This weekend my husband and I are celebrating our 12 year anniversary.
My gosh, has it really been that long?
As we spent yesterday sitting at our kitchen table, spread with minis and character sheets and a veritable smorgasbord of junk food, I looked up at the wall at a picture of us on our wedding day (at all of barely 19) and realized that it had indeed been 12 years. We're both a little rounder, a little more wrinkled around the eyes, and much more wiser for the wear. We've born and lost children, bought and lost homes, had knock-down screaming fights and spent memorable moments, like this weekend, in intimate forget-the-world bliss. We've made good memories. We've endured bad ones. But each of those moments have made our marriage what it is that it was not yet on that day 12 years ago. What it continues to be a little more each day.
And how have we managed that? I refer you to exhibit A above. We spent our weekend celebration at home. Gasp, I know. We shipped the kids off to my sister for the weekend and chose to spend our few days concentrating on being together rather than spending ridiculous amounts of time and money on escaping to a tourist trap. Several years ago, I got it into my head that we could spend our anniversary at a cabin by the lake, cut off from the world, relaxing and just enjoying being together. So I surprised my sweet hubby with a dumping of the kids at my sister's, then whisked him off on an hour and half drive out to a cabin rental place on the Arkansas River. Turns out, he loved the idea of spending the weekend together, but hates surprises and had a small heart attack at the bill. I had enjoyed my anniversary celebration at the expense of my husband's comfort. Yay for me. Not so much for him.
So for the next two years, we've done things a little differently. We still shipped the kids off to my sister. (Thanks, Sis. You're awesome.) We stayed home instead of going to the cabin. We spent the weekend playing video games and watching TV and engrossed in a two day long DnD campaign. We saved money on the cabin, but splurged on pre-made deserts, ribeye steaks, freezer junk food, and fresh fruits that my husband loves but I would normally never buy. I even scheduled him in for an hour long massage to help him be able to relax a little more--something he has a hard time doing. All in all we have had a fantastic, memorable, and rejuvenating weekend. Not only do neither one of us need to feel like we got the short end of the stick on our anniversary celebration, but everything we have done this weekend is a perfect example of why we've made it this far.
1. Make Trade-Offs
I didn't get my cabin weekend. But I still got what I wanted.
Lots of people throw around the term "compromise" when it comes to making relationships more effective. Honestly, that's garbage. Compromise means that you both lose. You meet in the middle, yes, but you both have to give up a little of what you really wanted for the sake of coming to a mutual agreement. Instead, my husband and I do something referred to as "collaboration." We get to the heart of what we really want, then find new ways to achieve it that we both are completely comfortable with. We create something new, together. (Notice the plate of pizza and egg rolls next to the plate of fresh fruits and veggies? I love appetizer junk foods. He loves fresh produce. At our house we now call the combination "Snack Night," lol.)
All I really wanted in regards to disappearing to a cabin by the lake was a weekend, completely uninterrupted by responsibilities and commitments, to spend entirely with him. I wanted to relax--to feel like I could relax--and spend time together. That's all. But the cost of renting the cabin made my hubby uncomfortable, so we came up with other ways to achieve seclusion and time together without spending as much money. We sent the kids away, told everyone we were "unavailable" for the weekend, shut the blinds and curtains, stocked the fridge, and stayed home. We substituted the yummy goodness we'd have gotten from restaurants while away by supplementing with pre-made deserts we bought from baking savvy friends and splurging on steaks (still insanely cheaper than going out). We made trade-offs, and still both came out happy.
2. Keep Your House Clean
One of the things we wives (and even some husbands) love about being whisked off on a tourist weekend is the fact that we are going somewhere that is already clean and clutter free, and we don't have to be distracted by either cleaning or decluttering it all weekend. We can spend two or three days feeling like we are "off work" and without responsibilities. (And we're also not afraid to shell out the extra dough to get it.) However, what we don't realize is that we can achieve that exact same effect at home, with the added bonus of being able to sleep in our own bed and shower in our own bathroom. There is no way I would have been able to enjoy celebrating my anniversary at home with mounds of laundry staring me in the face.
