Friday, February 17, 2012

The MommyLand Guide for a Marriage That Doesn’t Suck

The MommyLand Guide for a
Marriage That Doesn’t Suck*
*Unless of course that’s what you’re into.
Last week, I asked you all for advice on how to have a happy marriage (or relationship). In the past, when I’ve asked you for tips, your feedback has been amazing – and extensive. This time was no different. So I decided to summarize your comments into a fancy, schmancy report of what we collectively think about this topic here in Mommyland. Think of me as your consultant. You know what a consultant is, right? Someone who asks for your watch and then tells you what time it is.
That’s exactly what I did, hookers.

Let’s begin, shall we?

You fine ladies left me 375 comments on the post and 110 comments on Facebook. That’s 485 comments total. Thank you. I read them through a couple of times. Honestly? Some of them are PURE GOLD. I was sincerely moved by the things you shared. Some of it made me squink up and squeak out a couple of tears and some of it made me bray out loud like a coffee spewing donkey.

The first time reading through them, I started thinking about categories. The second time, I coded your responses into those categories. Then I had Guru Louise take a pass at it, to make sure that I wasn’t crazy and that we were seeing pretty much the same picture. We’re obviously professional as hell up in here.
There’s a couple of things I need to be clear on from the beginning, that the comments don’t really reflect. They’re intangibles without which, none of this really works. Let’s call them our assumptions.
Assumption #1: In my notes, I called it trust. In Guru Louise’s analysis, she called it loyalty. These two things -trust and loyalty- have to be there and for both people. But they don’t have to be perfect. It can be in any stage from “We are doing awesome right now! Let’s go make out!” to “We are rebuilding after a year of wanting to punch each other in the face all the damn time.” Both are totally valid.
Assumption #2: Both partners have to be trying. As one of you described it, if you’re making the effort and your husband isn't reciprocating, you wind up bitter and resentful. You wind up putting someone first who's putting you second.
Assumption #3: This is advice given primarily by women, for women. But almost all of it could apply to men as well.
Assumption #4: There isn’t one solution that’s going to work for everyone. If there were, and I had just figured it out – I would be reading this post from The Today Show while Dr. Phil, forlorn and defeated, was forced to sell his mustache.

The Results

Here are the main things you identified in order to have a happy marriage.

Figure 1: Very Important Scientific Chart Explaining Key Elements of Marital Happiness

Here’s how we defined these ten topics:
Sexytime is Very, Very Good for You: The importance of having frequent (ahem) relations was mentioned more often than anything else. It was acknowledged a lot that women tend to be less into it than men. But it was also clear that making nookie a priority is super important if both partners are going to be happy. Another theme through the comments: Don’t be stingy with the BJ’s.
Don’t Talk Schmidt and Call it Venting: This includes being nasty to your hubby in public or in front of other people, excessive complaining and nagging, venting about your spouse too much or in a way that will end up biting you both in the ass and, of course, the very important skill that so few of us have mastered: knowing when to zip it.

You Betta Work Because It Ain’t Easy: This includes all the things you should be actively doing to try and make it work. Things that range from making a point of saying ‘I love you’ every day to seeking therapy, if needed. Sometimes doing the work means working on the marriage and sometimes it means working on yourself.

Fight Fair and Don’t be Assholic: Calling each other names, being intentionally nasty or bringing up stuff from the past that you haven’t been able to let go of is not exactly helpful. No matter how mad you are or how much they deserve it, completely losing your schmidt or doing something to degrade or humiliate your partner is never OK.

Communication? Even Yesser: Touch base every, single day – even if it’s just for a couple of minutes. Listen to each other. When in doubt, say something. If you can’t say it – text it. Growing apart happens so easily, almost effortlessly. Staying in touch with each other takes effort and sometimes, strategy.

Men Are Not Mind Readers: Have you ever said some variation of: “Well if you don’t know then I shouldn’t have to tell you” or gotten angry because your husband didn’t do something that obviously needed to get done? The point is you must be annoyingly straightforward about what you would like. Live by this rule: If you do not ask, you will not get.

Pick Your Battles, B*tches: We’ve all heard this before and we all know how true it is. Also included in this category? Adjusting expectations. This doesn’t mean that you live with unhappiness or crappy behavior, but rather that unreasonable expectations get replaced with those that have some basis in reality – minimizing disappointment and making it easier for everyone (including you) to live up to them.

Must Have Date Night: You have to take time to be together and hang out. It doesn’t have to be dinner and a babysitter. It can be a game of cards after the kids go to bed. It just has to be a priority.

Take Time for Yourself. Take It and RUN: Time with girlfriends or at Zumba or just being by yourself for a little while – INVALUABLE. Ask for it. Demand it. Make sure you get it. And make sure he gets it, too. Because he needs it just as much as you do.

Use Your Damn Manners: We kill ourselves making sure our kids say please and thank you . That they understand that being rude means that they’re essentially ungrateful and lack respect for other people. Bottom line? Everyone is deserving of courtesy and respect. And when it’s the hardest to give, it’s usually when it’s the most necessary.

