The Habits of the Happily Married

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I have had marriage on my mind lately.  My friend Aidan has generously invited me to join her Here Year, and this month’s theme is marriage.  I’ve been thinking about what I can do to be more here in my marriage, and well as considering what impact presence has on both my relationship with my husband and my family.

Marriage, and mine in particular, is a topic I don’t often broach here.  I read somewhere (and I wish I could remember where, so as to attribute it) that a marriage is “the most private of geographies” and I agree entirely with that.  There is so, so much about the marriages of others that we don’t see, an entire subterranean world, and I have learned not to make assumptions from the small part of the landscape that I can see above the surface.

Matt and I will celebrate our fourteenth anniversary in September.  Since we met, in January 1998, we have shared a broad swath of life, between the two of us and our immediate family: two graduate degrees, one house purchase, two pregnancies, two labors and deliveries, one heart transplant, one stem cell transplant, one kidney transplant, five jobs, two international trips with our children, and more tears, laughter, and mundane days than I can possibly remember or count.  It’s that small stuff, the “grout between the tiles of life’s big experiences,” that makes a marriage.  It’s that stuff that makes a life.

While I don’t think we can ever understand the marriages of others, I do think there are certain observable behaviors, habits, and tendencies that people who seem (again: seem – but that’s all I have to go on!) to be happily married demonstrate.  Some of these Matt and I have and do, others we could improve on.  So, here are my thoughts on the habits of the happily married:

Laughter – This is the biggest one by a mile as far as I can tell.  I love being around couples who make each other laugh and who can guffaw at things big and small.  This is correlated with an ability to keep life’s inevitable bumps in perspective, though that deserves its own post.  I think it’s as simple as everyday life is more fun when you can laugh, and people who share that have a very solid bond.  Matt and I can work on this one.

Perspective – If there’s one thing I know at almost-forty it is that life is full of regrets and compromises.  Even those whose lives look exactly like they planned them find them to feel nothing like we expected.  Guaranteed.  Couples who can help each other remember this are doing something right and important.  I think Matt and I are doing okay on this one.

Affection – Without exception, as far as I can see, people who touch each other like each other.  These tiny moments – hugs hello and goodbye, pats on the back when walking by a chair, kisses at bedtime, a foot rub while watching a baseball game – add up to a stronger bond.  Period.  I’ve written at length about my own aversion to general smell/noise/touch/taste/sight stimulation, and Matt would like to have his feet rubbed 24/7, so we have a ways to go on this one.

Individuality – I guess there’s a reason Khalil Gibran is so beloved.  That whole spaces in your togetherness thing is, as far as I’m concerned, absolutely apt.  The couples I admire most are the ones who are two individuals who are choosing, over and over again, to be together.  This requires that each person have something – or multiple things – that they love in the world, outside of themselves, each other, and their children.  The night before our wedding, I told Matt and I felt as though we were two people choosing to walk next to each other as long as our paths converged.  I’m still choosing that.  To me, that’s romance.

I know these observations are general, and the real task is translating them into day to day choices, minute by minute actions, that add up to a strong and healthy marriage.  But maybe identifying the macro themes is useful too.  At least I hope it is.

What habits do you observe among those whose marriages you respect and esteem?  If you’re married, do you recognize those same behaviors in your own marriage?


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21 Comments

  1. Posted June 18, 2014 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    I love that you and Aidan are tackling marriage this month. I know it is something that I take for granted and something that I don’t think or write about enough. And I have to agree with your entire list and agree that laughter is so super important. Rob and I say all the time, “Look! I can still make you laugh!” And there it is…

    admin Reply:

    Well, that’s pretty fantastic, in my view (still making each other laugh) … xox

  2. Posted June 18, 2014 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Yes to all of these. Sometimes, they are a lot harder than they seem. I would add conversation. I always tell my kids that finding someone you can have a good conversation with is important, and also harder than it seems. Sitting together and talking, really talking, about things that are not family/children related is important to me and the happiness of my marriage.

    admin Reply:

    Agree entirely. And to KEEP talking, even as the years roll by. I know couples who just seem to have stopped talking to each other. That worries me.

  3. Posted June 18, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    “An entire subterranean world” indeed. This line gave me a twinge in my gut and brought a slight smile to my lips – much like the worst and best of that secret world does. Love seeing your perspective on this most personal of things here… Thank you for sharing it with us. xoxo

    admin Reply:

    Thank YOU. Gut twinge and smile – both at once – maybe that’s as powerful a reaction as there is?

