Your mom is a marriage therapist…and so, not surprisingly, I have a few things to say. How could I miss the chance? Let me share some pearls of wisdom that come out of years of watching and working with dewy eyed engaged couples preparing for marriage, and bleary eyed couples exhausted from the endless fights and the burden of raising children, and the empty eyes of couples that have long only had the shell of a marriage.
Be the best you that you can be
Find ways of growing and learning and becoming an even better guy. People who like themselves and are able to hold onto their own value, even when stressed, can be more compassionate with their partners, less defensive, and get less upset when things don’t go well. Self compassion is important to be kind to her, and it takes most of us a lifetime to develop.
Give yourself permission to get enough sleep. Fatigue makes it harder to stay connected.
Build margins in your life so that you have room to play, to get things done, to do things that rejuvenate you. I like Kahlil Gibran’s poem on marriage where he says, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness…fill each others’s cup but drink not from the same cup.”
If you’re gonna fill her cup, you gotta have something in yours.
Become a student of your wife
Find out what her favourite flowers are. Find out what she is interested in. Go to her hockey games. Keep an eye out for the kitchen gadget she was talking about and find out the various features so that you can bring up the topic at the supper table. Know her beverage of choice on a lazy Saturday morning…and have the stuff in the house, maybe even bring it to her. John Gottman calls it “knowing her love map”.
Show her that you are passionate about her interests so that she will know you are passionate about her.
Learn what she needs from you when she is overwhelmed or when the two of you disagree. Find out what specifically makes her feel safe. Know her love language and speak it with your words and actions…don’t assume that what makes you feel loved is the same for her.
Know that she will change over time. Learning about her doesn’t stop. Ever.
Help her grow and follow her passions…not because you need her to change, but because you both will benefit if you are her biggest fan, and she knows it.
Know that the tough times are coming, and that’s OK
There are gonna be hard and tough days ahead…hopefully sprinkled lightly amidst many fun and good ones–but maybe not.
Let the problems in your lives push you together, not drive you apart.
Even the differences between you can be faced as a challenge to tackle together.
Life is unfair. For everybody. Everybody suffers. When things go rough in your life, that’s a sign that you are alive. Accept that tough stuff will happen…and use it as an opportunity to get closer as a couple.
I promise you that when you look back at the end of your life, you will see the times of greatest growth when things were most difficult.
You don’t have to love the uncertainty and difficulty of tough times, but hold space for it all without trying to push it away. Let yourselves notice the pain, the anger, the natural inclinations to pull away or desire to turn on each other…and then talk to each other about it.
It might be hard to believe today, but there will come a day when you will wonder if this was a mistake, if you should have married her. There will be days when you’re not sure you want to still be married. This won’t be a sign of a bad marriage, or that you’ve made a mistake. Merely that you are human, and having tough times are a part of it.
Use this feeling as a signal to lean in.
You will get through this. Take a deep breath and look underneath these hard feelings for the love you have together. Forgive her, or ask for her forgiveness–do what you need to do to repair the rupture.
It won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.
Stay engaged even when you’re married.
One of my most popular blog posts ever is The Betrayal of Disenagement. People have stopped me while out and about telling me how much this one meant to them. Disengagement hurts…and it is often so subtle that it’s hard to put a finger on it and name it and address it. And when it’s brought up, it’s often denied…but if she ever tells you that she misses you even though you haven’t gone anywhere, listen up, son.
Put down your phone when you are with her.
Leave it in another room for long periods. Watch how many video games or netflix series you immerse yourself in.
She needs to have you engaged with her. Find things that the two of you like to do–together. Walking the dog. Playing a game. Visiting with friends. Tinkering with the yard. Do stuff with her that you don’t even especially like, but you’ll like because you’re with her–grocery shopping, laundry, even cleaning. Do the mundane stuff of life with her because doing it with her is an investment in the relationship..
This sounds really obvious the day before you get married…but trust me, over time, it will be easy to slip into bad habits that just have you unplug from the relationship. It won’t be obviously terrible, but your relationship will suffer for it.
Find ways to be A.R.E. with her:
- Accessible–have her know that when she needs you, you are there.
- Responsive–that when she has a concern, you hear it, and it matters to you
- Emotionally Engaged–that she experiences you responding in ways that feel in tune with what she needs at the moment.
Remain great friends and laugh a lot.
The foundation of any solid marriage is a good friendship. Enjoy her. Be gentle with each other. Play tricks on each other. Enjoy the wonder of fireworks together. Go for a bike ride. Plan a trip and dream together. Have a favourite movie that you watch together every year. Find an excuse to celebrate and then celebrate! Pull out the china sometimes. Have orange juice in a wine glass at breakfast.
Pull in your village. Have friends that you’ve hung out with that you can be real with…friends that can make your life rich in the good times, and buoy you up in the hard. Friends that strengthen the friendship that the two of you have.
Write a story together that is bigger than the two of you
Y’know how muscles get stronger when you lift weights? And how your exercise tolerance improves when you run?