The rest of the year, when you're not celebrating your anniversary, the simple act of keeping your house clean is possibly the single greatest thing you can do to improve the atmosphere of your home--and the mood of your family. Nothing is more stressful than having to look at a sink full of dishes, wake up to the smell of overflowing trash, or wade through piles of unwashed laundry and scattered toys. Who wants to cook a surprise dinner in a dirty kitchen or spend a hot, relaxing bath in a filthy tub?
Now, I know that some of you are thinking, "Easier said than done!" but I promise you it is much simpler than you think. All of us have different definitions of "clean." Find those few things that must be done in order for you and your family to function, then focus on those. If you have difficulty keeping up with the everyday, try checking out FlyLady.net. She got me on track. I'm sure she can work for you, too. One of the things I always here people say as an excuse for anything they feel they can't get to is "I don't have the time." I then proceed to ask them how many hours they have in their day. When they respond that they, surprisingly, have the same 24 hours I do I then ask them if they take showers every day or eat three meals and they (usually) answer that they do. I tell them it's not that they don't have the time, it's that they don't make it a priority. If something is important to you--if it's a priority--you will make the time for it, even if it means stopping at the McDonald's drive-in or taking a 5 minute don't-even-have-time-to-wait-till-the-water's-hot shower. Take the 10 or 15 minutes to fold a load of laundry or load the dishwasher. You may not get the whole house spotless, but you'll be surprised at how much better you, and your family, feel.
3. Be Willing and Anxious to Help
On that note, I will admit that life can sometimes get overwhelming. For both spouses. Ideally, you are there to be each other's support system. Sometimes, this requires getting your hands a little dirty. I have a friend who has seven kids. I saw his wife gushing on Facebook last week about how he had actually sacrificed his lunch break to come home and help her fold laundry, because he knew she was drowning. Now that's what I call support! My hubby is no different. He insists he can't read my mind (though I keep telling him he can) so he may not always know what needs to be done. But EVERY SINGLE TIME he picks up on the fact that I am frustrated, be it through those deep, long sighs or the slamming of the dishwasher door, he will always ask me the same question:
"What can I do to help you?"
This weekend when I discovered, disheartedly, that we were out of butter for the baked potatoes, he immediately offered to run up to the corner store and pick some up for me. (I will also point out that I didn't even have to mention anything to him. He happened to overhear me say, "Oh, no!" from the kitchen, then asked what was wrong.) He even made a list of a few other items--not that we needed--but that I would have liked to have to go with dinner. Repeatedly he has called me on the way home to ask if I needed things from the store (even though I know he hates shopping). He has tried to help me with laundry on the weekends. He steps in when he sees I am struggling with our six year old son. I can tell through his offers of help that he is concerned for my happiness (and overall mental health) and I adore him for it. Likewise, I spent part of our anniversary weekend helping him finish discussion posts for school (he is working on finishing his Bachelors), and I have edited many a late-night last minute research paper as well.
4. Learn Their Love Language--And Use It
This weekend I organized a two-day one-shot Dungeons and Dragons campaign especially for my husband. I've sat with him as he played video games, watched TV together as we ate dinner and then cuddled on the couch afterwards. We've taken every shower together, walked the dog together, gone shopping and had lunch together. My husband's Love Languages are Quality Time and Physical Touch, and though I'm not always particularly good at it (I'm pretty independent and go a little nuts if I don't have some occasional solitude) I am aware of what it is and understand that that is how my husband knows he is loved. It took me years--litereally years--to figure out that all the service that I was doing for my husband meant absolutely nothing in regards to showing how much I cared about him. Because my Love Languages are Acts of Service and Receiving Gifts, I automatically assumed that laying out his clothes for him in the morning, going to great lengths to pick out the best anniversary and birthday presents, cleaning out his car on occasion, and fixing his plate for him whenever we were at friends' houses for dinner was my way of showing him I loved him. Turns out, it was my way. Just not his.