Before we move onto everything else
I need to clarify something. While it looks like sex is the most important thing up there on that fancy bar chart, it’s actually not. Everything other than sex is either really about communication or actively doing stuff to make the marriage a priority (go on a date, give your undivided attention, take time for yourself to recharge your batteries, etc.). Really, how it breaks down is more like this:

Figure 2: Aggregated Elements of Marital Happiness Whereby Sexy Time is Slightly Less Important
The picture shifts, no? We’re going to discuss these things a little more, sharing your words of wisdom. Sex is obviously still really important, so let’s start there.

Important Point #1: Sex =Good. No Sex=Bad.

There were a couple of themes within this category, and they were not romantic at all. It sort of follows this train of thought:
  • You want to have sexy time never and your partner wants to have it always.
  • Sweet, sweet lovin’ is not a big priority for you because you’re freaking exhausted by 9pm every night, but you do it anyway because it makes him happy.
  • You know you should be doing it more and that you should want to do it more.
There were a lot of comments about how marriages are happier and stronger when this particular need is being met. Moreover, there were comments about how this one thing is a really important factor in how most men measure their marital happiness.
“Men place an enormous value on sex. To them, it is how they express their love for you, and also how they FEEL loved in return. So if you don't really feel like it, remind yourself that, to him, it is like saying you don't feel like loving him.”
It appears that being out of sync in this department is pretty common. I would add that this is especially true during the child-bearing years. Your body and hormones feel completely different and whackadoodle, your boobs are for the baby, and switching gears from mommy to sexy sexpot is about as easy as having an adult conversation with a toddler. Factor in the fact that some kids seem to have a radar that insures they will never have younger siblings, and just the logistics of getting started seem overwhelming.
“Sometimes sex is like picking up the playroom. You just have to force the first 10 minutes, then you are either happy with your progress or happy that it's done. And yes, you have to do it again later.”
But the truth is, it’s important for all of us – not just the dudes. Being out of sync is OK as long as there’s an effort there to get back on the same page. That may take compromise for both of you. It may mean that you’re having relations twice as much as you want, but half as much as he wants. But working at it is a sign that you haven’t given up. By the way, “out of sync” can also mean that you’re the one initiating and he’s the one saying no. That happens, too.
“If you aren't in the mood ALL THE TIME, examine what the source of that feeling is. It could be a medical problem, or it could be your intuition telling you that there is something seriously wrong.”
And honestly, your partner probably doesn’t care anywhere near as much as you do what your ass looks like after kids – he’s probably just happy he gets to touch it. Here are some additional nuggets of wisdom about sex from the comments for you to think about:
“I introduced my husband to choreplay! Nothing makes me hotter than seeing him vacuum or fold laundry, and it drives me absolutely wild when he empties the dishwasher. And we laugh about it and joke about it and then have really good sex. Yay!”
“I was told once that a full belly and empty balls = happy marriage.”

Important Point #2: Communication Means Stop Looking at Your Phone

Communication means a lot of things. Of course it refers to talking to each other. But it’s also about taking the time every day to connect with one other. It also included a whole lot of comments that all really boiled down to knowing when to keep your mouth shut. Like such classics as “Don’t talk a bunch of schmidt about your spouse in public” and “If you vent to one person over and over again about what a douchebag your partner is, they will grow to hate him and wonder what the hell you’re doing”.
“Don't talk down to your spouse (or about your spouse) to your friends and family. Funny stories, "he's crazy but I love him", eye-rollers are all well and good, but when you start actually saying things about your spouse that would wound him/her if they were overheard, that's the beginning of the end. You will internalize those words, learn to believe them, and soon you have disgust or contempt for your partner and that's The End.”
And of course, there’s just knowing when not to say something, especially when you’re arguing. That’s hard and it can be counter-intuitive for people like me, who are hard-wired to talk about things until they’re either dead or they want to be. I get so worked up that I just want to my husband to stop saying words so I can say the next thing that I want to say. Which means of course, that I’m not listening. Learning how to disagree with each other and how to fight constructively is really important:
“Most relationship misery comes from un-communicated assumptions and expectations. This only works if both of you do it. If your partner is not so into talking about things, you may need to START by talking about why you need to talk about things. AND you have to actually listen to each other, rather than just waiting til that annoying sound stops to say the next thing in your brain (this can be REALLY hard as you can lose track of what you wanted to say and end up on a tangent). For big discussions a list of points you want to bring up is helpful. Totally not kidding.”
“It's okay to have things about the other that really piss you off. Learning to ignore these things is what defines a long marriage. Trying to change these things is what defines a fight.”
The phrase “don’t keep score” came up several times. We all do it. And we all know that bringing baggage up can turn a petty argument into a big, seething pile of crap. If you need to talk about that particular thing that bothers you so much, go ahead and do it. LATER. Unless it is directly related to the conflict or problem at hand – it needs to stay out of the equation.
“It's okay to go to bed angry, especially if you know from experience that you will wake up thinking it wasn't such a big deal. Sometimes small problems are best put to bed as small problems, rather than unpacking 6 months' worth of dirty laundry and throwing it at each other til 3 am.”
A really important point that came up a lot was that men are not mind readers. You need to tell your husband what’s going on before you can expect him to do anything about it. That applies to little things (Can you please clean up the dinner dishes while I put the kids to bed?) and big things (I am really, really unhappy and I need you to help me before I lose my mind). In a nutshell, tell him about whatever it is and make it his problem, too. Until that happens, it’s not his problem. It’s your problem.
“Don't play games. EVER. If you want or need something, tell him. If you are angry about something, tell him. Don't make him guess. He will either be completely bewildered (and likely get angry with you), or he will ignore you, figuring if it had something to do with him you would say so. Be straight with each other, and you will probably solve most of your problems together quickly and easily.”
"You CANNOT hold your spouse/partner responsible for things you don't verbally ASK them for. No body language, no "you should have just known" or mind reading... if I don't ask for whatever it is I need/want, and I mean literally like, "Honey, will you mop the floors while I'm gone?" or "Honey, can we have sex tonight?" neither of us can get mad about not getting what we want. Made all the difference in the world in our relationship."

