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A little background on my parents: They’re perfect. Okay, they’re not perfect (For instance, sometimes they don’t answer their phones even when I was JUST texting them. Like, I know you have your phone!) but they’re pretty damn good at being married. I would endorse them on LinkedIn for it. They met when they were seventeen and have now been married for twenty-nine years (and they even dabble in pre-marriage counseling). In my entire life, I remember them getting in one, maybe two fights—tops. It wasn’t until I started seeing more of how other people’s parents interacted with them and with each other that I realized exactly how rare it seems to be for two people to be married for so long and still seem to enjoy it so much. So, if it wasn’t already clear, I knew getting love advice from my parents would be worth it.
Like many happily married couples, my parents (whose actual human names are Chris and Cathy, in case you’re curious) have a ready answer pinned down for when people ask them how to be happily married. They’ve had a good amount of time to work on it, beginning on their tenth wedding anniversary when they took a trip to a resort and found themselves flocked with newlyweds looking for tips. I sat them down over Skype to ask them: How do you be good at love?
Always Assume Your Partner Is Doing More Than You Can See
My parents say it’s easy to feel like you’re doing more work (whether it’s emotional or even just chores) than the other person in a relationship. “You’re aware of 100% of the stuff you do and a small portion of the stuff the other person does,” my dad says. “Unless you feel like you’re doing 70-80% of the work, you’re probably not doing half.” My mom adds, “You’ve got to remember you’re not in competition; you’re a team.” It takes a lot of trust to get used to assuming your partner is always working as hard as you. “If the person you’re with turns out to be a giant jackwad who’s letting you do everything, then it’s not a great system. So don’t marry jackwads,” my dad says. “But if you’re saying this is someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, then it shouldn’t be a big stretch to believe they’re going to be working on it with you.”
My mom has made it a habit to hold off addressing small peeves until they become a pattern. She calls it carrying things in her pocket. “I think he probably does the same thing. I’m not saying I’m the easiest person to live with. The first time I notice something like the dishes in the sink I’ll think, maybe this is the first time this has happened in three months, and I won’t come at him like he’s a monster who never does the dishes. I’ll usually wait until something happens three times in a small span of time—until there’s a pattern.” Giving each other the benefit of the doubt, as well as trusting each other not to react over every wrinkle, helps reduce these minor conflicts to “hubby/wifey peeves” (Their words; not mine.) that they can address as little things they want to work on rather than big points of contention.
Develop A Vocabulary For Resolving Challenges Before They Happen
One of the pieces of relationship advice that has stuck with my parents the longest came from the counseling they received before their own wedding: “If you have a button, something that really bothers you when pushed, what does it look like?” My mom explains that my dad’s button is being second guessed, “and mine is not being given credit for intelligence in an area I feel like I’ve earned it.” A disconnect they still face sometimes is when my dad feels like he’s being second guessed and tells my mom to back off, making her feel that she’s being told she doesn’t have credibility to speak on something. “Now you’ve created an explosive situation.” They’ve come up with shorthands for addressing these tensions when they occur.
“We’ve really become fans of ‘you may be right‘ lately,” my mom says. “It’s the perfect way to resolve almost any argument that doesn’t matter. I think we realized there are certain things—like the proper way to park somewhere or what store at the mall we went to to buy something—like who cares?” My mom says she doesn’t need to be told she’s right and he’s wrong, “but if you just tell me I might be right, if you entertain the possibility that I might be correct, then we can let it go.”
They’ve been recognizing and neutralizing misunderstandings ever since their newlywed days, when my mom would come home from work and want to talk about her day, while my dad just wanted to watch TV and decompress. By talking about it, they were able to recognize that both could be respected. “The vocabulary for it was ‘she’s got words.’ Part of the way she builds relationship with me is by talking about her day, and the way I show her she’s valuable is by giving her that time. And part of the way she shows me that she respects that I have a routine is to say “I’m gonna give you 30 minutes worth of words and then I’ll let you go back to what you were doing.” My mom adds, “I think I literally said if you give me 10 minutes, I’ll core dump and then I will happily go and take a bath while you have your introvert time. Even if that could’ve blown up, we were able to take a second and realize: We can figure this out. We can do this.”
My dad emphasizes how much having a vocabulary can take the scary out of conflict. “When you have words to express what’s going on, it pulls a lot of the anxiety out of it. When you don’t know how to describe the thing that’s going on, your brain gets into this vicious cycle worrying about it. But when you give it a name and have a way of talking about it, it’s manageable.”
My parents have about a thousand of these shorthands for resolving misunderstandings, but my personal favorite is “those stupid idiots.” If one of my parents comes to the other looking for empathy about a difficult situation and the other spends time trying to see where the other party is coming from or giving unwanted advice, the complaining party can simply say, “Your line is ‘those stupid idiots.’” Rather than either person feeling irritated or misunderstood, that simple touchstone sentence can help them both get on the same page without any tension.