So spare yourself years of extra work that may go unnoticed and misinterpreted. Learn your spouse's love language now and how to use it. (My hubby took me shopping for "intimates" this weekend and paid for that gorgeous raspberry cheesecake in the pic above in exchange for all that quality time, by the way.) This can be kind of difficult if your love languages are different. My husband and I made jars for each other, each filled with slips with little things we could do for each other that we would appreciate and understand. My jar's slips say things like "Pick up a movie and a bag of pizza rolls" whereas his say things like "Play cards with me." This resource from FierceMarriage.com can show you How to Speak Your Spouse's Love Language, too.
5. Find Something You Enjoy Doing Together
They say opposites attract. My husband and I are two very different people. But no marriage can last for long--no relationship can blossom and grow--without spending some quality time together. The question is, if you're so different, then what the heck do you spend time doing?
For us, this was another one that took years to figure out. (Aren't you lucky to be able to learn from all our mistakes.) Eventually we settled on gaming. I'm not as avid of a gamer as he is. I will sometimes get bored with it quickly. But one thing we have established and do religiously together--we will even reschedule other events around it--is to have a weekly game night every Tuesday with friends. Dungeons and Dragons is our poison of choice, and even he will willingly admit someone had to talk him into trying it. (After all, it's like a 40 year old game for geeks in glasses and pocket protectors, right?) But the truth was that is is actually a lot of fun, and is just enough of a combination of creativity and imagination for me, and math and strategy for him, to make it enjoyable for both of us. (Plus, of course, it involves that Quality Time that he loves.) That is why when I asked him what he wanted to spend this weekend doing his first and only response was "DnD!" (And believe it or not, some of the coolest, most successful people I know play, so maybe Geek isn't so bad.)
Now DnD may not be your cup of tea, but you'll never know what your ideal "Quality Time" activity is until you try a barrage of different things. Refer back to number 1. Make Trade-Offs to get to the heart of what you both really enjoy doing and create something new to share. Maybe it's dancing because one of you loves music and one of you loves going out. Maybe it's photography because one of you loves being creative while the other loves being out in nature. Either way, don't be afraid to try new things. The best part is that having new experiences creates the same chemical reaction as falling in love, so each time you try something new together you'll be rekindling the flame all over again!
6. Have Good Friends
We could not have pulled off this weekend without good friends.
Typically my sister works during the day so in order to be able to spend as much time together as possible (my husband took Friday off for the occasion) I had to drop my kids with a close friend until my sister got off work. Shortly after dropping them off I made a stop at another friend's house to pick up the strawberry shortcakes we had ordered for this weekend. I then stopped by another friend's house to borrow the miniatures (figures for playing DnD) for the game I had planned. Just before we picked up the kids from friend number 1 we stopped again at yet another friend's house to pick up a board game (which another friend had dropped off for us to borrow) as well as the luscious raspberry cheesecake she had agreed to make for us if we'd simply reimburse her for the ingredients. Awesome friends rock.
But having good friends is not just helpful during anniversary weekends when you're trying to skimp on the cost of celebrating. In a study done on the homeless population it was discovered that the one thing that each of those people had in common was not poverty, hardship, or derelict. It was lack of a support system. A large percentage of the people surveyed simply had no one else to turn to when things got tough, and most of it was because they had consciously cut themselves off from the world--disconnected themselves from friends and family. So when things got bad there was no one to turn to. Good friends, as well as family, are especially important in a marriage because times can get tough. Society more and more is turning away from the traditional family structure, so surrounding yourself with like-minded allies who care enough about you to support you through everything from unemployment to the birth of a new baby is a huge asset. Marriage is hard enough as it is. Don't cut yourself off from the world and try to do it alone.
