Recently, my husband, Gil, and I celebrated a major anniversary. Milestones are a good time for thinking back and learning from the past. Young people today seldom see a long-term marriage. Many have given up on marriage; even more are convinced that there is no way to make love last. I’ve boiled our successful relationship down to three key lessons that have made our love endure, kept the romance alive and made our marriage a joy that has sustained us through all that life has thrown at us!
1. Character, integrity, honesty, dependability and trust are what really matter for strong relationships – especially during the difficult times and after children arrive.
Having a high school boyfriend prove untrustworthy was a pivotal experience in my life. That profound disappointment crystalized for me the importance of strength of character and I never “went steady” with a guy or made any commitment until Gil, and then only after his behavior (not just his words) had convinced me that he could be trusted with my heart and my well-being. Trust has to be earned and that cannot be rushed. We’ve advised numerous young people about how to test whether they can trust someone they are dating. We tell them to look for a situation where the other person has to choose between something they merely “want” as opposed to something you “need” and see which choice the potential loved one makes a top priority.
Certainly, many relationship flounder when there is a lack of character, integrity, honesty and/or trust. Being able to keep a commitment is basic to any relationship, but it is especially important between a husband and wife and between a parent and a child –– in moments of stress and in small things as well as large ones. Albert Einstein said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” Too many times people try to get off the hook by saying, “Oh, I didn’t mean it.” No one should get taken in by that old dodge, “Oh, I was just kidding.” What hurts, hurts. The only good response when you have been thoughtless and inconsiderate is, “I’m sorry” validated by a change in behavior.
Experts agree that character is an essential trait of happiness, explaining that traits are ingrained, long-term characteristics, not an isolated action. Someone can perform a single admirable act without it being evidence of character which becomes a reliable, essential aspect of who a person is at his or her core.
2. The rewards of a long-term relationship is worth the struggle of working through the inevitable problems! In fact, relationships can be stronger after a couple emerges from bitter arguments, angry disagreements and lengthy alienation, as long as they work together to resolve their problems with humility, forgiveness, understanding, and commitment.
You might be surprised to learn that studies indicate that couples who are unhappily married can turn things around – that those on the verge of divorce who work through their problems and learn from them are often glad that they stayed together — 70 percent report that they have stronger marriages 5 years later than they did before the conflict. Only 12 percent report still being dissatisfied and unhappy. Gil and I have learned so many valuable lessons from working through our disagreements – with two strong personalities, we’ve had more than our share. As we look back, we think many of our arguments had clear origins (but not what we were focused on at the time): more often than not we weren’t eating right, we had too much stress in our lives, or we were overcommitted and exhausted. As I wrote in Marriage Matters:
“Mature voices have always warned that marriages will inevitably go through rough patches. My marriage has needed healing on more than one occasion, as has that of most couples since the Garden of Eden. But that does not validate the cynics’ claim that bitter irreconcilable relationships are the inevitable outcome in all marriages. Clearly, the need for redemption is universal, but so is the possibility.”
Ironically, sometimes it’s healthy to say you’re sorry when it’s not solely your fault or to agree for the sake of the marriage; occasionally, it takes years for a loved one to admit the other one was right in a particular conflict, but it evens out if both are loving and giving. [Note the sometimes and occasionally; that’s different from being a push-over.] The willingness to say “I’m sorry” coupled with the humility to beg forgiveness are essential.
3. Romance doesn’t have to die; it can grow even more wonderful every year. Romance consists of the little things, not the expensive gifts, grand gestures and huge celebrations.
Gil and I have developed a term, “anniversary effect,” to explain that often the big occasions that end up being a disappointment because we are under too much pressure at the time, we are burdened by too high expectations, or the timing is just not right. As a result, we find truth in the old adage that “It’s the little things that count.” A gift at the time it’s needed is far more significant than one given to meet the expectations of a particular occasion. Helping with the dishes, going out to dinner after an horrific day, understanding when we fail, and being there when needed are far more important than receiving a nicely wrapped gift – not that those aren’t nice, too!
Starting with the magical connection that kick starts the relationship to the rollercoaster ride of passion that turns it into a singular relationship, romance is still holding hands, laughing at an often-told story, a wet washcloth and cup of water when you’re sick, breakfast in bed on a Saturday morning or flowers … just because. Romance is also an attitude. Love is, as I’ve written before, “forged on the anvil of common dreams, mutual commitment, and shared sacrifice.” My friend, Frederica Mathewes-Green, described Ruth and Billy Graham’s marriage as having “all the lamps still blazing.” Certainly, that is what everyone wants: to experience Billy Graham’s description of their love in their retirement years – being able to “feel each other’s hearts.”
There’s no greater gift a couple can give each other and their children than to prove that two strong, hard-charging individuals can, with determination and commitment, build an enduring, stable relationship that creates a family haven for their sons and daughters that will prepare them for happiness and healthy relationships as well as success in their lives.
First published at The Washington Times
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.