When it comes to the most breathtaking, heart-moving, tear-inducing moments, the vow exchange is hard to beat. There is nothing quite as beautiful as two people publicly and earnestly professing their love and commitment to one another. In moments like that, I’ve often wondered how a couple could possibly go from saying “I do” to “I want out.” And in my wildest imagination, I never imagined that I’d one day be able to shed light on how exactly that could happen.
(Source: Orange Turtle Photography)
It didn’t happen overnight. I don’t think it ever does…I’m pretty sure no one gets married expecting the marriage to reach a breaking point. We certainly never thought it could happen to us: we loved each other, we had a strong foundation of friendship, and we shared the same values and faith, which we strove to live out each day. Yet, it still happened.
We didn’t start out with huge fights or arguments—those came much later, after the trust in our relationship had already been eroded. Sure, we had a few big stressors that accelerated us down the wrong path. But the real culprit—clandestinely disguised as courtesy, an easygoing nature, or even selfless genuine loving care for the other—crept in, seamlessly becoming routine in the way we related to one another. And that culprit was none other than lack of awareness—of self, of the other, and of the state of our hearts.
We both led incredibly busy lives, with very little free time. We thought our relationship could wait; after all, we’d always be there for each other. We had made it—we were married! But the day to day busy-ness and the focus on work and life turned into a consistent lack of communication. We didn’t realize that we would grow and change, that we still had to work on getting to know each other, staying connected, and pursuing each other.
We were both nice people. We went out of our way to try to be understanding of each other. We didn’t want to cause unnecessary hurt by bringing up certain small things that bothered us. But the trouble came when “not sweating the small stuff” and “being the bigger person” turned into denying our own hearts and sweeping hurts, disappointments, and unmet expectations under the carpet. We didn’t understand that some of the small stuff was actually big.
We always gave each other the benefit of the doubt. We assumed the other person didn’t mean something hurtful. What we didn’t understand was that it wasn’t enough to leave it at a benefit…that doing so also left the doubt in there too. And failure to clarify could then turn into unresolved misunderstanding.
For these reasons and many more, within a couple years we found ourselves at a point where our relationship, unbeknownst to us, had become extremely fragile. And when the stressors came (and they always do), we quickly hit a breaking point. We found that we didn’t know each other—we had such different personalities and couldn’t remember why we even married each other. We found that we didn’t trust each other—it felt like we were never there for each other. And we found that we had fallen out of love—there were so many hurts that had accumulated in our hearts that even in spite of our desire to love each other, we had nothing left.
I’ll have to save the story of how we got out of all this for another day, but to take the tone back up a bit (and not leave you all depressed!), I’d like to leave you with a few lessons learned—things that I think could have helped us avoid our situation, that have indeed prevented other couples from getting to that point, and that help us in our present happier times to keep our relationship strong and our love growing.
Don’t stop pursuing each other. Marriage doesn’t mean you’ve arrived at a destination and you’ve made it. Find creative ways to enjoy each other, to persist in wooing each other, and to continue getting to know one another. There’s a quote a famous professor from my alma mater that I love: “Marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.” I love it because it starts with that marriage commitment. We inevitably change. Or even if we don’t, there are things we discover later either about ourselves or our partner. Expect the change and love your partner through it and because of it. Keep things exciting by planning dates and fun ways to delight each other’s hearts. Stay connected to each other, so that you’ll be growing together as opposed to growing apart.
Protect your space as a couple. Work, friends, and family have a way of taking over the calendar. While those are all important, prioritizing your marriage means actually making it a priority…which means intentionally carving out time for it and saying no to other things sometimes. As a married couple, you are creating and becoming a new family, which becomes your primary family. It was so hard to say no sometimes—to family events where there was a lot of pressure to attend, to friends when we didn’t want to miss out, even to some work events where it felt like it might be limiting to miss out on a happy hour or other relationship/career-building opportunity. Even if your partner understands, your actions imprint what you really think on their hearts and whether they really are what’s most important to you. I’ll likely dedicate a future post to discussing this topic more thoroughly, as this was a big one for us and a huge area of struggle for so many new couples. But to keep it short, relatives will eventually come around (and if they don’t, can you live with that?), friends will understand, and there will always be more opportunities at work. Set your boundaries and prioritize each other.
Talk it out…even if it hurts. Loving someone doesn’t mean never making them upset. Communication, or lack thereof, is almost always at the heart of conflict. It may feel unnatural or awkward at first, but it is always better to express what’s on your mind and clarify any areas of potential misunderstanding or conflict. While it helps to be tactful, being direct is way more important. If possible, stick to “I” statements and how your partner’s actions made you feel, rather than accusatory statements. Chances are it was a miscommunication—I can’t tell you how many times I interpreted and received a statement a certain way when the motivation behind the statement was so far removed from it. Even in the middle of trying to work something out, we’d sometimes find that we heard something differently than what the other person meant to say. Clarify, clarify, clarify! And if in fact it wasn’t a miscommunication, it’s always better to have a discussion about it and to address it before it builds up and becomes a much larger issue.
Be direct. I would also add that as romantic as it is and as much as I wish this could be the case, try to recognize that your partner can’t read your mind. I used to think being “soul mates” meant we would be on the same wavelength all the time. While it may sometimes feel like that while dating, you’ll quickly find that marriage is a different ballgame, as we all eventually lose the rose-colored glasses we wore during the honeymoon period of our relationship that likely filtered out the times when we didn’t get it quite right. We each unknowingly brought in so many expectations into our marriage, expectations that we thought our partner would meet. When that inevitably didn’t happen, rather than recognizing it was simply that the other person didn’t know what we were thinking, it instead led to doubt about the other person’s commitment and whether we were right for each other. We now try to be much more direct with each other—even in the simplest of things like what we want to do for dinner or how we want to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. I know it sounds unromantic, but when the honeymoon stage is over and reality sets in, rather than hoping for your partner to always read your mind, help him or her out and just let them know what you’re thinking. It will pay off, because over time they will start understanding you better and “getting” it, keeping the romance alive.
Know each other’s patterns and give each other space. Everyone deals with conflict differently. Some people need to hash out the issues right away; others need some time alone to process through and calm down first. If things get heated, it’s usually good to give each other some space to allow the situation to deescalate first, and then to try to have a more objective discussion when the emotions aren’t running as high. I can’t tell you how many times just simply taking a 20-minute break made all the difference in the tone of the conversation.
And finally, stay vulnerable. The worst thing you can do is to harden up and detach from one another. Even though it’s scary, sometimes sharing your heart helps keep things in perspective. Apologize to each other. Own up when you make mistakes. And be honest about when it hurts. We get angry because it’s really masking our hurt sometimes. But if you are honest about your hurt, it helps your partner see past the anger and stay in touch with their own heart too.
Well, that’s a lot. I could go on and on, but these are a few key things that we always try to keep in mind and have helped us immensely, even in the present day when issues come up. These are much easier said than done…just as wedding vows are much easier said than kept. But the habitual act of putting these things into practice, of choosing to work things out, of sticking it out day after day even in the hardest moments—these are what truly say “I do” when it comes down to it…and that’s beautiful.
For those of you who have been in long-standing relationships, how about you? What are some of your best tips for keeping the communication lines open?