*On that note I will also say do not ever, EVER, use your friends as a sounding board to talk about things within your marriage that should be private. If you are struggling with anything other than domestic abuse keep it between yourself and your spouse. Trust in a marriage is a fragile thing and it is no one's business but yours if you are having difficulty. Every marriage has it's ups and downs and growing pains. You must remember, especially if you have a shared group of friends, that if you complain about your spouse to them they will still remember and look negatively on your husband or wife long after the two of you have made up. It's your job to lift up your other half, remember? Not bring him or her down.
7. Spend Less and Save More
We quite possibly saved several hundred dollars by making the trade-offs that we did on this weekend anniversary celebration, and potentially even more if we had decided to do something more extravagant, like a cruise. But whether or not spending money makes you as uncomfortable as it does my husband, we can all learn a thing or too from his frugal ways.
Financial reasons are typically cited as the number one cause of divorce in America. Not having enough money to get by, or even to live comfortably, is more stressful than a newborn with colic. It can frazzle nerves and fray marriages quicker than a Jimmy John's delivery driver can get your sandwich to your door. "Spend Less, Save More" is the single greatest contributing factor to our financial success. We live off of a THIRD of my husband's gross income, and he is the soul provider for our family. Even still we live quite comfortably, in a modest yet comfortable 3 bedroom duplex (that we own and rent out half of) with a spacious yard in a quiet neighborhood. We have adequate savings for both emergencies and retirement as well as being able to pay his college expenses out of pocket. We have no debt and our renter pays over half of our mortgage. We both know exactly how it feels to lie in bed awake at night, not knowing how we are going to pay bills, sickened by the idea that our accounts are in the negative again. We have made sacrifices and taken precautions against a repeat of any of it, and though it may be hard to believe, we both are quite happy financially speaking and want for very little. Sure it'd be nice to have that second car or bigger house, but eventually you have to ask yourself whether you'd rather keep up with the Jones' or fail proof your marriage--and future. (An added bonus is that living off of less teaches you to appreciate what you do have, and gratitude is a fantastic outlook to have in any marriage.)
I most likely could have made the strawberry shortcakes and cheesecakes myself in order to save even more money. We could have eaten at home all weekend, instead of going out to lunch on Friday. I could have made the egg rolls from scratch. I could have taken a class or scoured YouTube in order to figure out how to give my husband that one hour massage. But in the end this is another area where those trade-offs come in, and you'll quickly find you'll make your life, as well as your marriage, much happier for it.
My husband is an Economist by trade. He's spent his career utilizing his 'lite data analysis skills to make the best educated decisions for managing resources for his company. One of the many things I have learned from him is that time (as well as sanity) is a resource. My time can be just as valuable as money. As I am analyzing how to spend my time or my money I must consider something called opportunity cost. What am I giving up in order to do or buy this? What opportunities am I walking away from? Is the $30,000 a year I could be making working outside the home worth letting someone else raise my kids in daycare? Are the hours I would give up in the kitchen baking the deserts worth saving the $30 or so I'd spend to have someone else do it? And what about things like extra-curricular activities for my kids? Is the three nights a week spent at soccer practice worth it? What about the time spent on those extravagant, hand-sown Halloween costumes they'll only wear once? The custom made birthday cake? The cost and time of piano lessons? Hand-painting that custom mural on your toddler's bedroom wall?
Is it worth giving up all that time and effort and energy, just to have none left for your better half?
Overall, you must decide what is important to you--what is worth making the monetary as well as non-monetary sacrifices for. In the day and age of the Super Pinterest Mom, there is a lot of pressure to do it all. Don't. Don't even try. Simplify your life, pick and chose your battles, because if you honestly want to have time to get to the most important stuff--like your marriage--you're going to have to give up something. Just figure out what that something is for you.
9. Remember that First and Foremost You are a Couple
Without a doubt, the first and greatest priority for this weekend was finding somewhere for the kids to go. If we had to spend the weekend as parents, there was no way we were going to be able to concentrate on being a couple. Children sort of do that to you, don't they? You spend the greater part of a quarter of your life being a mom or dad, and you completely forget that first and foremost you are a husband or wife. But eventually the kids will move out (won't that be a day of celebration) and you'll find you spent so much time worrying about being the perfect parent that you have no idea how to be a spouse.
