My husband and I have an abnormal story. And now that I look back, I realize that getting married with intense parental pressure and control after being in a relationship for a total of 2 ½ months (including courtship and engagement) gave us a pretty rocky start.
Six years later we still love each other, and I’ve often wondered how on earth we managed to grow together through all the changes in our life!? I think it helped that we are from similar backgrounds, we are close in age and both became disillusioned with fundamentalism at around the same time. I also think that because we literally had never lived our own lives at all, (we had always been under parental control) we sort of grew up together after we got married.
Lately, as my husband and I have chatted about ideas that have helped our relationship grow, I thought I’d share them for our Anniversary week. So here are some of the “Rules of engagement” that have shaped our first 6 years.
#1 No sharing fights with family or friends.
We explicitly outlined this rule shortly after we were married. Both of us come from very controlling families, and we could sense that sharing marital conflict or asking for marital advice would be dangerous. The few times that our families got wind of disagreements between the two of us (real, or completely imagined by them) we got a range of “advice”. Depending on my parents opinion of whatever the issue was, I was told either to submit and let him lead, or (if they didn’t like his position) that I didn’t have to just do whatever my husband said to (which made no sense coming from them, since that was pretty much all they had ever taught me about marriage.) My husband’s family, would advise my husband to keep things from me and “make the decision on his own, because he was the man of the house.” In reality, they just knew how to control him better than they knew how to control me (the new member of the family) and they liked to eliminate me as a barrier so they could get him to do whatever they thought was best.
Looking back, the decision not to share our fights with them was probably one of the best we have ever made. Sometimes it was very tempting to go get the pat on the back from a good friend or family member, and be told that you are right, and that your spouse will have to come around. But by eliminating those biased advice sources, we were forced to deal with each other and actually work things out.
(That being said, sometimes a third party can be very helpful. But we’ve tried to go with someone as unbiased as possible, such as a counsellor.)
#2 No dirty fighting.
We fight. No dirty fighting means no getting physical, no name calling, and no using the words “always” or “never”. Nowadays, disagreements are usually small, and we work them out fairly quickly. Those really big duels that last all day only happen once or twice a year. But early on in our marriage, this rule was essential, since the big fights happened like every week. We were horrible at communicating when we got married. Both of us had endless expectations and unspoken rules and dysfunction coming out of our family systems. And both of us have the tendency to shut down and give up on working it out when we feel like we aren’t being heard. Making the choice to fight things out was very important in our marriage, because it forced us to communicate. Without those hours of fighting early in marriage, I’m not sure we would be where we are today. Learning how to communicate our needs and feelings and problems has been crucial for our relationship, we can even communicate without fighting now! (Yay!) Dirty fighting would have only hindered this learning process. We made the rule against fighting dirty, because we had been modeled passive aggressive manipulation by our parents, and we wanted to learn how to communicate without that.
#3 Sex is not a weapon.
This means no kicking your spouse out of bed when you don’t like them. Yes, there are always those times when one of us would love to get busy but the other is sick, or too tired to make it happen. But this rule means that having a fight that day doesn’t qualify as a good reason to avoid each other.
Sometimes at the end of a long ordeal, everything would feel so hopeless. We still disagreed just as much as ever, there seemed to be no resolution or solution. But even if we were failing miserably to connect on every other issue, we could still have sex. No, it didn’t fix all the problems, or make them go away. But it was a way we could connect even when our words failed us. Is it easy to connect physically when you are having emotional conflict? No. Is it strange to interrupt an intense argument that is going nowhere with “well, I don’t like you, but why don’t we go have sex?” Yes. But it is worth it to try and fumble through the awkwardness and make an effort, rather than let this resource be locked away until some distant day in the future when we are on the same page. (Plus if you’ve never had sex while really really emotional, take it from me, you might just be missing something.)
#4 Talk, talk, talk.
I’m pretty sure this is the reason we are still married. We talk. A lot. About everything. (And I do mean everything.) When I hear about couples having a weekly date night to reconnect, I honestly don’t know how they do it. In our marriage so far, we’ve spent hours every day talking. Whether it’s hashing out some issue while sharing a meal, calling our spouse on the phone to chat about how our day is going, sending each other emails, or talking long hours into the night instead of going to sleep. Those weeks that talking doesn’t happen as consistently, are usually the ones where we end up talking (literally) all day long on Saturday. We are each other’s closest confidant and friend. We tell each other everything, even the really touchy stuff, and that really boring stuff. And yes, that means I have to listen when he expounds on population statistics or dreams about traveling around the world in a jeep. And he has to listen to me ramble about blog friends and rant about religion. We talk about our beliefs, questions, dreams, ideas, family problems in our homes of origin, childrearing, religion, relationship, sex and money. He is the only one who really knows everything about me and vise versa.
#5 Don’t make fun of each other
Now I’m not talking about a good natured little jab in private about something we are both on the same page about. I mean belittling my spouse’s fears or dreams, or poking at their insecurities. Even in areas we totally disagree on. If you finally get up enough courage to reveal something close to your heart, and the person you are telling laughs at you, can you really feel safe to share with them again? If you tell your impossible dream and the response is just confirmation that you will never be able to achieve it, that message is very hard to shake. Since we know our spouse’s soft spots, using them against them would be fighting dirty, which is against the rules over here. Avoiding this type of behaviour can include eliminating those digs about weight or appearance as well as beliefs and doubts, and whatever else your spouse is sensitive about. It also means avoiding putting your spouse down in front of others (those kinds of wounds last a long time) and being subtle or passive aggressive doesn’t make it OK either. Open, encouraging communication is a much better option.