The choice I’m most proud of in my life was one I made 20 years ago today when I walked down the aisle towards my best friend, confidant, and playmate. We married after 4 years of dating, while living in separate residences, in a church in South Barrington, Illinois in front of family and friends. On the day we took our vows, I don’t think we fully understood what it meant to love, honor, and cherish each other; when those concepts are put into practice it is really hard to give up all your ways of thinking. Prior to marriage the focus is on self-preservation and self-actualization, but after the vows a shift needs to take place where the earlier – and much more natural – focus on “I” gives way to thinking in terms of “we.” This habit is hard to form and develop, but we have learned a lot of life lessons through our marriage. So to celebrate our 20 years together we would like to share with you our top 20 tips for a lasting relationship.
Althea’s top ten
Positive words vs. harmful words
Research by Dr. John Gottman has revealed lasting marriages have an 8:1 ratio of 8 positive statements to every negative statement. Marriages that fail often have a 5:1 ratio of 5 negative statements to every positive statement. Be intentional about monitoring your words. It goes back to the lesson in kindergarten: “If you don’t have anything positive to say, don’t say anything at all.”
A husband needs to feel respected
Look for opportunities to show deep admiration of your husband’s qualities, achievements, and abilities. When I tell Mike I am proud of him, he stands a little taller, with more confidence and self-esteem. He feels safe, loved, and accepted knowing I am cheering him on.
Assert your needs
Learn to tell each other what you need in 3 sentences or less. Be
direct, to the point, but kind in how you say it. Too many words and your message gets lost. “State what you mean, but don’t say it mean.”
Be likable and fun
When you have moments together, use them wisely. Fill them with laughter, fun, and silliness. Building on these moments’ pulls a couple together. Someone who is dull, angry, and/or complaining drains energy from the relationship and pushes them apart. Being likable and fun brings a couple initially together. The challenge is maintaining this throughout a lifetime.
Ask “how was your day?”
Something gets lost as responsibilities are added and communications become less personal and more like a business meeting of what needs to get done and who needs to be where. Keep the relationship personal by checking in with each other every day.
Have your own identity and hobbies
A relationship does not fill all our needs, nor does being a parent or a worker. We are complex creatures with multiple interests. Having something that is all your own helps you feel more rounded and keeps us interesting. For instance, I am on a weekly ladies 9-hole golf league. It is a needed diversion to melt away other stressors.
Learn something “new” together
About 10 years into our marriage we decided to commit to learning new hobbies together that neither one of us has done before to put us on equal ground and to keep things fresh. These experiences bond us together with fun memories and a lot of laughter. We have taken tennis, ballroom dance, and Improv Comedy lessons, and have become lead volunteers with our city’s marathon. Each of these experiences have taken us out of our comfort zone, which in turns keeps our relationship fresh.
Trust is built by turning towards one another
Many think trust is broken by the big events, such as an affair, but in reality it is broken when we listen to our own desires and turn away from our spouse. Trust is built in the everyday moments of listening, taking an interest in the other, and holding our tongues when we feel like lashing out. Turning towards another means putting their needs first.
15 minute rule
When we disagree we have learned to keep the conversation short. Too many words confuse an issue and after 15 minutes the conversation generally takes a unwelcomed turn for the worse. We have learned it is better to have multiple conversations about one issue than to try to solve it all at once. So after 15 minutes if we do not reach a win/win solution, then we put it aside and come back to the drawing table later.
Say “I love you!” as much as you can!
Take every opportunity to tell and show each other you love through words, use of time, acts of service (making a nice dinner or vacuuming the other’s car), gifts (note in the lunch bag), and physical touch. Our time on this earth is short. Make good use of it by loving each other without abandon!
Mike’s top ten tips
I love being married to Althea. I chose wisely and our marriage has flourished. But for it to flourish we both needed to learn and embrace certain lessons, and from these lessons have come my Top 10 tips. They are not necessarily gender-specific (although some might be more directed at men than women), having more to do with who I am as an individual, but most have special applications and importance to me as a police officer trying to succeed at marriage while also succeeding in a challenging profession.