Your love for each other will grow as you life a life of love that is bigger than yourselves.
Write a story together that challenges you…choose a mission for your lives. Make a difference. Invest in something that has meaning. A bigger house or a new car won’t cut it.
Your lives will be richer when you are investing your love in something larger…it will multiply and grow. Choose an adventure that feels too big to do alone, and then do it together.
OK…enough of the advice…let me just walk down memory lane a little…
Tomorrow is a day I have dreamed of since before you were born. Your wedding day.
There were many days–your birth, your first day of school, your first date, getting your driver’s license–that I dreamed of, willing you to be born, so that I could experience you living life.
The months before you were born were stressful for me. Your older brothers had been perfectly healthy, until my body failed them, and they were born silently. We had tough decisions once we knew you were coming…a procedure I could have that could save your life might also end it.
The most agonizing decision this almost-mother has ever had to make.
Those months of you pre-birth growing passed slowly…and I would lie awake in bed for hours in the night, with my hands on my belly feeling your fluttery (and then gradually, quite sharp) kicks. I’d wait, smiling and hoping. Waiting eagerly…and yet waiting while not wanting you to be born too soon. I used those hours to dream about you and the life you might have…including your wedding day.
The nurse in the delivery room offered to take your heart monitor off my belly during labor so I could have some freedom…she strapped it right back on when I told her why I was desperate to hear the steady beat of your heart.
Your hearty first cry was beautiful. Such celebration by so many, that you were born, alive and well.
You were a handful as a kid. Not because of your tears and tantrums, but because of your engagement with life. You were a chatty, loud, gregarious baby who smiled at everyone, and found new, creative ways to play. Rattles weren’t something to shake but to throw. Crayons weren’t for colouring, they were for firing as missiles. You exhausted us with your endless action. But such fun you were!
You were full of generosity. I told you that you couldn’t just buy and eat an ice cream from the ice cream truck when the other neighbourhood kids you were playing with didn’t have their own. So the next time the truck came ’round, you ran in and then out of the house with your whole piggy bank before we noticed. The whole street hockey crew were treated to ice cream, using your life savings.
I remember once when you were part of a small boy’s club, as part of planning a particular event, the leader called and asked if you and your brother were coming. He said, “If the Bergen boys are coming, we know it’s gonna be fun for everybody.”
You and your buddy were always looking to blow things up, jump ramps on your bike higher and faster. You pushed the envelope again and again. I remember the many times I knew that “success as a parent” with you was simply getting you to adulthood. You made it!
So, I made it, too!
I am so sad that you didn’t get to live in a house with two parents for the second half of your childhood. It was super important to me that you grow up in a home with parents who cared about each other, and you could know in your bones what it was like to have a good marriage. I wanted you to be able to marinate in the atmosphere of a good marriage as part of setting you up for one of your own. Good relationships are caught, not taught…and so spending years watching parents be a married couple who live life together, support each other, fight and make up, and work to live life collaboratively together is something that is such a gift to a child. And you didn’t get that.
This is not about being bitter or resentful or point fingers. As a parent, I wanted you to have the best things in life…and the best things in life aren’t things, but relationships. It’s merely a profound sadness that you didn’t get that in your childhood. I would have wanted that for you.
You never let on that it was hard to go back and forth between our house and your dad’s house. You were always really easy going, but I think you took on the responsibility of being the oldest by protecting me from your sadness and anger about all of that. I always knew it was there, even when you wouldn’t talk about it. You were a trooper, and I respect you for that. I’m not sure I knew how to tell you that I could see it was hard for you. There are complexities negotiating two homes and two parents who don’t live together…and I just want you to know that as your parent, it mattered to me. It wasn’t easy for you.
And now you are getting married. Wow.
I see you with her and my heart warms. The two of you have always been so solid and good for each other. You seem to have had such stability with each other…you are a stable base together. She and you have provided a safe haven for each other–allowing each of you to venture out and try new things, knowing that the other is waiting and supportive. That’s been so cool to watch.
I’m so glad you found each other. You are good to each other. You are good for each other.
Being your mom was important to me. I tried hard. I made a lot of mistakes. If I could go back, I would play more games with you, go on more bike rides. I would have gotten up with you that one morning at 5 a.m. when you wanted to make fresh pretzels for your classmates…I was so tired in those days, but it was important to you, and I didn’t make it important enough in my schedule. I’m sorry for this and all the other ways I failed you.
One more little piece of advice:
Know that your momma loves you. Always has. Always will.
I’m not so sure this is important for your marriage, but it’s important to me that you know this. But maybe it is important for your marriage.
You’re marrying a very special woman. And part of loving you is me respecting that your first loyalty is to her…and I need to respect that and honour her in giving you guys space. Know that the space I give is itself an act of love, not of distance.
I’m a part of your village, and so when you need help, I want you to call. When the basement floods. When, perhaps, the baby has been crying all night, and you’re both exhausted. Call me. The momma’ing doesn’t stop when you have a wife. I’ve signed up for life!
Love you now and always,