This month my wife and I are celebrating our twentieth anniversary. “Celebrate” comes from a Latin root that means “to sing the praises of” and “to practice often.” At a time when the US divorce rate for first marriages hovers around 50 percent, I can say, with humility and great gratitude, that my wife and I are singing the praises of what we practice every day to keep our relationship strong.
If you think that having a “five-star-marriage” means the we have a perfect marriage, we don’t. We are simply enjoying the fruits of our determined focus to grow a fulfilling partnership. Each of the five stars stands for a different quality we are cultivating.
Trust engenders safety and love. Its opposite—doubt—breeds fear. You grow to trust one another when you tell the truth and keep your agreements. (Mark Twain once quipped, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”) Trust allows you to live together more fully in the present because you’re not worrying that something you’re hiding will be found out. Before we were married, I was quite reckless with money. My wife is very conservative with finances. Over the years I gained her trust by making and keeping agreements about our budget and how I spent money. Trust enters into all parts of a marriage, from finances to physical intimacy. You have to count on your partner to be truthful and trustworthy.
For the first few years of our marriage, we were stuck in patterns of trying to change each other. Needless to say, we fought a lot. We finally sought professional help. In the very first session, the counselor said that to have a good marriage “you need to hold your partner’s experience—his or her thoughts, feelings, and beliefs—with equal weight as your own.” This made sense but was very hard to do at first. We each had to learn to listen, to reflect back what we heard, to validate one another, and finally to appreciate each other. This can all be rolled into the word “respect.” It means learning to have a dialogue, not ranting and raving. You don’t have to always agree with each other or convince one another. You need to listen and appreciate each other’s experience.
I love making my wife laugh. Laughter brings us closer. We laugh at things we both find funny, we laugh at ourselves and at each other. “Let go” and “lighten up” go hand-in-hand. Discover what’s funny to your partner and do or say what will make him or her laugh. Usually it will something spontaneous, in the moment. Don’t take things too seriously. Everything passes.
Intimacy is the special closeness between two people. It includes how you relate to each other emotionally and sexually. Safety and intimacy are closely connected. Learn what makes your partner feel safe and respect that. It helps if both person in the marriage are clear about their own boundaries. No one should feel used or abused. My wife and I come from different cultures and totally different backgrounds. Finding intimacy has been a slow, deepening process. An intimate relationship is like a flame that needs to be protected and nurtured. Only then will it provide light and heat.
Marriage is a path. The path is your direction, individually and together. You are supporting each other in being and becoming your highest selves. The path is sometimes smooth and sometimes rocky. However, when you keep renewing your commitment to journeying on the path together, you know that everything that happens is for you to grow stronger, as individuals, and as a couple. My wife and I have been through some very tough times--illness, financial difficulties, family challenges. Facing these together, knowing that we are meant to grow, has made all the difference.
As we practice these qualities on a daily basis, our marriage grows stronger and becomes more fulfilling with each passing year. The “stars” light our way.