This summer, I was married 16 years. Forty percent of my life has been spent committed to a man I met when I was a 22-year-old graduate student, living on my own for the very first time, on the cusp of beginning my first “real job.”
On the eve of my 16th wedding anniversary, I was tempted to share stories of the lessons I’ve had in patience and compromise. I could fill pages with examples of slowly (and at times, painfully) learning the art of listening rather than just hearing. While I’m no pro, I could show you all the ways I’ve certainly become a better communicator. I could have done all that. Instead, I want to share the most important thing I’ve learned in my 16 years as someone’s wife.
Want to stay happily married?
Here’s how: Look up
Life has become so complicated over the years as my husband and I worked to maintain a home, changed jobs and had children. While my life was in no way a war, in some ways I slowly morphed into a soldier of sorts—wading through the murky waters of communication and scaling mountains of conversations about sharing chores and raising the kids. I’ve been strategically developing a plan that would make my husband understand me and ensure that we, two people who committed our lives to one another before God and family, would stay together through it all.
I was doing a great job with that plan, by the way. Until eventually, a glaring flaw revealed itself. My vision had become singularly focused on the road immediately in front of me, always looking down, inadvertently losing perspective. As I journaled about hurt feelings or wrote him letters pointing out his mistakes and highlighting my injuries, I was looking down. While I pounded the pavement for long walks to process my thoughts or feelings, I was looking down. I was certainly looking down when I punished him with my silence or my passive aggressive attitude.
It’s easy to do, this looking down. We become so laser-focused on our world that we forget to look up and see the world. Journaling clearly has its place and letter writing is beneficial in many situations, but my 16 years as a wife have shown me that an even better place to start is with me and where I am focused. Unsurprisingly, I typically find my focus down.
This is not to say that my anger is unjustified or my hurt feelings are illegitimate. My husband will be the first to tell you he’s screwed up plenty over the years (a little secret: I have too). As a young wife in those situations, I silently stewed and mentally compiled a list of “evidence” supporting my anger. I legitimized my hurt or frustration with my laundry list of examples of his insensitivity or selfishness. I focused inward and downward. Unsurprisingly, the tension would mount.
Eventually, I’d become so full of self-righteousness that I couldn’t swallow my dinner, or my voice, any longer, and I exploded. Often. Words of anger, laced in tears and snot, spewed from my mouth. I said awful things—awful, awful things. They are things I’ve asked him to forgive me for, but I can’t take them back, and the sound of them still echo in my ears on occasion. I’m luckier than many because I have a husband who stood there and listened while I unleashed holy hell on him. Then I would calm down enough that we could have a conversation and address the issues at hand. Sadly, this was our way for a long, long time.
At the 16-year mark, that is not our way any longer… most of the time. When I’m angry–I mean really, really pissed–my first response isn’t to lash out or begin building my case against him or to bottle-up my feelings until they have nowhere to go but up and out, inevitably covering every surface with verbal shrapnel, anymore. Finally, my first response is now to look up, literally and figuratively. I consciously choose to stop and look at the situation from a different perspective, willing to acknowledge and accept responsibility for my actions or, as is often the case, inaction. I may still be spitting nails, and the evidence might continue to stack up in my favor, but time has taught me that stating my case is a lot less dramatic and typically yields better results when I have some perspective.
Every day, I look up. I try, at least. It has not made our life easy or perfect. It has not afforded us the luxury of perfect communication or seamless decision-making. But it has made our journey a lot smoother and our communication less painful. It’s given me the opportunity to focus on solving the problem rather than being right. Most importantly, though, it has allowed me to continue to see and remember the man I fell in love with and said “I do” to 16 years ago because he is still right in front of me.
If I had it to do over again I’d pick him every time and twice on Sundays.
That’s just my normal.