only you.
Get hobbies that don’t involve your partner. Go to dinner with your girlfriends or get drinks with your coworkers. Engage in a personal activity, like writing or painting or going for a walk, that allows you to have some time alone with your brain.
Jake and I took a pottery class together a few years ago so that we could both learn a new skill. When he didn’t fall in love with it the same way that I did, I enrolled in the following semester by myself and have been taking classes ever since.
Another thing I find effective is to communicate to Jake when I’m feeling emotionally depleted and need solitude. It’s really as simple as that. The more you do things for yourself, the more acutely aware of your personal wants and needs you become. These needs can, in turn, be communicated clearly.
A marriage is truly like a job that you love: you show up with your best self and you work really hard and you see the fruits of your labor. But if you never stop to take a break, you’ll burn out.
Open Yourself Up.
Communication, communication, communication. I cannot stress how important it is to allow yourself to be completely honest with your partner. It might hurt like hell, but the open line of communication that you are working to forge is worth every second of uncomfortable conversation.
I deal with mental illness in my day-to-day life. I have diagnosed clinical depression and anxiety, PTSD stemming from a past partner, and an eating disorder coupled with body dysmorphia. When Jake and I first started dating, I didn’t unload a single bit of this on him. I suffered, for the most part, silently and on my own.
I wish I could say that one day I realized that my internalized struggle was the catalyst for many of mine and Jake’s marital struggles and so I decided to speak truth to power and it changed the trajectory of my life, but that isn’t true. It was slow and it was brutal.
I was embarrassed to tell my now-husband that I was still thinking about the things my ex-boyfriend said and did to me years before. That I had a hard time with sexual and emotional connections because of that trauma. It felt like that boyfriend had power over me after all this time.
I was afraid to tell Jake that I was feeling depressed; I didn’t want him to think that he made me depressed. I was afraid to tell him that my anxiety was spiking because I didn’t want to be a burden on his day. I was afraid to tell him that I wanted to go to therapy.
I didn’t want to tell him that in high school, I hid laxatives in my closet and constantly tried to make myself throw up. That I obsessively counted calories and exercised for hours and that sometimes even now, my intrusive thoughts prevent me from being able to engage in emotional or sexual activity because my brain tells me that if anyone touches my body they’ll immediately recoil. This is not TMI: this is real life. This is what living with your demons is like and it was destroying our marriage.
But, I mean, we lived together. It was very obvious that I was not doing well. Bit by bit, I let him in. First, by telling him about my depression and anxiety. Then about the PTSD from my ex. Then telling him about my eating disorder and body dysmorphia.
With each new truth, a layer was shed. In the end, I gave my story a voice and it was my own and you have no idea how good that felt. My truth gained strength and my story no longer had power over me because I decided that it was time for me to share and I decided how it was going to be told.
Baring all of my scars for Jake to see has been the hardest and bravest thing I’ve ever done for myself and for our relationship. It’s helped me heal in a way that I hadn’t been able to yet. Communicating when I’m in the throes of depression or in the midst of a panic attack allows him to help, because, wow, who would’ve thought: he wants to help! And I desperately need his help when I’m struggling with myself.
Make Yourself Laugh.
There are going to be countless times where your partner will say things to you that, in their mind, seemed harmless enough. And then those words come out, and you’re like, “what the f*ck, [insert partner’s name here]?”
Like when Jake and I first got together and weren’t officially dating (you know, just best friends that hooked up and hung out constantly), and he told me that if he didn’t have a girlfriend by the time his brother’s wedding rolled around in a few months, he’d love to take me as his date. He’s going to kill me for typing this in a public forum, but it makes me laugh so hard in retrospect. He meant absolutely no harm but it totally came out wrong.
Let the petty bullshit go. Chances are, it’ll make for a funny story one day. It’s the dumb stuff like leaving washers and bolts in random places around the house, or getting motor oil on the clean white doors, or folding the towels in a way that you find abhorrent (no matter HOW MANY TIMES you show him) that will either infuriate or delight you. Let the laughs win.
Kill Your Expectations.
My mom always said unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments, and I’m the self-proclaimed queen of unrealistic expectations. Jake and I will have a disagreement about something and we discuss ways in which we can remediate the situation, and I immediately think oh, we had that conversation, so it’ll never happen again.
So far, that has never come true.
I always joke that if you set the bar low, you’ll never be disappointed.
This is in no way saying that you shouldn’t expect anything from your partner. You should expect to be loved, to be respected, and to be cherished. You should expect to have your basic emotional and physical needs taken care of. You should expect open and honest communication. The rest of daily life, though, isn’t fair to build expectations around. We’re human beings and fatally flawed and, sometimes, we just really know how to f*ck some shit up. And we get better next time.
I would absolutely love to hear what advice you’ve collected throughout your life, whether your relationship resembles my own or not. Shoot, it doesn’t even have to be marriage advice! Give me advice for planting vegetables or raising a kid. By learning from each other, we can only get better.