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The 12 Commandments of Marriage

What I've learned from round two at the marriage rodeo


While I often wish that Brian had been my first and only husband, there are some advantages to going into marriage with your eyes wide, wide open. One of these is an enhanced consciousness of “the rules” that govern your relationship. Anyone who has been married more than once knows how shockingly different marriages can be. Not only were my two marriages different, my behavior within them has been different. I believe that this is because marriage is an entity of its own, that is bigger than the two people in it. Every marriage is a micro-culture governed by its own mythology, language, rituals, and rules, which we both create and conform to. Usually the rules are subconscious, but Brian and I have found in our seven years together that being deliberate about defining them can be romantic, hilarious, and helpful. Here are the biggies in our house:

1. When the “do not disturb sign” is on the bedroom door, Children shalt not disturb. In fact, this rule is so strong that it’s really a norm. The couple of times children did knock on the door, we didn’t get angry, we just threw on a robe, went to the door, and acted alarmed and confused. Like: Why are you knocking? Are the dogs mauling the neighbor children? Did you sever your jugular with the sharp edge of a tuna can? No? You’re hungry? Did you see the sign? (Close door on little face, finish, and twenty minutes later emerge fully clothed to make snacks.) We do not abuse the sign. We reserve it for those times when privacy is needed, then put up an impenetrable virtual wall. The DNDS can also be used when you desperately need alone time, or if you are going to be “more than naked” (see rule 9). In our house, if the DNDS is on the door, and you enter, it is at your peril. The DNDS is about cordoning off private (and sometimes erotic) space, and respecting the adults’ absolute right to privacy.

2. If thou gets up first, Thou shalt bring coffee to the person who is still in bed. This started off as a little nicety, and has become a foundational ritual in our marriage. It takes almost no time or extra effort, since whoever is up is making a pot of coffee anyway. It’s an extra cup mixed to taste, a trip up the stairs, and a few moments of connection before the day begins. But it’s so much more than that for us… It’s a daily affirmation that we will be kind to each other today. And half the time it’s coffee in bed.

3. Thou shalt never backseat drive. If one has the wheel, the other may navigate, make calls, research the destination, and/or adjust the radio, but nagging/screaming/correcting is way out of bounds. Brian is a very good driver, and he takes backseat driving as a profound insult to his competence. I am, ahem, excitable. Backseat driving makes me panic and have flashbacks to meaner, rougher relationships I survived. Though the reason for the rule is different for each of us, the meaning behind the gesture is the same: We trust the other person enough to really and truly surrender control.

4. Thou shalt have Family Dinner. Without electronics. If you are starving, fine, you can consume your food earlier, but unless the circumstances are truly extenuating we sit together for a few minutes every night and take turns telling about the best and worst moments of the day. Like the do not disturb sign, this is bigger than a rule—it’s the way we do things around here. It’s part of our family’s rhythm. The days it doesn’t happen, we all feel a little off.

5. Thou shalt keep thy spouse apprised of thy mental state. This is an interesting one, that has its roots in the functional. I used to get some panic attacks, and I am recovering from an eating disorder. Whenever I feel “those feelings” coming on, I find Brian (or call him) and I tell him what’s happening, and sort of narrate the experience until it passes. But then we started doing it before things get to that level. If Brian is feeling a little irritated he will announce: “I am feeling irritable, and I’m not sure why. I am going to put the Do Not Disturb Sign on the Door for awhile and try to figure it out.” If we notice that the other person seems to be struggling with something, we will gently bring it up and invite narration. I think it’s a way to cultivate mindfulness in our relationship and invite equanimity into the situation.

6. Thou shalt deny the TYRANNY of urgency. Closely related to number 5, something I have really learned from experience is that almost nothing is truly urgent. Short of medical emergencies, almost NOTHING requires a response rightthissecond, and responding, kneejerk, while flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, is rarely the best course of action. This seems to be particularly true in marriage—and especially when we feel provoked, ashamed, upset, or angry. We try to encourage ourselves, and the other person, to just… pause. And breathe. Breathing is good while pausing. Sometimes snacks while pausing are helpful (ref: Hangry). And stepping outside to get some air. And petting a dog. Related to this, going to sleep angry is allowed in our house. Because it’s rarely truly urgent, and sometimes you aren’t that angry, you’re just exhausted, and a little sleep makes the situation more manageable.

7. Thou shalt accompany thy spouse to scary medical appointments. And hold their hand, if at all possible. Because nothing makes a person feel more fragile, vulnerable, and mortal than medical shit, and one of the reasons you got married in the first place, if you are really honest with yourself, was to beat back that feeling.

8. Thou shalt honeymoon. Annually, if possible. Brian and I love to travel, and once a year we travel, just the two of us, stay in a great hotel, order room service, loll around in bed in new underthings, wander cobbled streets holding hands, and tell everybody it’s our honeymoon. We had a coffee table made with a shadowbox under glass and each trip gets its own compartment filled with little tchotkes and detritus from our latest trip. The trips—long weekends mostly (and sometimes tagged onto work trips)—give us something to look forward to all year, and the honeymoon table is a reminder of the special times we’ve spent discovering interesting things together. We savour those honeymoons long before they begin and long after they are over, and before we know it, it’s time to plan the next one!

9. Thou shalt avoid being more than naked around thy spouse. Some things are more than naked. Like me, wrestling myself into Spanks. Like him, wearing only socks and a baseball cap. Like leaving the door to the bathroom open. Like period underwear. You know what I’m talking about.

10. Thou shalt not sabOtAge thy partner’s efforts to get healthy. Man, this one is hard. I like baking things for my family, and I love it when they enjoy my creations. I want, very badly, to pull Brian back into bed next to me to snuggle up and forgo the gym. We do not browbeat or guilt one another into fitness kicks, but if the other person is in one, we do our best not to sabotage. Because strong and flexible and confident is sexy. And we want to be together, in health, as long as possible.

11.The minibar is a state of mind. Before I married Brian, part of my growing up family mythology was that raiding the minibar is the 8th mortal sin. But Brian taught me that the minibar is a state of mind. It goes something like this: sometimes you need a $5 mini bottle of Pringles. Or an overpriced shirt from that sporting event you saw live. If you can, spring for the good tickets to the Broadway show or the concert. There are some expenses that you just surrender to and enjoy the heck out of. Brian loves his Tottenham shirt from that English Premiership game we saw live. Billy Elliot in London’s West End was better sitting dead center in the fifteenth row. This rule is about paying the price of admission and fully enjoying the experience. And you can always sweeten the guilt with a $4 bag of peanut M&Ms…

12. Thou shalt kiss tHY partner goodbye. Always. With eye contact and arms wrapped around each other and full on body presses and breathing in the other person’s neck. Because he’s my love, and I want him to know it as we go out to conquer the world. And I like to smell him on my clothes all morning.

There are others, of course, many backed up by evidence and studies (don’t gossip about each other, never shame each other in public, use a respectful tone of voice, always pack snacks, etc.). But these are the rules that make our marriage unique, special, and ours. Now if you’ll excuse me, Valentine’s Day is this weekend, and I have a honeymoon to plan.

What are the rules that define the micro-culture of YOUR marriage?

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