Last weekend, Tom and I went out to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. An acquaintance we bumped into said congratulations and then asked us, “So what’s the secret?” Honestly, I didn’t have a quick answer. She seemed almost annoyed, as if we were keeping the secret recipe all to ourselves.
So, I gave it some thought these past few days and made a list of 20 “secrets” we’ve learned during these past 20 years.
1. Choose well. I’m listing this one first because, without it, the rest of the secrets might not matter. “Fixer Upper” is a hit television show, not a smart strategy for choosing a spouse.
2. Be kind. This one is vital. Yes, your spouse should still love you even at your worst, but don’t save your worst behavior for your spouse. Kindness, big and small, counts far more than we give it credit for.
3. Respect. In the words of the late, great Aretha Franklin, “All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when you come home.” It would be incredibly tough to love a person you don’t even respect.
4. Be thankful. The “three little words” get most of the attention in romantic relationships, but a sincere and frequently given “thank you” will do just as much or more in making love last.
5. Lose count of the score. I learned this the hard way early in our marriage. Keeping a constant mental score of who did what will only ensure that you both end up losing the game.
6. Like each other. Married people who say they like each other every single moment of every day are probably lying. But overall, genuinely liking each other is a prerequisite and the foundation of a good marriage.
7. Hang out. People who genuinely like each other also hang out together — not all the time, but more often than not.
8. Give space. Here’s the flip side of Number 7. A strong fire needs attention to thrive, but it also needs oxygen and space to breathe. Love each other, but don’t smother.
9. No names. Draw lines in your marriage that you absolutely won’t cross, even in the most heated argument. Calling each other names should be one of those lines.
10. Get help. One of the best things that happened early in my marriage was hearing someone older (whose opinion and marriage I admired) say that he and his wife get couples counseling any time they start having trouble getting along. He said his relationship was too important to let things get bad. I’m so grateful he pulled back the curtain enough for me to see that successful couples sometimes need help. Too many people let their relationship disintegrate into Stage 4 terminal problems before they look for guidance. Get help — before things get toxic.
11. Laugh a lot. Laughing with someone who “gets me” is one of my favorite things about being married. Do it as often as possible.
12. Be fair. Most of the time, we have a gut feeling when we’re being unfair to someone. The length of most arguments is directly related to how willing we are to admit when we’re being unfair.
13. Be interested. Compliments are fine, but being interested in what someone thinks and what they have to say about their day goes so much deeper than the surface niceties.
14. Be on each other’s side. There’s something comforting about knowing that, when you’re wronged by the outside world, the only person who will be almost as mad as you are about it is your spouse. Be solidly on each other’s team.
15. Chores matter. If you live in the house, you help take care of the house. It’s as simple as that. Never make your spouse feel like the only person who cares enough to clean up.
16. Balance the power. Lack of power breeds resentment. No one wants to feel like a low-level assistant in their own marriage.
17. Be each other’s admirer. We all have skills and areas where we excel. Your spouse should be the first one to notice.
18. Watch the water level. People love to tell young couples to “forgive and forget.” Of those two actions, forgiving is the easier part. Forgetting is tough. People might say that past arguments are “water under the bridge,” but the cumulative effect of wrongdoing and hurt feelings can cause the water level to rise so high that it washes away the bridge that used to connect you.
19. Take it easy. Nobody wants to live with a hot-head or a whiner or a constant critic. We all have our “off” days, but as much as possible, be a person who’s easy to come home to and wake up with.
20. Love sincerely. You don’t need all of Facebook to be convinced of your love via photos and gushy captions. But your spouse needs to know it and feel it — that he or she is accepted, respected, wanted, admired, valued, appreciated, and, most importantly, loved beyond measure.
To the man I love beyond measure, happy anniversary, honey. I can’t wait to see what we learn during the next 20 years.
Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Her book is available on Amazon.