This baffles some (especially my writer friends who insist on holding writer's circle meetings at 8pm after their kids have gone to bed), but my time, after 7pm every night, is reserved for my husband. We send our children to their bedrooms and we will spend the next three or four hours (hopefully) completely uninterrupted, solely with each other. We watch TV, play video or board games, dance together in the living room, light candles and lie in bed listening to music. We talk. We sneak foods the kids don't know we have. We give back rubs or foot rubs and we just enjoy being together. Now honestly this doesn't always work. Sometimes we're lucky to even get in an hour and on game night we are with our friends as well as each other, but making this commitment means we are almost guaranteed to spend several hours together every week. Just being husband and wife.
Not only should you remember that first and foremost you are a couple, you should also remember that first and foremost you are a partnership. Some of the less desirable forces-that-be out there would like for us to believe that we are dire enemies, both each out to get the other. However I will profess to you that this is not at all true. If you're both relatively good, considerate people then you likely love each other very much. You are there, again, to support and uplift each other. You are there to compliment each other and take on the world together. This means you should act like a partnership. WORK WITH EACH OTHER. Communicate! Tell him or her something you have never and will never tell another living soul. Share hearts, and memories, and decisions, and frustrations, and goals, and fears, and concerns, and dreams, and showers, and babies, and bank accounts. (But not bathrooms, because that's disgusting. I mean, my gosh, this person is supposed to be physically and sexually attracted to you. How are they supposed to do that if they have the image of you sitting on the commode stuck in their head while you're trying to get frisky with them?)
This weekend also included my husband taking Friday off and us backing out on a Taekwondo class with friends. "First and Foremost You Are a Couple" also means that not just children, but work, friends, community responsibilities, and other commitments all come second.
10. Take Time for You
It's roughly 3:30pm on Sunday afternoon, and though the kids are still with my sister, my husband and I have now branched off to do our own things. We're in the same room, he at his computer and me curled up in the armchair in our office, but he is desperately trying to get to Whimsyland on Diablo 3, while I am feverishly pecking out what could potentially be the longest blog post of my life. Every so often he will say, "Hey, look at this," and I'll stop what I'm doing to peer over the top of the Macbook screen and smile. Every few minutes I'll tell him which bullet point I'm working on next. I'll heat us up some lunch. He'll offer to dish us up some leftover cheesecake. We're spending time together, separately, and occasionally that's ok.
You've heard the expression, countless times, "Oxygen to Self First." It's a concept on airlines where, in a crisis, the parent is instructed to ensure that they administer oxygen to themselves first before helping children. After all, how can you be of any good to anyone is you pass out before you can even get their mask on? The same concept applies in your marriage. If you've happened to make is this far in the reading process then kudos for you, because the single greatest impact you could possibly have on building a stronger marriage is to:
BE A STRONGER PERSON
It sounds a little counter-intuitive, doesn't it? So many times as moms, and sometimes even dads, we get this idea in our head that anything that we would be doing for ourselves is selfish. That our time would best be spent on helping or doing for someone else. But the truth is, you can't change others. You can only change yourself. So work on you. Be a stronger person, physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. Exercise, eat right, and get adequate sleep. It will increase your energy level, improve your mood, your appearance, and your love life. Get a good education, never stop learning, and develop your emotional intelligence. It will give you greater self-esteem, make you a better conversationalist, help you make better informed decisions on everything from finances to medical treatments, and improve your ability to regulate your moods and reactions. Seek out and make good friends. It will make you feel younger, live longer, reduce stress, and give you a support system (as well as someone for you and better half to hang out with on Friday nights). Find some greater person or purpose to believe in, no matter what it is you believe. It will provide clarity and direction, drive and focus, and may even motivate you to get out of bed on those mornings you really don't want to.
