Starry-eyed and lovestruck, it almost seems wrong that 15 years later, I'm writing a post on "surviving marriage." We were some of the millions who got married in 2005 pledging to love for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. Yet just like every couple who is married for longer than a few days, we learned that amid the highs of marriage, lows also come.
But, we believe marriage is worth fighting for. Here's some of our best advice.
Communicate about everything.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but strong marriages communicate about everything—and we mean everything. This doesn't mean you and your spouse will talk nonstop every day, but it means everything should be on the table to discuss, nothing off-limits.
Feeling upset about work? Share with your spouse. Experiencing indigestion or seeing strange things when you go poo? Mention it to them. Frustrated that the lawn is not getting mowed or your car was left on empty without gas? Say it kindly. Think they look awesome in their new dress or button-up shirt? Don't just think it, find a way to say it. Write it. Text it. Whistle.
Communication is essential for connecting as a couple. If you don't have communication, it won't be surprising if you find yourself unhappy and feeling disconnected from your spouse.
2. Don't send secret texts if you want your marriage to survive.
Promise to not keep secrets. And, learn the difference between a secret and a surprise.
Secrets are what you hide and hope nobody, especially your spouse, finds out. Secrets are often involved in infidelity—emotional and physical. Exchanging texts with someone and quickly deleting them or hiding your phone? Protecting your password so your spouse can't look through your messages? Setting up secret accounts or sneaking out of bed to communicate with someone when everyone in the house is sleeping? This is often secretive behavior that leads to an affair (if it's not happening already), and if it goes on too long or never stops, your marriage won't survive it.
If someone shares a secret with you, you'll need to decide if it's the kind of secret you can keep, and make sure it's one that won't harm your relationship if your spouse finds out. Remember: Your marriage relationship comes first. Don't keep secrets that will harm the trust between you and your loved one.
On the other hand, surprises are what you keep quiet for a short amount of time because you want to overwhelm someone with love and joy. Big birthdays. Special gifts. Getaway trips. It's understood that you will need to keep this quiet until the big reveal.
3. Be really great friends.
We were friends long before we started dating, and while not every couple shares that experience, we believe every couple can be friends. Friends share common interests. Friends care about the other person and don't expect anything in return. Friends are there to listen, support, lighten the load and do life together. Yes, you're married and technically spouses, but don't forget to be friends.
Many people are wondering, "Can a marriage survive without sex?" or "How do I survive an unhappy marriage?" This can be a complicated issue that needs a lot of open communication, even counseling. Is divorce inevitable in some situations? Maybe. But, we believe that if friendship is a strong part of your marriage, you'll set yourselves up for your marriage to survive almost anything.
4. Make and keep traditions in your marriage.
On our first anniversary, we sat down and made a list of goals for the upcoming year. We did that on the second, third, fourth and fifth anniversaries. Now, 15 years later, we are still doing it. This marriage tradition has become a highlight of our year, and it's something we do every anniversary. Even when life gets busy, we make time for this. Traditions as a married couple matter. They also build and maintain emotional intimacy.
In addition to our list of goals, we always celebrate our anniversary. Always. We get a babysitter since we have kids, and we go to dinner. We usually get a hotel away from home. We make playlists of songs that help us remember the past year. We often look at wedding photos and sometimes we even watch our wedding video. This is all part of surviving marriage.
As the years go on, and kids and other family members enter the picture, you may feel like you don't have time for your traditions or that you need them. But, we've learned that the longer we're married, the more important marriage traditions become. Don't skip them, even if they look different in year 11 than they did in year one.
5. Share how much "me time" you need.
Some couples could probably spend every day, week, and year together and be OK. Others need a lot of "me time" to survive. We've learned that every couple is different, and what you need will depend on your personalities, lifestyle, upbringing and so much more.
There's not a right or wrong here, but make sure you share, respect and agree. If you don't, resentment may build. Everyone deserves the space to be an individual, even if they are in a relationship. Make sure you know and respect what your spouse needs.
6. Don't compare yourselves to other couples.
Comparison and jealousy is a serious trap for couples. Our Instagram addictions probably don't help this. As a couple, you're uniquely you, and don't try to be another couple down the street or on the internet.
Now, if you're getting encouraged and challenged by another couple and it makes your relationship stronger—that's not what we're talking about. Getting inspired by other married couples is awesome and great.
But, if you're watching what others do or have, and then deciding you need it to be happy too, that's not good. Your marriage won't survive if this becomes how you make decisions and run your life.
7. Don't pressure sex.
I always find the marriage advice telling couples how often they should have sex to be very interesting. Our opinion: there isn't a magic number. Is sex important for marriage? Yes, but we'd expand it from sex to intimacy. Is intimacy the only aspect of marriage? No.
We recognize that many people feel like they are in loveless, sexless marriages. Intimacy is an important part of a romantic relationship. Can a marriage survive without it? Well, it depends on the marriage and how you're defining things.
Here's our advice: Don't pressure sex, because that squashes it. Don't give guilt trips. Don't cast shame. Don't be selfish. Don't be a jerk. Openly communicate what you need (remember #1) and go from there. Tenderness, gentleness and honesty is what breeds intimacy. Your needs might look very different from another couple's, and that's OK—as long as you're both in agreement and talking about it.
Also, remember that "in sickness and in health" vow? As your marriage survives and you age, sex may become more difficult. There's a host of reasons sexual intimacy is challenging for couples. In the colorectal cancer community (full of couples who cannot engage in traditional ways of sex), we encourage couples to be creative when it comes to sexual intimacy. There's many ways to be intimate.
