If you want a great marriage, you need a yearly romantic getaway. Or you need to find a big hobby to share. Or you need to cut out all media!
These are all really important pieces of advice, but I’m starting to wonder if the key to a happy marriage is found in much smaller gestures. Maybe it’s simply in catching hold of what Jesus meant when He said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I don’t think Jesus said that only because He wanted us to be selfless. I think it’s also because how other people treat us partially determines the people we become. Never praise a child and they’ll become insecure and sullen or desperate and clingy. Treat a child well and they’ll grow up to be confident and capable. We understand that dynamic when it comes to small children; we’re not quite so sure it applies to adults.
How others treat us can also play a part in who we grow to be. Life isn’t about each of us walking on our own roads, side by side, determining our own destiny. Life is more like a series of dances, where our roads crisscross as we cling to each other, and sometimes twist and turn as someone spins us in another direction.
Let’s imagine two couples, the Smiths and the Browns, and see how this plays out. Both couples marry in their early 20s with stars in their eyes. They are sure that love can get them through anything. Both couples struggle with money. Both couples have several babies in quick succession, and have to adjust to the new reality of sleepless nights, reflux, and constant laundry.
But the Smiths and the Browns dance very differently. The Smiths entered marriage with expectations galore. Mr. Smith thought Mrs. Smith would cook everything and clean everything while occasionally flashing him some skin. Mrs. Smith thought Mr. Smith would be affectionate without wanting anything; would bring her flowers and gifts for no reason; and would quickly advance through the ranks at work.
The Smiths were soon snapping at each other. “Why isn’t dinner ready yet? I’ve been at work all day!” “Why can’t you just stand up to your boss? It’s like you have no spine!” And the dance goes on. Now they’ve grown exasperated. Most of their conversations finish with deep sighs. Every now and then one tries an overture to make things better, but is rebuffed. The resentment grows.
By the time the couple is in their senior years they can finish each other’s sentences, but most of those sentences are pointed jabs. They suffer from muscle and back pain from years of stress. They aren’t particularly close to their grandkids because everyone finds them a little prickly.
Mrs. Brown, in contrast, just convinced Mr. Brown to shoot a video of her, at the age of 65, diving into the snow after a particularly thick and fluffy squall. It goes viral on Facebook, where they have hundreds of friends, including their grandkids, with whom they Skype every week.
When the Browns were married, they focused on building each other up. Mrs. Brown would say to her husband, “you’re so great at your job, I know your boss will notice it! He’ll see what I see.” That made him feel 10 feet tall, and when he went into work he had confidence that others noticed.
When she was exhausted, he had compassion. He’d say, “You can’t keep the house perfectly with little kids. Give yourself a break. I’m so glad I have you to come home to, no matter what the house looks like.” That made her relax, which in turn gave her patience with the babies.
As the Browns encouraged each other in small ways, they found the rest of their lives were more productive, more purposeful, and more successful. They could give their emotional energy to others, instead of fretting and brooding on hurts. And their lives grew bigger, and more joyful, and even more intimate.
Success in marriage is less about doing the big things as it is about doing the little things, consistently, day after day. A kind word, a smile, a gesture, lets you know you’re not alone. And that calms you so that you can tackle the next big thing.
We understand the concept of investing when it comes to money. Invest money strategically, and over time it accrues great dividends. Kindness is like that, too. Be kind at key moments, and you’re making a deposit where interest will be compounded.
Make marriage a place where you strategically invest. When you’re in your senior years, who would you rather be married to: that adventurous grandma who plunges into the snow to share a laugh, or that bitter woman with a list of things that didn’t go her way?
If you want to be married to the fun grandma, then it’s time to invest in your wife now. Say kind things. Don’t criticize or pick at her. Smile lots. Then lather, rinse, repeat. Over time you will have created a brand new marriage.