When I started dating my husband, I was a bright-eyed 19-year-old, just starting my second semester of college. I didn’t know much, but I knew I’d found my soulmate.
We met in January and by June we were standing under the chuppah, eternally binding our souls together.
Though we got married very young and very quickly, this was by design. We had begun dating intent on marriage, like most of our Orthodox Jewish peers, who were dating “seriously” and not just for fun. Yes, it was important to establish that we enjoyed spending time together, but our early dates were about so much more than that. We asked each other questions to test our compatibility, to make sure that our priorities in life and long-term plans were aligned.
Valentine’s Day came up three weeks after we met. He sent me flowers and a card that read: “Happy Valentines Day. I hope this is the first of many.” As two people who planned to date for a very short time and then either go our separate ways or get married, this was all but a marriage proposal.
We were so eager for our life together to begin. On our wedding day, I was so overcome with joy that I definitely cried all my false eyelashes off.
Things are rather different these days. Nearly seven years of marriage, two kids, and a pandemic later, I can barely even keep my eyes open by the end of the day, and false lashes are a thing of the past.
And yet, as we approach our anniversary this year, I still find myself occasionally overwhelmed with gratitude. I feel blessed to have found and married my other half. Living through this past year has certainly tried our relationship, but it has also given us opportunities to strengthen our bond the way only tough times can.
Here are some things I’ve learned about marriage over the last seven years.
1. Relationships take active work and maintenance.
Beginning the first moment we met, my husband and I have been very intentional in our relationship. It’s something we actively prioritize, talk about, and work on, with the end game of staying married always at the front of our minds.
When we fight, sometimes I’ll ask if my husband plans on leaving me. This can be seen as an ultimatum, but really it’s about keeping the long game in mind. The way I see it, we always have two options. We can throw in the towel and call it quits, an unappealing prospect to both of us, or we can sort things out and move past whatever today’s issue is. I find it easier to resolve our issues with this perspective in mind.
Even when all is smooth sailing, you have to keep choosing each other every day. Our rabbi once said that there are no such things as “love bubbles” that float between you and your spouse, keeping you together. Love is a verb — it’s built on and maintained in the small things you do for each other every day. The kiss before you leave for work, putting your phone down and really listening when your partner wants to tell you about their day, taking their needs and wishes into account.
I try to load the dishwasher when my husband asks, not because I got married to load dishwashers, but because I know it’s important to him and prioritizing what’s important to him is what will keep me married. Your partner should do the same for you, but I’ve found that staying in my own lane and working on what I can do is more productive than focusing on what he can do. And the more I do, the more he does. (I’d also like to point out that the stereotypical roles are reversed in this example — he’s more concerned about a clean kitchen than I am, and usually more likely to load the dishwasher than me.)
2. Go to bed angry.
Forget that old rule of never going to sleep angry! Sometimes getting a good night’s sleep may be all we need in order to kiss and make up in the morning. Even if a good night’s sleep isn’t all we need, we aren’t likely to solve anything in the heat of anger, whether our argument takes place at bedtime or in the middle of the afternoon.
I always try to defuse and shelf fights as quickly as possible, even if we haven’t come to a resolution. Later, when we’ve both calmed down, we can calmly share our feelings and figure out how to move forward. If we can’t discuss whatever the issue is calmly, we bring it to couples therapy (more on that below).
I actually find that fighting isn’t a necessarily bad thing — it means we care. A little conflict means we’re two imperfect humans trying to live together. It means we’re invested in our relationship and have really big feelings. How we deal with fights is what matters. I try to remember that my goal isn’t to be right, it’s to be married.
There’s a concept in the Tanya, the book of Hasidic mysticism, that there’s a spiritual rope connecting us to God. When we sin, a strand of the rope breaks. But when we repent, this mends the rope; a knot forms, shortening it and bringing us closer to God than we were before. The same holds true in a marriage. It’s okay if we fight, as long as we make up, since the making up deepens our connection to each other.
3. Work doesn’t have to be divided evenly, it just has to feel fair.
The vast majority of our marital stress comes from the division of household labor. You know, who does the dishes (and how often), who prepares meals (and who expects all their meals to be made for them), and who’s spending more time and energy caring for the kids (me, so I deserve to slack off on the weekends, OK?)
