June 2014

Being Better: A Better Spouse

Author: Kitty Bartell

The longer I am married the less certain I am about what makes for a good marriage or a bad one. Let’s just say we’re honing in on our pearl anniversary. I attribute this to the amazing nature of marriage. My experience has been one of love and passion, friendship and adventure, anger and frustration, peace and safety, and I wouldn’t have done it any differently. Despite the years that are behind us, I hope for many more ahead, which will give me time to keep getting better at it. So what follows are a few things I have learned along the way, most of which I am still working on.

Whether you have been married for decades or days, being a better spouse should begin with one mission: keep your marriage intimate. Imagine your marriage is an egg, and what goes on inside that egg should stay inside that egg. Moments of intimacy that elicit honesty, humility, and passion are fragile, and require a lifetime of encouragement. The longer you are married, and the more confidence you gain in each other’s ability to put the marriage before any other relationship, the stronger your shell will be.

Don’t talk about your spouse’s faults and flaws with your mother or your brother, your stylist or your buddies at the gym. Showing up to the family picnic with steam coming out of your ears, announcing that your mate is stupid, ignorant, or disappointing, or mate-bashing over beers will weaken the relationship. You may not see it right away, but these uncomfortable little public take-downs will cause small cracks, leading to big cracks, in what is designed to protect you both.

But really, we do all need to let off some steam now and then, and sans a therapist on speed dial, I recommend carefully selecting trustworthy, discrete confidants. Don’t bring your issues to the party. Show up as a team and work out the squabbles privately. It takes bravery to show your whole self, especially your vulnerabilities and flaws; you shouldn’t need to defend yourself against your bride or your groom. The reward for your discretion will be a stronger shell, protecting your relationship from the stormy weather that inevitably comes and goes.

Onto the slippery slope of trust. Does being a better spouse mean I have to tell him everything!? The actual cost of my new purse? The truth about the highly questionable color of her new hair color? What I ate standing in front of the refrigerator at 3 a.m.? From my experience, the answer is yes. Truth resides on a bit of a sliding scale these days; however, I have found that even if the truth is a bit embarrassing, or hard to take, it is critical in a marriage. Plenty of people in your world will hedge the truth; it’s nice when you can be pretty certain that it’s not your spouse.

Believe me, I know plenty of women who talk about hiding the evidence of their latest shopping spree, and men who tell tales of their misadventures, and maybe their marriages are just fine. However, speaking the truth about what’s important to you, even if that’s via an unplanned purchase or an unexpected exploit that called to your imagination, or sense of adventure, or sense of humor, it teaches your spouse something about you. Why would you want to hide that? It’s exciting to really know someone; and in a way it sets you free. Having nothing to hide makes room for plenty of other kinds of excitement and adventure.

Understanding each other by the way we spend our time and our money is a pathway to good rapport. Never discount anything as out-of-the-question. Just because your mother avoids fishing or your dad refuses to step inside a tea house doesn’t mean you have to follow in their footsteps. Cutting yourself off from something that is important to your spouse limits you and limits your bond. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t go off for his all-guy weekend of golf, or you shouldn’t spend the day at the beach with your peeps. Being better translates to staying interesting by staying interested. Derogatory comments make you petty and provincial. Wouldn’t you rather be witty and cosmopolitan? Delight him by learning how to gut and clean his catch. Surprise her with a hot oil massage expertly administered in the comfort of your own nest. Stay engaged and interested in each other’s lives. You’re going to be so much better.

Being aú courant also makes marriage more fun: read the newspaper, listen to NPR, know what’s trending. Always have a high-level overview of what’s happening in your world and you will have something better to talk about than budgets and schedules.

For those about to be married, talk about everything before your wedding: religion, money, children, pets, holidays, work, where you are going to live, goals, dreams, and family. Take each topic seriously and share honestly. What you share doesn’t have to be set in stone, but if what you are hearing raises any red flags, now is the time to talk it out; you’re forming the foundation of your marriage.

For many couples, families present some challenges. In-laws are part of the deal: mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins—family members will both test and bless your marriage. Talk honestly about your families before the wedding. Be a better spouse right out of the gate by speaking respectfully and with generosity about their assets and idiosyncrasies, and with humor about their faults. It may be hard for some of the in-laws to accept that the teams are changing. You and your spouse are stepping out of the family minivans and into your own sporty two-seater; speeding off into a new life. Being a better spouse means staying close to those you care about, but making your partner number one.

The ingredients of a good marriage are as varied as the number of couples in the world, so remember, there will be times when all you can do is cling to each other for dear life to ride out a storm; there will be times of sheer joy, and there will be plenty of days that fall somewhere in between. Just remember we each have the power to make or break any day, any hour, or any moment by what we say and how we treat each other. My wish is that you make it through with as few cracks in your shell as possible. 

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