  4. Posted June 18, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Some wonderful insights here. I love that you put laughter first. I’m incredibly grateful that I married a man who makes me laugh, usually every day. I tend to be on the serious side, so this is saying A LOT. I think laughter does wonders for a marriage, for a life. xoxo

    admin Reply:

    I think that’s fantastic. Honestly, I wish I laughed a bit more – my husband and I can do a better job on this one. xo

  5. Posted June 18, 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    I like to keep it simple. If you enjoy spending time with your spouse, and you make it a priority to actually spend time together, I think things will work out just fine.

    admin Reply:

    Simple and wise, as always, my friend! xo

  6. Posted June 18, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Great list, and for me, maintaining individuality is a big one. I learned that by watching several marriages fall apart (including my own parents) for this very reason. The one other thing that I might add, and I certainly admire in others, is learning how to disagree with each other. There are constructive ways, and then there are just loud (or totally silent) ways that end in defensiveness and resentment. I admire those that can have fundamental disagreements with each other, yet still stay deeply in love in spite of it. It’s hard to do sometimes, especially if you did not have good role models (as a child) about how to disagree with a loved one.

    admin Reply:

    This is a good point. I personally find the totally silent unhealthy disagreement scarier than the really loud disagreement, but that may just be how I’m wired. I don’t like any conflict but I’m not afraid to argue when it comes to that. I think role modeling for children that people can disagree – fight, even – and still love each other is actually a very valuable thing.

  7. Posted June 18, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    I concur with all of the above. And would add:

    Have many more positive interactions than negative. The Gottmans’ research on this is pretty widely known (lasting relationships have 5 positive interactions to every negative one), and I’ve seen the importance of this in both my marriage that failed and the relationship I’m now in.

    I’d also add: Common values. When you see the big things in similar ways, the little things don’t matter as much. And the little things bring less friction because, as you say, it’s the day to day choices and minute by minute actions through which the bigger things emerge.

    admin Reply:

    My parents say that all the time – they are absolutely aligned on the big stuff, without fail, though they often differ on the small stuff. Maybe it goes back to the perspective – when you have congruent values on what matters, you can more easily shrug off the small disagreements and differences.

  8. Posted June 18, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    I love the individuality piece. So true. if you each can respect that, you can make it work.

    admin Reply:

    I agree. And somehow that feels a little less accepted or said out loud, that piece – at least to me. xo

  9. Posted June 18, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    It’s really about choice, too, isn’t it? I think about this all the time. My husband is the one I choose first, over and over again. He’s the first person I choose to spend time with, to talk to, to laugh with – with so many choices in so many areas of life, I feel very lucky that my husband and I keep choosing each other first. Despite the fact that on instagram, facebook, and twitter, you might not even know that I have a husband!

    admin Reply:

    I often get that, people wondering if I’m married 🙂

  10. Posted June 18, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    This is so beautiful. I am going to hang this on the fridge. This IS perspective. xoxo

    admin Reply:

    Thank you, dear friend. xox

  11. Kathy
    Posted June 18, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Love this advice Lindsey as well as everyone’s comments! I feel all the bases are touched on in this dialogue. Thanks for sharing!

    admin Reply:

    Thank YOU! xo

  12. Posted June 18, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    This was lovely, Lindsey. Choosing over and over again to be with another person is the key for me. Other habits I’ve observed in the happily married are taking moments to be grateful individually and together and taking time to be together every week.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, I love that you mention that. Yes. Grateful is connected to perspective, don’t you think? But am important piece in and of itself of a healthy relationship (between two people and between those people and the world, I think).

