I’ve been married to my husband for over half of my life. In those 20 years, there are eight hard lessons I’ve learned that have strengthened my marriage. These hard lessons have proven to not only tighten our bond, but have also allowed us to cling to each other through the ups and downs of raising six children and building a life together.
Every marriage has those issues or topics that remain forever unresolved. Sometimes it’s about a naive financial investment, or an unfortunate event at the wedding on “the other side” of the aisle. All couples have that one thing (or a couple things) that they just can’t talk about without fighting.
We realized we will never agree about a certain event in our early married life. He believes that he made no mistake, and I absolutely disagree! However, countless confrontations and tears later I learned one of life’s hard lessons: to agree to disagree and leave that issue unresolved. In that decision, we realized that love is more important to us than convincing each other of who was right or wrong.
Lesson #2: Acknowledge the Emotion
Often times when we disagree with our spouse, we just don’t understand their point of view. We want to, but we don’t know why the other person is so offended or hurt. One example for us is when he passed a comment about my cooking in front of my teenage kids. When they all snickered, it felt a lot like ridicule and I was hurt.
I have told my husband, from the start of our marriage in fact, that, “You may not agree or understand my pain, but at least acknowledge it.” I want him to accept that my emotions are valid regardless of his intentions. This is a hard lesson he and I both learned.
We may not set out to be hurtful, but if we tell the other that it was, the other one doesn’t get to justify their actions. When he or I say, “I understand why you’d be hurt,” we have acknowledged the other person’s emotions. This acknowledgement provides a validation that prevents complaining to others on the outside. The validation stays between us and our marriage. Acknowledging the emotion is a hard lesson but leads to a strengthened marriage.
Lesson #3: Apology Does Not Mean Surrender
I cannot even tell you how many times our pride got in the way of us apologizing to each other. With time, I have learned this lesson the hard way that an apology can mean many different things. Sometimes it’s an, “I’m sorry you’re hurt” apology, or it’s an, “I’m sorry this got so out of hand” apology, or maybe even an, “I’m sorry that I opened my mouth” apology. But apologizing never means that we are caving in or surrendering to the other person. Rather, an apology means that we are done fighting and we want to make peace. This means more to us than any issue or topic.
I have chosen to apologize to my spouse even when I thought I was 200% right. I thought I was right, I knew I was right, and still believe that I was right. However, I apologized anyway. My marriage means more to me than my ego or my need to feel right. I did not apologize with a white flag in my hand, but I apologized knowing with certainty that I am investing in a long-term marriage.
In turn, my husband (the alpha male) who has grown up never really apologizing to anyone, has apologized to me numerous times—even when he thought he was right. This is one of the hard lessons in marriage to realize and even harder to practice. In return, it has strengthened our bond because we both know our marriage comes before anything else.
Lesson #4: Fight But Never Fight Dirty
Sometimes, when emotions get the best of us, a fight between a couple turns into a yelling match of name calling and put-downs. And what may start off as “silly” ends up being demeaning and hurtful language.
Once upon a time, when things became very escalated, very fast, we saw an ugly version of each other we never wanted to see again. When things simmered down, we decided that if we ever got in fights that we would stay within respectful boundaries. This is another hard lesson we learned—to fight but to never fight dirty. We agreed to never ridicule each other nor to resort to name calling. None of us win if we break the other person’s heart. Some damages become irreversible and, though we may say we forgive, we never forget.
I don’t want to carry resentment towards him because of the memories of how “low” he could go. I never want him to feel that way about me. There should always be boundaries in relationships that we make a deliberate effort to stay within—especially if we are focused on long-term goals for that relationship. In turn, this hard lesson strengthened our marriage.
Lesson #5: Silence, Space, and Time DOES Heal
As women, we sometimes push a need to communicate with our reluctant husbands… with urgency. I know I love to push until he says something. Very few times have I liked what came out of his mouth after the insistence. Twenty years has taught me a hard lesson in our marriage that I was unwilling to learn in the earlier years: when he says he needs time or he “doesn’t want to talk right now,” I need to honor that request.
At first, it used to feel like every second of silence was turning into a dragging hour. However, I learned to give it time. This is by far one of the hardest lessons I have learned in my marriage—to give him time and silence. The truth is, I have done this more for myself than for him. I learned that when I insist (he calls it nag) on a reaction, I do not like the one I get. This ties into the point mentioned above—I don’t want us to cross a boundary that takes too much time to return from.
