Marriage Advice for Twenty-Somethings: Don’t Lose Yourself

My husband and I have been married for 5 years, in love for over 10. We’re about as different as two personalities can be. Our mutual love for music brought us together, but throughout the years of our long distance relationship in college and the natural progression of maturity, our personal interests changed and the things that originally brought us together were no longer dominant parts of our lives.

In honor of our 5 year anniversary on June 18, I’d like to share some of the wisdom that I have gathered over the years from my personal experiences and those of my married friends in the hopes that it can be encouraging and helpful to other young couples.

1. Communication is key

Caleb and I grew up with very different styles of expression. His family is logical and careful with their words, giving weight to words with the understanding that they can sway, heal, and damage. In contrast, my family is half Italian. We express exuberantly both the good and the bad in varying levels of volume and color. Bringing these two styles together and melding them is the single most challenging difficulty we face.

It is difficult to take the time to try and understand the intent behind another human’s words, particularly when your spouse says something to ignite your negative emotions. You generally have two paths: assume their words have the intention of hurting you, or assume they did not have the intention of hurting you but achieved it anyway.

Assuming they did not have the intention of hurting you will keep your emotions in check and allow you to express yourself to them without trying to “get back at” your spouse out of anger. This is really the most important piece of wisdom: when you are wronged, don’t wrong back. It takes an incredible amount of maturity to withhold your emotions when you are being hurt.

2. Say you’re sorry, and forgive quickly

You will hurt your spouse at some point or another. Whether it’s unintentional or intentional, it is important to say you’re sorry and mean it. Sometimes that means swallowing your pride and putting your spouse’s feelings above your own, even if you don’t think what you did was unreasonable. The fact is, you still hurt your spouse.

It’s also necessary to work through your issues as quickly as possible when you’re alone and after you’ve cooled down emotionally. Talk through it all, and listen to one another. Don’t just listen for a space of silence so that you can jump in and fill it with your excuses or anger. Some people have more difficulty expressing in words why they’re upset. Just be patient, allow them a grace period to work through their emotions and talk it out with you later.

3. Change yourself, not your spouse

Recognize your faults in yourself, and deal with them; don’t be so quick to pick on your spouse or nag them. Chances are you are very aware of their faults and have expressed it to them in more ways than one. Rather, work on the things that you recognize as faults in yourself, or the things that you know upset your spouse.

It’s hard at first to change your behaviors and habits, but if you entered a life-long relationship with someone who by default fundamentally differs from you, what did you expect? You also have to change and mature, or this relationship will never thrive.

4. Your spouse will not complete you

Your spouse will not ultimately make you happy; you must find happiness in yourself first. Having the unrealistic expectation that your spouse will fulfill all your needs and make you a completely happy person is a recipe for disaster. It’s not fair to put that pressure on your spouse.

Your best hope for happiness is to find contentment in yourself, in your life and circumstances, and then enjoy that alongside your spouse. Learn to be happy with your own life, because your spouse won’t always be around to share it with you. Whether it’s due to work schedules, life circumstances, or tragedies, you will not have your spouse by your side all of the time. Keep your opportunities open so that when your spouse can join you, your joy is ever increased by his/her presence and companionship.

Treasure the time you do have with your spouse, and purposely set aside frequent quality time with your spouse so that you can continue to build on your relationship and experiences together.

5. Trust your spouse

You and your spouse need to completely trust each other. This looks different for every couple, so I won’t begin to tell you what constitutes trust. You know what makes you feel uneasy and you know what makes you comfortable. Be honest with your spouse (again with this communication issue!) and talk about it. Put safe guards in place, and rely on one another.

If one of you fails, forgive each other and take measures to fix whatever is wrong by whatever means necessary. If it’s a serious issue, please don’t underestimate the help of family and marriage counseling. There should be no stigma to getting help, but there is an issue if your pride keeps you from saving your marriage.

6. Put your spouse first

Your spouse should come first. Your spouse comes above your children, above your parents, above your friends. While I encourage you to maintain your friendships and a personal life outside of your spouse, make sure you have manageable expectations set up for both of you so that you’re able to spend quality time together. Talk through what “quality time” means to each of you. You might be surprised by how differently you each define the term.