Make your wife (husband/partner) Number 1 in your life
Human beings tend toward self-absorption. That may come out in the form of obsessions, ambition, and a drive to put oneself above all others, none of which translates over the long-haul into consistently putting your spouse first in your life. You don’t need to abandon other priorities – it’s not a zero-sum game – but put them in perspective, let go of self-absorption, and weigh their importance against that of your top priority.
For men, a reminder: A women needs to feel Number 1 in your life to feel safe and loved in the relationship. Men get self-esteem more from what we do; women get it from their relationships. If she is not Number 1 with you she will likely feel she is failing in all areas of her life. Sometimes just make it all about her.
Think in terms of “we” instead of “I”
“What I want” is our default mode through childhood and until we enter a committed relationship. “What I want” needs to become secondary to “what we want” and, more importantly, “what we need” as a couple in a marriage. This requires self-sacrifice and putting yourself second sometimes, but it is ultimately worth it.
Love your spouse
This should go without saying, right? Except we wrongly tend to think of love as simply an emotion (something we feel) instead of a verb (something we do). In order to feel loved your spouse needs to see love put into action. Find ways to show care and concern, and to make your feelings tangible.
Become their cheerleader
Know their goals and dreams and actively cheer them on. We too often become naysayers, discouraging or squelching other’s hopes if we don’t understand or share them, or when they somehow conflict with our own. Instead, learn what drives your partner and why, embrace their dreams as your own, and let them know you’re always in their corner.
Learn to listen
Women (and even a lot of men) feel loved through communication. They enjoy and feel valued when you share information, feelings, and experiences with them. And sometimes, as Althea likes to say, they might need to talk about and process one topic six different ways. So learn to communicate by talking less and hearing more. Be patient. Show interest. Ask questions. And never give unsolicited advice.
As we get older many of us become entrenched in patterns of thinking and behavior that limit exposure to new ideas and experiences, create lifestyle ruts, and hinder the influence of innovative thinking. Sadly, for a lot of people the “getting older” part starts surprisingly young. Instead, don’t simply be open to new ideas and experiences, actively seek them out! Seek out change by trying out new sports, hobbies, trips, philosophies, etc. and challenge and broaden your own definition of self, much like young adults routinely do. Undertake “thinking young” together and see how it can enhance your marriage.
Let go of ego
Adopt a spirit of humility. Know and admit you don’t have all the answers, that sometimes life is difficult, and you could use a little help. Own your weaknesses and lean on your spouse’s strengths, and together life is much easier to navigate.
Know your vulnerabilities
I often lack patience and, when I do, my anger impulse can be frightening. This is a problem; Althea grew up in a home where tempers were set on hair trigger. A sharp word, raised voice, or angry gesture can emotionally drive her back into the mind of a scared six year old. I know I’m vulnerable to anger, and she to its display, so I've learned to be aware of when I’m vulnerable to losing my temper and to keep it in check. I owe it to her.
It’s just a job
I love my job, but it’s just a job. I’m proud of my career, but careers are but a piece of who we are in total, to someday be just a memory as we move onto the next phase of being. The average law enforcement career is 20 to 30 years of a much longer life. So love your job while you do it, embrace your career with pride, but never let it harm the much larger life it really just serves to bankroll.
Check the “culture at the door”
At the end of the day I hang up my uniform and gun belt, take off my badge, and revert to just being Mike. I've learned to resist the allure of letting the cop culture – the cynical, suspicious, locker room vibe so easy to be sucked into – infect who I am away from the job. I step outside the culture not because I don’t like being a cop but precisely because I love it. I can fully invest in being Althea’s husband first, as well as a community volunteer, a reader, a writer, an enthusiast of the arts, and friend of a whole lot of non-LEOs, so I can fully invest in being a cop again the next day.
These twenty tips learned over twenty years have worked well for us. Others with successful relationships may have learned different lessons, or to prioritize different things, and that has a lot to do with the each marriage and the people in it. These work for us, however, and we've found them to have some universal power.