Silence is golden when someone is not having a good day or is acting irrational. There are many times when my husband gets home and I am at my wits end with the kids. He could easily push back and say that he also has had a hard day at work. However, when I get into a fit and rage about him coming home later than expected he tends to just choose silence. I get to dump out my emotions and he gets to listen. This lesson works both ways. Sometimes he’s also on a yelling tangent and I let him get it out. When all is calm, we talk it over and apologize to each other.
Lesson #6: Be Grateful and Be Thankful
Life in the everyday traps us in the habit of expecting. We expect our spouse to be supportive in every way including emotionally, financially, as a parent, as a partner, etc. We want them to be there for us. But, we forget to show our gratitude when they are. Being partners means there are no favors between us, but there is gratitude for showing up and being present. Husbands should be grateful and thankful towards their wives for all that they do for them and their home. Wives should do the same.
By expressing gratitude we let our partner know that we see them. We see and acknowledge their efforts. We do it for our kids all the time, but we should also do it for our life partners. This is a lesson I learned the hard way. I learned how far being grateful and saying “thank you” can take us. In contrast, forgetting to say it or show it can make the other feel like they are being taken for granted.
A good friend once told me that she thought I put my husband “up on a pedestal.” Truth is, he makes me feel like I reside on one, too. No, he doesn’t shower me with compliments and flowers. Hardly! For me, pedestals are not meant for the fluff. He makes me feel important and seen. I want him to feel like the hero in our relationship and he wants me to feel respected and treasured. We have taught each other this by regularly displaying our gratitude and saying “thank you” to each other for both the every day things and the big things.
Lesson #7: Be Truthful, Even When it Hurts
We have a rule in my home: if my husband finds that my cooking was not to his liking, he must wait one day before letting me know. And, the truth is, it still stings the next day! However, I’d rather know than not if I made something and he’s just not that into it. To be truthful even if it hurts is one of the hard lessons learned in marriage, but a necessary one that has strengthened ours.
On a more serious note, we have had many uncomfortable conversations while putting all of our emotions on the table. It hurts to hear that you’ve been neglecting your spouse, or that you didn’t realize he has been upset for days. On the flip side, he has had to hear my version of the truth and his lack of regard for my emotions or the issues I’ve been dealing with.
In the end, we both know that we want to build a life together, so we have to give each other the opportunity to speak our truths regardless of how difficult it is to hear it. We know that when we tell each other, and only each other, we will not turn to others for comfort. Nor will we internalize the pain of thinking but not being able to share it. We will find our comfort in the company and words of each other. Only then can there be an effort to find the solutions and move forward.
Lesson #8: Be Each Other’s True Friend
The most important lesson in marriage I’ve learnt is to always be a true friend to my spouse. Beyond the steamy nights and romantic gestures, we realized that we needed to be friends first. We need to be the person who hears out the other. We need to be available for each other, on the phone or in person, like a best friend would. Often, it is a hard lesson to put into practice—to be there or to be the “ride or die” to someone who never remembers to refill the toilet paper roll. Or when “let’s talk” means him having an uncontrollable bout of yawning that immediately halts meaningful conversation. Remember? 20 years!!! A hard lesson, indeed.
He is the friend who holds my hand through the tears, even the tears that stem from him. He is the friend who I turn to for advice and mentorship, whether it’s about faith or kids or my writing. His opinion and feelings are the ones I trust the most.
Similarly, I am his listening ear for work issues (which I must say is super fun to hear about), the buddy who laughs at his jokes—even those super funny memes and videos. I am the person he discusses politics, taxes, and property values with… again, super fun! I am there for him in whichever capacity he needs me to be, and vice versa. This lesson has definitely strengthened our marriage.
Living together for over two decades makes us feel like we are eligible for some type of trophy; or at least an honorable mention on a podium somewhere. Truth is, we’ve been too busy living and loving to ever really count the days and years. We honor the eight hard lessons we learned, because they have strengthened our marriage and our large family.
We are now bracing for the next chapter of our lives as the kids grow older and more independent. I am expecting this list to grow, because life keeps teaching us new lessons. A lifetime of learning is welcome, as long as it’s a lifetime with him.