If you want a stronger marriage, be a stronger person. It's as simple as that. The last thing your spouse wants is to have to constantly carry you because you are too physically, mentally, socially, or spiritually weak to do it yourself. It's draining on them and, quite frankly, unattractive. Sure, we all have weaknesses, we all have limitations that we're dealt, and we've all had times in our lives that we've had to have someone carry us because we couldn't do it ourselves. That's what your spouse--what your partner, your companion--is for. But if you're not even willing to try to keep yourself afloat, then how can you continue to expect him or her to do it for you? How can you even expect them to want to?
11. Learn to Say No
On the afternoon I was all set to have everything ready to start our anniversary celebration the next day, I got an email from someone asking me to do something at the last minute. Granted, it was something that was technically part of my committed responsibility. But I had already been to the store that morning, already had made all the arrangement to "disappear" for the weekend, and knew that if I took the time out to rush to the store, put together the items that had been requested, and then drop them off, I would be taking time out of my anniversary--taking time away from my husband--to get them done.
Sometimes you just have to say no.
It's the age of the Super Mom and Dad, and the more you branch out into the world, the more you make friends and community commitments and try to "be a stronger person" as the bullet point above points out, the more you will realize that people want things from you. You are going to get requests, and you are going to be delegated tasks, and you are going to be given responsibilities. The better you are at them, the "stronger of a person" you become, the more you're going to be asked. The more you are going to be relied upon. But as you accept those outside commitments never forget points 8 and 9. Learn to simplify: Limit the amount of things you commit to outside your family and your home (as well as some things you may get the bright idea you want to do inside your home). And remember that first and foremost you are a couple: Don't ever put anything or anyone else above your spouse. Just say no. I promise you, no one is going to be upset with you over it. At least, not the person that should matter most to you.
12. Have Lots of Sex
Yes. You read that right.
I set a quota for this weekend. Six times. (We've only made it through four so far, so I should probably put down this computer and drag hubby to the bedroom soon.) Some of you are baffled, and slightly embarrassed, by the fact that I would even so much as mention this point. But honestly, it may be one of the most important points of the whole post. (Aside from Being a Stronger Person, which, if you were paying attention, includes a lot about the importance of having a healthy love life and making yourself more physically attractive to your spouse.)
Stephen Covey once described relationships as emotional bank accounts. You make deposits and you make withdrawals. You have positive interactions, and you have negative ones. Statistically speaking, sex is the single most pleasurable experience known to man (based on a recent poll). It ranks right on up there on the happiness factor along with "spending time with family" and "trying new things." It releases a barrage of feel-good chemicals, that's why there's an entire industry dedicated to it. Sex can be as addictive as any drug. It builds both physical and emotional intimacy between two people, not only in the act but in the resulting potential process of procreation. Bearing and raising children together can bring two people closer than anything. But even the simple act of sex, without the resulting prodigy, can involve a level of vulnerability, mutual openness, physical and emotional pleasure, and a closeness that can't be duplicated by any other single act. In the end, building a better, stronger relationship--a better, stronger marriage--is about making good memories. It's about having positive experiences, whether that includes spending time together, supporting each other, collaborating, meeting financial goals, or practicing each other's love language.
What better way to grow love than to make it?
So use that completely free God's-gift-to-couples opportunity to create positive experiences. In beliefs and situations where the topic is taboo, it can be difficult or even embarrassing to think about sex as a way for couples to improve their relationships, but the fact is that it's true. That's why it's called "intimacy"! Because it's divinely designed to increase the intimacy between two people. Find ways to increase your own intimacy, and that doesn't just include sex. Be physically affectionate. Hang on each other. Hold hands. Kiss. Often. Be conscientious about how physically appealing you are to your spouse, and then take advantage of it! Communicate openly, tell your spouse what you do and don't like and be considerate of what they are comfortable with. Read books on it together. You'd be surprised at how quickly your relationship with flame after that!