Whenever I’m asked to give marriage advice to engaged friends, I always start with this: marriage is long. There are going to be times when things are very good. And times when things are very hard. But you have a lifetime to figure it out. So don’t rush the process.
I always feel a little like the grim reaper when I give this advice. (Sometimes marriage sucks, but have a nice life together!) But what I really mean is this: you have time for change to take root. Which, when I’m in the middle of one of those OMG WHY DID I CHOOSE THIS LIFE seasons of my marriage, is a comfort to hear.
But knowing that you’ll get to a better place is only half the equation. The other half is how the hell do you get there?
A few years ago, Michael and I were going through a rough patch in our marriage (you may recall me writing about parts of it here and here). At the time, I didn’t have a single specific complaint about our relationship (hahaha because I had lots of them). I wanted us to be kinder with each other, more connected with each other, more considerate in our partnership. I wanted to feel like partners. I wanted to fight less. I also wanted to feel more appreciated. And I wanted flowers on my birthday. The good kind. But I had no idea how to manifest any of those changes in my relationship. So I picked fights. I cried a lot. I banged my head against the wall (metaphorically).
And you know what? I got nowhere. Because for us, those things don’t actually work all that well. So with the help of a good therapist, we started making changes the slow, patient way. And to my surprise and delight, it worked. Three years later, I feel like I’m in a completely different marriage (and spoiler alert: I get flowers not only on my birthday, but sometimes I even get them just because). But the process of getting here didn’t feel at all intuitive to me when we started. Asking for change in a relationship is hard and uncomfortable, especially when what you’re really asking is for your partner to be different. So here’s what worked for us:
Therapy is helpful, go to there: Michael and I went to couples therapy because everyone told me couples therapy is great. But truthfully, I didn’t know objectively why therapy might help. So here’s my best explanation: independent third parties can see things you can’t. So if you’re in one of those cycles where you find yourself repeating your complaints over and over again, expecting a different result than the last time, a mediator can help fix the broken record. Just be prepared to hear hard truths about yourself as well as your partner. I went into couples therapy feeling very self-righteous and was disappointed to find out that I, too, have faults. The nerve. But here’s the thing: facing hard truths about myself made my marriage better. In fact, it turns out that those hard truths were all things that weren’t serving me. So fixing them in my marriage also fixed the rest of my relationships too. (Oh, and if you’re not in a position to do therapy right now, I recommend listening to podcast by friend of APW and business coach Jay Pryor. While it’s not a third party, his podcast and book both contain therapy-like exercises that can help you identify patterns of behavior that aren’t serving you or your relationship.)
Ask for what you want, and be specific: So, about the flowers. I didn’t just start getting them because Michael woke up one day and realized it would make me happy if I had dying foliage on my countertop every holiday. Instead, I said to him, “I want to get flowers on my birthday.” So he got them. And then because I’m petty, the next time I got even more specific. I said, “I would really love flowers from Farmgirl Flowers for Valentine’s Day.” So he got them. Because what I learned in couples counseling wasn’t just about asking for what you want. It was about asking in a way that doesn’t render you powerless or make you a victim. Not helpful? Things like: “You know, you never get me flowers for my birthday” or waiting until after the fact to say, “I was secretly hoping you’d get me flowers, and now I’m upset you didn’t.” Instead, I ask for things unemotionally and like I assume the answer is yes. For example: “Hey Michael, I’d really like it if you got me flowers for my birthday. Cool?” (Pro tip: I make sure to ask for confirmation so I know he’s listening.) Or, “Michael, I want to go out for our anniversary this year, and I want you to pick the restaurant so it’s not on my plate. It would make me really happy if we could do that.”
Give it time to take root (or fake it tilL you make it): Listen, I won’t pretend it’s easy making changes in your marriage. Sometimes you want to strangle your partner with their shoelaces. Which is why you might have to fake it till you make it. When Michael and I were working on our “be nicer to each other” campaign a few years ago, I had to put aside my desire to say something snarky or sarcastic when he said or did things that bothered me. Instead, I did a small song and dance for every small gesture that showed he was trying. And I made a point of showing that I was trying too. And over time, it stopped feeling fake and became part of our relationship language. But spoiler alert: there’s no room for pride or ego in this game. If you want things to be different, you might have to make the first move (and possibly the second one too).
In September, Michael and I will celebrate nine years of marriage together. Our relationship is very different from the one we had when we said our vows. And for that I am very glad. Because it wasn’t an accident. And it won’t be an accident if it’s different nine years from now. Or, I hope it won’t be.
P.S. I just finished reading this book. It’s wicked gendered and markets itself as being for new parents. BUT. I thought the advice was particularly applicable to new marriages and learning how to fight productively.
But I want to know from you. Have you manifested change in your marriage? How do you get what you need out of your partnership? Does it get easier the longer you’ve been together? (Or harder?)