Important Point #2: Do the Work. Oh Goody! Another Job.

One thing that was mentioned several times in the comments gave me sort of an epiphany. There have been times over the past 15 years when I felt like I was trying so hard. Like I was doing everything and it was beyond overwhelming and frustrating. And I would look up at Cap’n Coupon, feeling resentful and put upon. And I would see that he felt the exact same way.
“My father told me the key to a long and healthy relationship was to worry about the other person and put them first. The caveat was that they have to do the same for you.”
The truth is that marriage is work. And it’s not always 50/50. People commented that it should be 60/60. Or even 100/100. That you always have to do more than your share. It’s kind of the same as parenting. To try and be the parent my kids deserve, it’s a constant struggle to be a better person than I’m inclined to be. In a relationship, if you’re both doing the work, as long as it evens out over time – making that extra effort is what’s required.
“Our marriage works because we mutually desire to make life easier for the other. That’s what it’s about.“
“What my grandfather told my mother and my mother told me: In your marriage, don't expect to go halfway and meet in the middle. Only when you both feel like you've gone the whole way will you meet in the middle.”
There was also a lot consensus about taking action. Making time for yourself and giving that same time to your spouse. Identifying problems and finding a way to make them better. Again, there was an emphasis on doing the work required to make each other (and make yourself) happy.
“If I count on him to be my bestie, my parent, my gossiper, my housekeeper, coworker and my drinking buddy, I'll have to suppress the need to throw things. Girlfriends save my life.”
“My husband is not considerate by nature. As in, at all. Respectful is hard enough for him to manage. So he has programmed things into his iPhone at key times certain reminders. Examples: "Ask how her day was" "Ask if there's anything around the house that needs doing after kids go to bed" (before he hunkers down with his computer for the evening). Not everyone is thoughtful by nature, but everyone can find a way around it. “
It’s a fact of life that every relationship has difficult times. Some are very difficult indeed. But the key to staying married sometimes is not getting divorced. The earlier discussion about realistic expectations is directly applicable here. No marriage is perfect. No relationship will be happy all the time. You will fight, bad things will happen and you must choose how to get through them.
“When things go to hell -- and they will go to hell -- turn TO each other, not ON each other.”
Sometimes it’s healthier for everyone when a marriage ends. If a relationship is truly destructive or dangerous, sticking it out in the hopes it will get better is not the best solution. But for everyone else, consider that if you are both in it for the long haul and willing to do the work, there is a chance that things can be good again. If you give up, there is no chance of that.
"My grandmother told me: "Gramps and I have been married for over 50 years. During those 50 years, there were at least 5 years of time in which I hated his guts. I couldn't stand the sight of him. All I could think about was that I would be better off without him, or with someone else. After a few months (or in one time, years), we would talk it out, and things would get better. Now, looking back, we were happy for probably 90% of our marriage. Not bad odds. And those 5 years don’t seem so bad in comparison to our life together. So be prepared. There will be times in which you hate your husband. Just try to hang on until it gets better."

Conclusion

I really learned a lot from this. As I expected, the collective wisdom here in Mommyland staggering. And I think the biggest takeaway is that a happy marriage is one where both partners never stop trying to make things better.
So here is your mission, if you choose to accept it. The advice that you gave is less a call to action than a call to practice common sense and consideration. Go back and look at that first chart. See if anything strikes a chord with you. If it does, think about how you and your husband can work on those things. And let me know how it goes. I genuinely want to know what you think of this report and if any of it is useful to you.
Good luck, ladies. You all deserve to be happy.
xo, Lydia

(c)Herding Turtles, Inc. 2009 - 2011

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