According to Jancee Dunn, author of How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, “Several experts told me that if you’re going to try for 50/50, number one, you’re chasing an impossible dream and number two, you’re siphoning your already waning reserves of energy as a parent, trying to make sure everything’s equal.”
Bingo! Whenever I start keeping a tally in my head, my husband and I just end up fighting and we both lose. It’s impossible to properly tally the worth of our contributions. My husband works full-time for money to support our family, while I work full-time caring for our family, and very part-time for fulfillment and some extra cash. Who can possibly say which of us does more or less?
“It doesn’t have to be 50/50 or 60/40 or really any specific equation that you should hold yourself up to,” says Dunn. “It just has to feel fair to you and fairness is defined differently in every relationship.”
I can get on board with that!
4. No marriage is perfect.
On that note, let’s get something out of the way: We’re all imperfect humans, so it would be unfair to expect perfection from our relationships or from our spouses. And yet, these imperfect parts of marriage are usually what people hide from others. Most couples aren’t parading their marriage’s dirty laundry through the streets and on social media. We see our friends’ marital highlight reels — the date nights, anniversaries, and special occasions — but we live inside our own messy marriages, day in and day out.
Whenever I’m considering my husband’s shortcomings, I remember that anyone I might have married would have their own set of strengths and weaknesses. I chose my husband for a reason and even his shortcomings are the kinds of things I can live with.
I also like to remind myself about the ways in which my friends have said their husbands fall short. This helps me realize that I wouldn’t want to put up with any of their husbands — and I can’t imagine they’d be willing to put up with mine. And that’s exactly how it should be, right?
When I spoke to Dunn on the phone, she was in the car with her husband. Mid-sentence, I heard her turn to her husband and utter the familiar, “Yeah, I know we do! In a minute!”
“Honestly,” she said, returning to me on the phone, “we really have worked things out, but he did that thing with the hand, where he’s like, you’ve gotta get going, but… two more minutes!”
Hearing this small exchange was a relief. Yes, I thought, it isn’t just us. Other happily married couples have these small tussles throughout the day, too.
5. Couples therapy isn’t just for broken marriages.
Just like individual therapy can be helpful for everyone — not just people experiencing major mental health crises or conditions — I think every couple can benefit from couples therapy. You don’t have to wait until things are falling apart to start seeing a therapist together. Couples therapy doesn’t have to mean that things have gone south; it just means you’re aware that there are areas in your marriage you’d like to improve, so you’re bringing in an expert.
I’ve found that working with a therapist has added depth to our relationship and our understanding of each other. It’s given us insight into why we keep having the same fights over and over and has helped us break some of our negative cycles. Whenever a subject is very touchy and we can’t seem to broach it without getting into a fight, we bring it to therapy. Having a third person to moderate, make space for our big feelings, and offer perspective helps us move forward far more efficiently than we’d be able to on our own.
What’s more, couples therapy isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. We go through phases where we see our therapist weekly, twice a month, or just occasionally, as the need arises. Having her in our corner is just another tool in our relationship toolbox.
6. Remember why you fell in love.
With nearly every fight, I panic. I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into and fear that our relationship may just be doomed to fail. Then, I sit myself down and try to recall why I chose to marry this guy in the first place. I like to make a list, in my head or on paper, of the things I like and love about him. I can usually come up with a lot, from his pretty eyes and to what an incredible father he is. As I make this list, our fight falls into perspective — I go from being furious to being a little mad but grateful that it’s him I’m fighting with.
7. Don’t forget to have fun.
When we’re bogged down with all the practicalities of life, it can be hard to remember that we actually enjoy each other’s company, and that’s why we’re together. Some couples swear by regular date nights — but making any kind of time together to do something we both enjoy is key.
We spend every evening watching TV together before bed. It’s been our one constant over the last seven years, through school and work, pregnancies, babies, and now, a pandemic and preschoolers. We don’t just sit in silence together — we pause frequently to discuss the plot and characters or make predictions, rejoicing together when we get it right. As a housewife/writer and a residential land developer, our daytime activities don’t have much in common, so watching TV together gives us some common ground. It provides something to discuss and bond over that has nothing to do with the kids or running our household.
As we grow and evolve, shared interests and time together don’t always come organically. Finding things to connect over, laugh at, or work on together allows us to keep enjoying each other’s company and grow together instead of apart.
Header image by Irina Gutyryak/Getty Images