Last week marked 20 years since my husband and I got married. We’ve been a couple even longer than that, though. We’re high school sweethearts, and this fall, we will have been together continually for 29 years. That’s a long freaking time.
I’m not a fan of sappy marriage and relationship posts. I love being married, but I think there’s a lot of fake bullshit surrounding the institution of marriage, and I don’t think the key to a strong partnership can be summed up by a cute meme, Instagram post, or greeting card. I also think a lot of advice about marriage sets people up for disappointment and impossible-to-fulfill expectations.
That said, people often ask me how my husband and I have made it work all these years. I honestly don’t know the answer to that! I think we just have many of the same values about marriage, family, and relationships, and that our personalities complement each other.
Still, when I sat down recently to compile a list of things that I think have made our marriage work, it turns out I have many thoughts. There are a lot of ingredients that go into strong, long-lasting relationships — at least in my experience — and I’ve come to understand them better as the years have ticked by.
So, without further ado, here are 20 things I’ve learned in 20 years of marriage.
1. Pick The Person Who Makes You Laugh
Humor is essential in marriage and in life. And oh my God, if the trials and tribulations of raising kids aren’t met with a healthy sense of humor, I don’t think it’s possible to survive. My husband is the most hilarious person I know, he thinks I’m pretty funny too, and I’m not sure our marriage wouldn’t work without laughter.
2. You’re Going To Have The Same Fight Over And Over
You may not realize this at first, but it’s just a fact that you’ll have the same damn fight over and over, just with different examples and scenarios. Once you realize this, you’ll be better able to navigate each thing that comes up. You’ll be able to say, “Oh, this again! Let’s try to remember how we got through it the last time.” You’ll still get pissed off every time, but it won’t feel as insurmountable.
3. You’ll Learn To Accept The Things That Aren’t Going To Change
There are some things about your partner that just aren’t going to change. There are some things about yourself that aren’t going to change. After many years together, this will become clearer and clearer, and you’ll stop trying to change your partner (or yourself) into the person you want them to be.
4. … But Your “Non-Negotiables” Will Be Clearer Than Ever
You’ll learn to accept the other person for who they are and will stop trying to “fix” them. At the same time, you’ll be clearer about what is totally unacceptable for you. For some relationships, getting to this place might be the beginning of the end. For others, it will mark a time of growth and solidification.
5. You’ll Still Feel Like You Have No Idea What You’re Doing
No matter how many years pass, it will still feel like you’re making everything up as you go along, from finances, job decisions, household roles, and parenting. Each year, new shit comes up and you will have to figure it all out, as if for the first time. But you’ll get used to that, and have more faith that it will all work out.
6. Scheduling Time Alone Together Is A Must
It’s going to feel totally unromantic to schedule dates (and sex), but the more years you are married, the busier and more exhausted you will be. And so scheduling that stuff in will be crucial. You’ll be less embarrassed and uncomfortable about doing so, and you’ll understand the importance of making this stuff happen.
7. You Will (And Won’t) Be The Same Person You Were When Your First Met
In many ways, you’ll always be the same two people who fell in love all those years ago. But you’ll also realize how very different you are as you move through different life stages. You’ll mature and grow as people, and sometimes you’ll look back at the person you married and feel like you barely recognize them (this is usually for the better, but not always, of course).
8. It’s Okay To Go To Bed Angry
This is one of those rules of marriage that you are supposed to abide by, but as you get deeper into marriage, you will start to feel more tolerant of each other’s difficult feelings, and you will learn to give space for the hard shit. But this is because you’ll trust that these things work out with time and space (and often, with a good night’s sleep!).
9. You Can Do Hard Things
Some years of marriage are really freaking hard. But just like in life, the more hard things you go through together, the more resilience you build. This means that next time your marriage faces a difficult bump in the road (and believe me, it will), you’ll know that your marriage can withstand the challenge.
10. Love Is A Verb
Marriage means showing up, period. It means that one person isn’t burdened with all the housework, childcare, planning, decision making, etc. Love is nothing without that.
11. Desire Ebbs And Flows, And That’s Okay
I do think sexless marriages are pretty much doomed to fail. That said, it’s important to accept that some years and months are going to hotter in terms of sex and desire than others. Talking about this is key. Usually if there’s a significant dry period, it’s because someone in the relationship is feeling overburdened, stressed, or uncared for. Addressing this helps.
12. Having A Shared Set Of Core Beliefs Is Essential
Little political or moral disagreements are one thing. But for a marriage to last, you are going to need to really align with your partner on your core beliefs. As the years go on, this shit becomes more important, and you’ll become less tolerant of someone who clashes with you about the basic stuff.
13. Being “Happily Married” Doesn’t Mean Being Happy All The Time
Perfection is highly overrated in marriage, and so is happiness. In fact, the term “happily married” should probably be banished from our vocabularies. It’s impossible to feel happy with your spouse or your marriage all the time. However, you do need to feel emotionally safe, and you need to feel that your partner has your back.
14. You Need Your Own Interests And Friends
You need to have an identity outside your marriage. Expecting your partner to fulfill all of your needs for connection and personal interests put them in an impossible position, and isn’t healthy.
15. You Will Not Stop Being Irritated By The “Little Things”
You’re never going to stop being irritated AF by the sound of them slurping soup, or their habit of leaving their socks on the kitchen counter.
16. Marry The Person Who Will Do The Stuff You Hate Doing
We have a rule around here that whenever one of us breaks a glass or spills something in the kitchen, the other person swoops in to clean it up if they’re around. 10/10 would recommend.
17. You Will Begin To Understand The True Meaning Of “Growing Old Together”
Once you start being a married couple in your 40s, with aches and pains galore, and with aging parents who need your help, you begin to truly understand what it means to grow old together. And you’ll appreciate having someone to do it with.
18. Telling The Blunt Truth Will Be Easier
All those years ago, it might have been weird to tell your partner that your butthole was itchy, or that you didn’t like a move they pulled during sex, but once you’ve been married for a while, all those fucks go flying right out the window. It’s very freeing.
19. You Must Stop Comparing Your Marriage To Other Marriages
Early on in your marriage, it may have been tempting to try to figure out why some marriages worked and others didn’t. But after a while, you’ll realize that what makes a marriage work is actually very specific to the couple, their life circumstances, and even their luck. Most of the time, comparing your marriage to someone else’s and trying to avoid another marriage’s mistakes (or adopt their successes) actually doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t work.
20. If Your Marriage Can Weather A Global Crisis, You Are In Good Shape
The one good thing about the pandemic is that many of us gained new clarity about our relationships with others, and our marriages specifically. Being trapped in the house with someone for weeks and months on end will do that. Many folk realized that their marriage was just not working, but many of us also realized that if our relationship can stand quarantine, then it can stand virtually anything.
So there you have it. It should go without saying that this list is based on my experience, and my experience alone. I’m sure other married couples will read this and completely disagree. That’s okay. As the saying goes, “Take what you want, and leave the rest behind.”
It’s also possible that my husband will read this list and think that I’m way off. That’s okay too! If anything, being married all these years has taught me that a healthy level of disagreement is actually vital and necessary, and he agrees too.
Love you, babe.