I’ve seen plenty of inspiring, wisdom-filled essays from people to their younger selves. They are generally uplifting and full of good advice about choices and chances—wisdom gleaned from painful years of wrong turns, shifting perceptions, and painful falls. Sure, their younger selves wouldn’t listen any better than they did, but it feels good to say it out loud, nonetheless, to acknowledge how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown. Looking back over almost 18 years of marriage now, I realized that I also have a lot to say to my younger self–specifically the self I was when I married Paul at the tender age of 22 and embarked, for better or worse, on the crazy adventure that follows the choice to spend the rest of your life with the person you love.
Dear Newlywed Katrina,
The wedding was beautiful, wasn’t it? Aside from you accidentally smashing your groom’s fingers in the car door before making your getaway, the day was sheer poetry. Looking over at your new husband, I know you can’t imagine that anyone before or since has ever had a love as profound and unique as yours. And all those people who talk about marriage being hard work full of fights and frustrations and misunderstandings clearly didn’t manage to marry their perfect soulmate, as you have cleverly done.
You might want to sit down, girl.
It turns out that the finger-smashing incident was a pretty good metaphor for marriage. Even when everything is beautiful and amazing between the two of you, blood and tears inevitably make an appearance here and there. Expect them, and learn from them (For example, you’ve already learned to check for fingers before slamming the car door. Don’t tell Paul, but there are a lot of accidental injuries in his future. Watch where you put your knees and elbows, and remember that your diamond ring can scratch.)
Anyway, here are some things I wish I could tell you before you have to learn them the hard way:
1. Guess what? You’re not your husband’s mother. I know, as the oldest child, that you have spent a lifetime assuming you know the best way to do everything and bossing around the people you love (in their own best interests, of course). But that’s a habit you need to break. Your husband needs a lover and a friend, not a nagging know-it-all correcting the way he loads the dishwasher or making sure he gets his work done. Believe it or not, he even has some things to teach you. Life will start being a lot more fun for both of you when you figure this out.
2. It’s his home, too. Sure, you’ve spent hours poring over magazine articles about decorating on a budget and combing through thrift shops for those beautifully aged shabby chic end tables. You consider your home an extension of yourself, an embodiment of your unique personality, and Paul’s framed Star Wars movie poster, as attractive as it is, just doesn’t jibe with the casual neo-Grecian vibe you’re trying to create. I mean, you’ve already given him a four foot steamer trunk in which to stuff all his unsightly computer cords and gaming paraphernalia; what more does he want? Well, I’ll tell you. He wants to feel like he lives there. He wants to be comfortable and at home in his own place. He wants to be able to see his stuff, and to use it without feeling like it’s a barbaric offense to the civilized world. He wants to meld your life and his into a new life that is better and richer than before; he wants to create a home for the two of you, one that reflects both of you and this new thing that you are together. Besides, deep inside, you are a way bigger geek than you even know right now. You’ll want to hang on to that Star Wars poster.
3. Let some things go. Right now, you think that good communication means airing your every single complaint and irritation with each other immediately and in full. You don’t want to “let things fester”, and that’s good. Festering is bad. But what you don’t know yet is that a lot of those things that bother you now just aren’t very important. They aren’t even big enough to fester. They’re more like little welts on the surface of your skin that will entirely disappear by morning. For example, it’s certainly not worth killing two hours of a precious Saturday night to wage war on his annoying habit of putting empty containers back in the fridge. Just throw them away for him. Seriously. It takes two seconds. Save your energy for the big battles, because there will be a few, and you don’t want to have spent all your emotional capital on empty Miracle Whip jars.