Invest In Your Relationship
My parents remembered a stint in their 40s where “there were a series of divorce bombs among our friends—some you saw coming, some you didn’t.” They could see a lot of factors (like unexpressed needs and taking relationships for granted) that had eroded marriages near them over time. “I don’t think anyone went looking to have an affair or get a divorce.” My mom says that nobody goes into a relationship expecting to cheat. “It’s a failure of imagination where people can’t picture themselves in that situation until they’re there. You don’t assume you’re perfect.” My dad adds, “There’s work involved. You build around it. You don’t act out of fear, you act out of awareness. You never stop competing for your spouse,” he says. “Some people, when they get married, feel like they can stop working for it.” My parents prioritize being thankful for each other, turning appreciation into a constant active practice. My dad never leaves the grocery store without some flowers for my mom. “It’s a seventeen dollar insurance policy,” he says.
Part of their relationship maintenance is just loving one another even when they don’t feel like it. “Love means ‘I have warm feelings towards you,‘ but it also means ‘I’m committed to you.’ It’s a promise, not just a statement of emotion,” my dad says. “It’s funny,” my mom adds, “how people don’t apply that to other situations. If you’re four and throwing a tantrum, there’s nothing you could do to make me not love you. Whether I like what you do or feel warm fuzzies toward you or not—I love you and that’s not going to change. We don’t say ‘I’ll only be your parent it you make it rewarding for me.’ But we don’t always apply that to romantic relationships. When you’re committed and you act that commitment out,” she says, it protects your relationship from temporary windfalls or burnout. “Because it could take something as simple as you being tired, or both people feeling burnt out for the feelings to not be as strong for a bit.” She says if a person only assesses their relationship by how strong their feelings of love are at any given moment, it can cause panic if those feelings aren’t as strong at certain points, or send someone into crisis if they meet someone else they get along with. Having security in both the feelings and the commitment protects couples from more of those crises.
My dad says taking time to build up the structure of committed love can protect you from so many obstacles. “It’s not the amount of effort. It’s just how you’re looking at it. What have you done in advance of it becoming an issue? It’s like your teeth. If you only try to fix your teeth when it’s a problem, it’s gonna be a lot of pain getting it fixed. Whereas a little bit of effort every day, you may still have some problems, but it’s much more manageable.”
You Don’t Find A Soulmate, You Become A Soulmate
When I asked my parents how weird it was to have met their perfect match at 17, my mom responded, “We weren’t each other’s perfect match back then. We became each other’s perfect match.” My dad says, “Romanticism aside, it’s not like she’s the only person in the world I could have had a good relationship with, and certainly there are other people she could have had a relationship with because she’s relationally excellent. But we became each other’s match over time by working through it.” They said there was raw material to work with and they were very lucky that a few factors early on worked out for them (like my dad staying in state for college) but after that, it was just a matter of working things out and adapting together. “We’ve become soulmates,” my mom says. “I honestly don’t think there’s anyone who knows me as well as your father does, that thinks as highly of me. I would be stunned to eavesdrop on any conversation and hear him talking badly about me to anyone else. He’s my biggest encourager, my biggest cheerleader, he knows I have flaws but he doesn’t sweat the small stuff. I think very highly of your dad. My friends are married to some very nice men,” she adds. “I would not survive with most of them because the things they do would drive me crazy. Your dad is not difficult to live with. He works hard at being romantic and creating adventures.”
I asked my parents how they avoid having the same conversations over and over again when they’ve known each other for around 75% of their lives at this point. They said they’re still gaining—and sharing—interests, and think it’s important to learn and experience new things separately and together. “We’re both curious people,” my dad says. “She reads stuff, I read stuff. We’re learning sign language now. We just discovered Prague together. It really does feel like we’re just getting started. We’re still growing as people.” My mom shares with my dad about the ice skating she follows, and he’s gotten her into college basketball. Every summer they pick a book to read together that they can discuss over dinners. (“We kind of got lazy about that this year, though,” my mom admits).
Humor, Patience and Empathy
The most important thing to avoid, my mom says, is contempt. “It’s the number one indicator for relationships that won’t work out. You can hear couples banter where it might sound edgy and mean, but that can be fine for some people. When you start hearing contempt, that’s very hard to come back from.” My dad adds, “You show contempt for them, not us. Contempt is a lack of respect, it has to do with a person’s worth. Everyone gets frustrated with things their partners do, but at the point you’re frustrated with who they are, that’s big trouble.”
“Being able to talk about things out of conflict, without having to have your way or being defensive, is so important,” my mom says. “Saying, this isn’t about me getting my way or you not respecting me, or whatever.” She says there’s a lot of freedom in realizing that two people who live together aren’t going to see everything the same way, and that it doesn’t have to be the end of the world if you can discuss those differences without judgement or defensiveness. My mom says one of the biggest comforts is knowing that ultimately, what they both want is unity above either person getting their way. “Even if I know we’re in a disagreement, I can definitely pray for unity, and one of us or both of us may change.” My dad says, “It’s not so much about wanting to get your way.”
“Ultimately I think what works for us is humor, patience and empathy,” my mom says. “Understanding and drawing on the value of those things. Humor gives you the ability to diffuse something that’s potentially explosive. If you can laugh about something it’s not going to kill you—so finding out a way to laugh about something that’s frustrating, or tragic, or anything else is a way to rob it of its power. If I can joke about something that means I can at least talk about it.”