  13. Posted June 18, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    another great post. So, so true. Yesterday I had a weird moment that while chatting with my sister about how much my kids see people kiss she said, “well, yea, I guess they see people kiss all day” and assuming she meant my husband and I, I responded, “well it’s not like we’re making out.” to which she surprised me by saying she hadn’t meant us at all, but rather on tv and that she doesn’t think we even kiss each other in front of people ever. Which is not the case, but it reminded me of how I am also not very good at the touch stimulation arena either. Just not my love language – but is my husbands. Although when I think back to our younger years (teenage, early 20’s, pre-parenthood) we were always tangled up or holding hands or stealing touches. I love the flipping crap out of that man, but is that i get so much touching all day (from our toddler/preschooler/pets) that my touching quota is always filled (overflowing is what it feels like most days!) or is it just the fast pace of life that has my head down and a get-through it sort of stance. hmm…i need to work on this.

    admin Reply:

    I think that’s a big part of this issue, which as far as I can tell is pretty common in marriages around me. Motherhood can be so physically intimate, all the time, and that uses up a lot of our quota for touch in a day. Right? xox

  14. Posted June 18, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    This is beautiful. I love your definition of romance and togetherness and choosing to walk together, alongside. Generosity and kindness and laughter are the foundations of healthy relationships. Thanks for sharing about your most private of geographies, Lindsey. xo

    admin Reply:

    Thank YOU. xox

  15. Posted June 18, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Beautiful piece. For me, I would suggest what makes a person feel love. Not loved, but love. I feel love when my husband and I work on the house together: any projects, inside or out, it’s like we are caretakers of a land. We have inhabitants, we are in charge, we care, this is US, to me.

    admin Reply:

    What an important distinction that is, feeling loved vs. feeling love. Oh, yes. xox

  16. Posted June 18, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    “Two individuals who are choosing, over and over again, to be together.” Yes. coming back to that willing choice, after changes in plans, houses, careers, family sizes, it is like the chorus or refrain that holds the verses of hymn together. Thank you for your thoughts on this ‘most private of geographies.’

    admin Reply:

    Oh, I love that image – the refrain that holds the verses together. What a beautiful way to think about it.

  17. Sarah
    Posted June 18, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I love this. I’ve always believed that you have to be married to someone that you really like. Not just love but like. Before I was married I dated a lot of people who I loved but I didn’t really like (some were just jerks!). Luckily I married someone who I not only love a lot but really like him as a person.

    admin Reply:

    I think that’s an awfully good way to think about it.

  18. Posted June 19, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    LOVE. this post 🙂

    I’ll add one thing (because everything you’ve listed is so, so spot-on), and this is something that I’ve only really thought about since having a kid: I really try hard to remember the big picture in almost all situations (again, try being the operative word). Is it better to get angry every single time something my husband does bothers me? Or is it better, sometimes, to try in that moment to remember all the things that are so wonderfully right? This sounds ridiculously cheesy, but I’ve found that it helps me, and us. I hate bickering, and yet I also don’t want to be a doormat. A good balance seems to work well for us> But this is a constant work-in-progress. 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for this post!

    admin Reply:

    The bickering-doormat tension (or spectrum?) is one that I think about all the time. And if I don’t bicker, or don’t say anything, am I setting norms in place that aren’t good for the long term? I worry less about that, to be honest, as I get older – maybe I just can’t bear the bickering even more than I worry about the pattern!!

  19. Posted June 19, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    That is a solid list right there! I would ‘time.’ Time together, time out of the house together, in the house together. And respect for time to do things alone, too. (Not just without the kids, but without the other as well.)

    admin Reply:

    Time – good one. It holds so much, that concept – together and apart. xox

  20. Posted June 20, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I think this is a topic that is so important to plumb–and I love your thoughts here. I agree with the importance of perspective a lot –One thing that continues to help me is remembering that marriage really is hard work. I know that sounds obvious, but remembering that I am human, my husband is human and there are bound to be the inevitable challenges helps me maintain a realistic perspective.

    xoxo

    admin Reply:

    That is a good thing to remember. And therefore when we fall down from “perfect” we’re not failing, really, but just being human. xox

  21. Posted July 17, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I’m catching up on quite a bit of your blog posts but I was excited to catch your ideas and thoughts and observations on marriage. I loved reading through the posts on Aidan’s blog. I had admitted on there that I’m not married but I’m really hoping that my boyfriend of seven years will be proposing soon. We are high school sweethearts and have been making some big steps lately (we moved in together last year, we combined finances this month, ect). As we get more committed and slip into this new life of togetherness I already feel this strange pull of distances. We are settling and with that comes less and less of the courting. But I want to build something sustainable so we keep communication open. We talk about projects that will bring us closer together. We talk about how to borrow tips and tricks from other couples we admire. And with that I think we do grow closer together.

    And I just love what you said in your post: “The couples I admire most are the ones who are two individuals who are choosing, over and over again, to be together.” I couldn’t agree more!