Keep in mind that compromising is not akin to losing; sometimes you have to sacrifice your needs in order to keep your spouse happy. If your relationship is solid, your spouse will be keen to do the same thing for you in a heartbeat. Find simple ways to do things for your spouse that they’re not expecting, just to show them that you care and that they’re on your mind.

7. Sex is a big deal, but it’s not everything

Sex is a wonderful part of marriage. Some people enjoy it more than others, and some spouses desire it more than others — yes, including women. The trouble is, our world has set up so many expectations and stigmas around sex, that many enter into marriage with unrealistic expectations and fears. They might feel sexy is dirty and wrong, or perhaps they assume they will have mind blowing sex every day. It’s important to talk through your sexual desires and be honest with one another. Don’t try to live up to someone else’s expectations or feel guilty that your marriage isn’t living up to the sexual experiences of somebody else, particularly fictional characters on television. Your sex life is private between you and your spouse, and it’s meant to be fun. Enjoy it often, but make sure you share in experiences together outside of sex. When difficulties arise outside the marriage bed, you want to make sure you have a solid foundation deeper than the physical. You won’t always be able to rely on the physical to maintain your relationship’s level of happiness.

8. Keep your friendships

I’ve heard so many of my single friends tell me that when their friends get married, they never see them again. This saddens me, because it becomes clear to me that when people get married, they disappear into each other and forget all those around them. The same thing happens when couples have children or move up in the world socially. They inevitably leave behind somebody who loves them. Make an effort to maintain and deepen your friendships with people. These people are in your lives for a reason. Be comfortable with the idea that you and your spouse can have separate sets of friends; not all of your friends have to be couples. Sometimes your friends want to hang out with just you, not you and your spouse.

Exercise wisdom and maintain trust with your spouse. If someone is trying to undermine your marriage by badmouthing your spouse, encouraging you to engage in behaviors damaging to you or your spouse, or if they’re trying to sleep with your spouse, please stay away from those people.

9. Compliment your spouse

My husband often praises me around others, which really makes me feel valued and respected as his wife. Out of the blue, I will randomly tell my husband something about his personality that I admire or love. I do this because I know it makes him feel loved and appreciated, but it also reminds me why I married him in the first place. A kind word can go a long way, and it’s never a bad idea to reinforce your spouse’s positive attributes and build them up.

This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that you should not speak poorly of your spouse around others. If you have an issue with your spouse, talk it through with them privately and work it out. Sometimes it’s important to talk to trusted advisors or marriage mentors who can commiserate when necessary and who can honestly tell you that you are overreacting when appropriate. But don’t use this as an excuse to badmouth your spouse.

10. Don’t lose yourself in your marriage

Marriage is absolutely about compromise and self-sacrifice and mutual respect. It is also about unity. But it does not mean that everything unique about you as a person needs to disappear.

All too often people get married and lose what made them individuals prior to their marriage. What are your hobbies? What makes you happy? Go do it! Ideally you and your spouse will have mutual activities you can enjoy together. But in some cases, you might love going to art museums, and your spouse does not. Should you torture your spouse and drag him/her with you? Should you torture yourself and not go just because your spouse would be miserable going with you? Go by yourself, or find a friend who likes art museums and take them with you.

There is no rule that says you need to stop participating in activities purely because your spouse is not with you. It’s best for couples to talk through these things — in some cases you might be able to persuade your spouse into enjoying an activity alongside you, but please don’t resent them if they don’t want to join you. It will hurt your marriage to expect your spouse to enjoy all of your activities; it will not hurt your marriage for you both to enjoy something by yourself. At the same time, try to find a healthy balance between independence and self-sacrifice so that you’re not always saying “no” to one another when favorite activities arise.

Got some Advice?

For those of you who who have other pieces of advice, please share in the comments section! I would love to hear from couples who have been together for decades, or from couples with children. May you be blessed with decades of happiness, joy, and love with your spouse.

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Disclaimer: I am not a counseling professional; this advice is given with the assumption that you are in a healthy, non-abusive relationship. Don’t try to take my advice if you or a loved one thinks you are being abused, just get help.

Photo Credit: Greg Dillon, wedding photographer

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