4. Make time for each other. I know, you think you’ll always have these late Saturday mornings to lie in bed gazing into each other’s eyes and talking about everything under the sun. You can’t imagine that a time will come when you don’t call each other at work to coo adoringly into the phone or spend evenings strolling hand in hand along downtown streets, dreaming about your future selves. But life has a way of happening, filling up the hours and days with children and projects and obligations. Before you know it, you can find yourselves falling into bed after a busy day without having said more to each other than “good morning”, “goodnight”, and “don’t forget your dentist appointment at four”. You have to fight this with all of your will! Connections are much easier to maintain than they are to rebuild. Don’t ever let busy schedules and worries make you forget what you have in each other. The back burner is no place for a marriage. Keep the heat on under it, and stir it constantly. Trust me, it will be delicious.
5. Be on the same team. The world is full of adversaries – people who want to tear you down or take what you have, people who only want to win, to dominate, to stand at the top of a heap of fallen opponents and bask in their victories. That’s the opposite of marriage. You and Paul are comrades in arms, shouting encouragement and sharing canteens as you take this hill of life together. You will disagree with each other; one or the other of you will fall down and lose focus; you will encounter obstacles so big they seem to block out the sun. At such times, it’s easy to turn on your teammate, but don’t. Take turns picking each other up. Forget about blame and focus on the next step. Carry each other when the need arises. To quote Malcolm Reynolds (from the show Firefly – you’re going to love it!), “You’re on my crew. Why we still talking about this?”
6. When it comes to sex, say yes as often as you can. Sex is glue for your relationship. Apply liberally. A few months after your honeymoon, when you’ve worked out all the mechanical details, you will fall back into bed one night, turn your eyes to the heavens, and ask blissfully, “Can it possibly get any better than THIS?” And the answer, I am delighted to report, is “YES!” Better and better and unbelievably better! (But now I’m just bragging.) Here’s the thing. You will be tempted to set the tempo of your sex life solely to the beat of your own desire. And, female sexual response being what it is, that desire will not come knocking on your door quite as often as it does on his. But if you say yes, even if you don’t feel like dancing at first, you will usually find yourself getting caught up in the beat. Sometimes you’ll want the seven course meal, and other times, you’ll just be in the mood for a quick burger and fries. (Wow, I’ve got like three sex metaphors going here!) Either kind of meal can be satisfying. The important thing is the nourishment it gives your relationship. It’s amazing how powerful sex is. When you’re stressed out, when he’s had a setback at work, when the argument is over but the tension isn’t — sex says, “I love you. I choose you. We are in this together.” It makes the highs higher and the lows less harrowing. Plus, it’s fun. Do it a lot.
7. Show Paul how much you admire him. You picked him for a reason — lots of reasons. Does he know what they are? When you find yourself appreciating his sense of humor, or his easy way of talking to strangers, or how good he looks in his jeans, open your mouth and tell him! Say nice things about him in front of others, and try not to share stories with your girlfriends that would embarrass him. (I admit that I still struggle with this. See if you can do something about our compulsive oversharing, will you, 22 year-old me?) Be the one in his corner, the one who cheers louder than anyone else, the one who speaks into the self-doubt and discouragement with words that build up and show him who he is in your eyes. He needs that, just like you do.
8. Do new things. Sure, you don’t like football now, and the mention of tabletop gaming makes your eyes glaze over with boredom, but don’t reject his favorite activities out of hand. Give them a chance. Yes, you’ll discover that you truly never, ever want to play Shogun again in your life, but you’ll also be surprised to find out that you quite like fantasy football and computer gaming. And the effort you put into sharing his interests will pay off in a hundred little ways, like the warm smile in his eyes when he has to crown you Queen and Champion of the Fantasy Football League in your very first season..
9. Don’t give up. There will come a time when you think about it, when the wrong turn your marriage has made takes you so far into the weeds that you can’t even see your feet. Don’t give up. You get back to the road the same way you got off of it — one step at a time. In a marriage like yours, made of two people who love and trust God, there is nothing He can’t fix.
10. Finally, I know you hate that ratty plaid flannel jacket that Paul always wears, but do not throw it away and pretend it got lost in the laundry. He will know it was you, and you will still be hearing about it 18 years later. Trust me.
You’re in for a wild ride, Katrina, but the scenery is fantastic. Hang on tight and don’t let go!