Next week, my husband and I will celebrate our fourteenth wedding anniversary. I had to open the calculator on my desktop to figure out that number, something I never thought would happen. We adore each other too much to ever forget which milestone of marital bliss we’ve reached. Right? But let’s face it, I can’t remember how old I am half of the time—a little more than forty, a lot less than fifty—so I’m not surprised that the date on which I started wearing a ring on my left hand doesn’t always stand out.
I still remember the wedding, of course. It was sweet and small. Sixty friends came and set up chairs, then took them down when the sky filled with rain, and set them up again just in time for the 5:00 p.m. ceremony. As I’d hoped, there were lilacs everywhere. I remember falling in love with my husband just as distinctly. There was the night when he tucked me into bed by telling me a story about a three-legged dog, then kissed me on the forehead and let himself out. I was hooked. I’m still hooked every time one of our kids (My gosh, we made these adorable little people?) says something brilliant or hysterical and I look across the table at Andrew who is smiling just as broadly.
Our marriage is good, but is it the Pottery Barn-perfect image I sometimes imagined it would be? Definitely not. There are way more dust bunnies than I could have imagined. Andrew isn’t the person I thought he’d be, but neither am I.
“If I’d know everything about marriage when I was twenty-three, I probably never would have gone through with it,” says my friend Jane, who has been married for nearly thirty years. I drink to that. If you’re busy planning your spring or summer nuptials and hoping for imminent matrimonial bliss, please, don’t let me stop you. But let these gentle rules, cobbled together from an array of contented couples, be my gift to you. They’re almost as good as lilacs and much longer lasting.
#1: Be Clear About Your Priorities
Know thyself is one of those hokey but oh-so-true adages that is especially useful when it comes to marriage. If you don’t know your own priorities quite well, then chances are you’ll bend to someone else’s (even to the nicest person’s in the world) and wake up one day feeling resentful. If your priorities are already well defined, realize that marriage will shift them. Suddenly, your money, where you live, who you’re friends with, and even what you do for a living become entangled with someone else’s needs and desires.
While you need to remain flexible and open to the other person’s needs (and your children’s, if and when they arrive), you also need to stay true to yourself. As my friend Hayden once told me, “You come first. The marriage is second. And the kids are third.” It’s a backward order from what many women are accustomed to and reeks of selfishness. But actually, it’s a recipe for keeping the parts of the whole happy. Remember it as you try to build a flourishing marriage and family from healthy, satisfied individuals.
#2: Kids Do Change Everything
If you’re expecting or considering children, you’ll hear this again and again. It drove me nuts when I was pregnant, to the point where I started believing that after the baby arrived, we’d all wake up in a yurt in Mongolia. The changes aren’t that exotic, of course. In fact, they’re subtle and mundane, relating to things like sleep, housework, and money. The effects on a marriage, however, can be profound. My neighbor Sarah told me that before having children, she and her husband shared household duties fifty-fifty and made similar salaries. “But after the first, and especially after the second child came, we morphed into a fairly traditional relationship,” she says, still sounding a bit dazed and confused. “I woke up one morning and realized I was home taking care of the babies and doing laundry and he was out making the money. It was a jolt and a bit disappointing.”
Children, especially little ones, put pressure on relationships. They force a change of priorities in terms of time and money. Do you pay for organic milk and violin lessons for your daughter or renew the gym membership and magazine subscriptions for yourself? Pretty clear choices for most of us, and yet the kinds of choices that can gradually build up resentment or just plain exhaustion on the part of the parent.
Though it may not seem like it when your kids are disappointed to be left with a babysitter, or when you’re twisting grandma’s arm to do an overnight, try to remember that nurturing your marriage also nurtures your kids. It’s surprisingly easy in the chaos of children to stop talking to one another and not even realize you’re doing it, until one day, you find yourselves alone at the dinner table with nothing to say to each other. Don’t coast on the strength of your love or romance, tempting though it may be. Rather, notch up the gears, whether that means buying candles and cooking favorite meals to eat late at night (after the kids go to bed) or finding creative ways to finance mini-vacations sans kids.
#3: Sex Matters. And How!
Sure, you’re frisky now, but as anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows, libidos have a way of ebbing and flowing. One of the best things you can do early on is to have a frank conversation about sex—what you like and don’t like, what scares you, what’s happened in the past, and what you look forward to in the future. This kind of plain talk doesn’t take the mystery out of things, rather it ensures that everyone gets what he or she wants. Remember: priorities. It can only help to clarify that you find backrubs and pre-made baths with candles to be a turn on, while unexpected breast grabs in the kitchen, uh, not so much.
It’s also good to admit up front that one of you may want more sex and one of you less. Few couples are blessed with equal sex drives. Make a commitment not to demonize the other person’s appetites, or lack thereof. It’s very easy to paint one partner as insatiable or the other as cold, when probably neither is true. Creatively devise ways for you both to find that sweet place, whatever it may be. As one friend told me, “My husband was reluctant at first, but he eventually signed a peace treaty with my electronics, which made us both a lot happier.”
Adult life is tiring stuff. Adult life with kids is utterly exhausting and about as sexy as Barney. Any way to break the monotony and remind you what it felt like to be alone together without one ear listening for little feet is priceless. My husband broke the bank to take me to Paris for my fortieth birthday. Utterly exhausted, I came down with strep throat on arrival and slept for two days. Eventually, though, I revived and we enjoyed a luxuriously slow, romantic escape. Two years later, the memory of that trip, during which I never looked at a clock once, still serves as an aphrodisiac. It doesn’t need to be Paris, but remember that those extra efforts to instill and revive romance and sexiness will be rewarded.
For the rest of the list, see Things You Should Know Before Saying “I Do” (Part 2)