Again, a big part of sex in marriage is communication. Not sure how to start this conversation? Here's a good article on Talking About Sex When You're Married.
8. Allow for seasons of shift.
This is Mikey's term, "seasons of shift," and it's a great one. Heads up if you're a newlywed... you will both grow and change a lot over the next 15 years. Your hobbies, jobs, beauty, relationships and friendships will all shift around. That's called life.
Your spouse will not be the same person in a few years. Who you married is going to become someone different.
Marriages that cannot adapt to situations ebbing and flowing will really struggle to stay afloat. Seasons of shift aren't easy, they're actually pretty painful and hard. Especially if a mid-life crisis is involved.
But the sooner you recognize these seasons, the easier it will be for your marriage to not collapse. This is key to surviving marriage.
9. Practice active listening
When Danielle was in college, she took a class called "Listening." Yes, seriously, this is involved in a communications major. We laughed about it at the time, but the skills from that class have become some of the most widely used tools that have kept our marriage surviving. (And, we're now using them to parent.)
Listening is not the same as hearing, listening takes work and attention. Active listening means you are able and willing to respond, and you can repeat back much of what the other person shared. Truly listening to your spouse is like giving them a free gift every day.
10. For surviving marriage: make a plan
Making plans has strengthened our relationship, and it's a big part of our communication. Here's some of the plans we are intentional to make:
- Finance plan - we have a budget, retirement accounts and savings goals.
- Vacation plans, like our trip to Mexico or Mae's birthday surprise.
- Weekly plans - We keep a calendar on the fridge and we share our Google calendars that track our commitments.
- Meal plans - This helps us make grocery lists, and it also enables both of us to make dinner so it's a shared responsibility.
- Holiday plans - We have set plans for each holiday so our families know where we will be and when to expect us,
11. Remember: your spouse is not the enemy.
This can be really hard, especially when you're hurt. From minor irritations to deep wounds, it can be easy to begin seeing your spouse as your enemy. If you don't catch it early, you will begin believing that your marriage was the biggest mistake of your life.
However, you must remember: Our struggles are not with flesh and blood, but of the dark forces of the spiritual realm (Eph 6:12). The enemy wants nothing more than for you to see people and humans as your opponent. And while the enemy can certainly be motivating your spouse to act in hurtful and harmful ways, your own forgiveness and freedom will depend on you seeing past the hurt and identifying the true source of your pain.
If you're seeing your spouse as your enemy right now, remind yourself of what attracted you to them in the first place. Remember: You're on the same team. Pivot. Communicate. Change. Share. This is what your marriage will need to survive.
12. Love them with all five languages.
The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman is a very popular book that has taught couples how to care for one another through five different "languages": Words of affirmation; quality time; gifts; acts of service; and touch. We've found this book to be helpful in identifying what the other might need the "most;" but, we've also found that our surviving marriage takes loving your spouse using all five ways.
Mike's a words of affirmation guy, but he loves a thoughtful gift and caring touch. Danielle needs quality time, but offer to vacuum or make dinner, acts of service, and her smile will light up a room. Loving your husband or wife with all of the love languages is key to having a strong marriage.
13. Break cultural norms and gender stereotypes.
Danielle pays our bills and typically does our taxes. Mike often does the laundry. We both work and our salaries cover our household expenses. Danielle traveled a lot when Mae was younger, which put Mike on full-time parenting duty. Many of the roles we each take on in our marriage do not fit some of the gender stereotypes we grew up with.
Your culture and family upbringings may have told you that a marriage "should" work a certain way, but we've found that carving our own path works a lot better. Sometimes, Mike does take on a role traditionally reserved for ladies. Sometimes Danielle does what others might see as his job. And yet sometimes, we look pretty traditional.
It's hard to break cultural norms, but we've done it and we're still doing it. Our marriage is stronger for it.
14. Work on self-awareness (& encourage your spouse to also).
A few years ago, we went through Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, and an important piece of that process is knowing yourself and making time for self-awareness. Understanding your personality, and putting words to your story, and then sharing that with your sponse, is one of the most loving things you can do for each other.
15. Respect the other person's experience with God.
Your spouse was made in the image of God, just like you. Yes, you're married, but you're also dealing with a spiritual brother or sister. Just as you're on a path toward knowing God deeper, they are too. Wherever they find themselves on that path, encourage them and respect it. Love with compassion.
Your paths may look similar. Your paths may look different. In marriages that survive, we've noticed that each person respects the other person's journey and offers encouragement. Choosing to honor one another fuels a fire not only for each other, but for God. As you walk in faithfulness toward Him, you'll also be faithful to each other.
When should a marriage not survive?
It's important to note that our advice is for people in marriages that have mutual respect. Marriage is designed to be a safe, intimate place where you can grow and thrive. We're not unaware that some marriages are anything but this.
Many people are suffering in sexless marriages. Many people don't know if their marriage can survive cheating and adultery. Some marriages are facing serious drug and alcohol addictions. In these cases, we highly recommend seeking out the wisdom of a licensed professional counselor who can dive deep into the issues you're facing and help you take the next steps forward. Sometimes this will restore your marriage, and other times it will not. There's no shame in a relationship ending where safety and security is not present.
And last, if you're in a marriage where domestic violence is going on, your focus shouldn't be on surviving marriage - but rather surviving life. Please do not stay; reach out for help.