On Marriage, Year One: Teamwork, Dirty Socks, and a Magic Phrase…

Bridge kiss

A few minutes before our wedding ceremony (one year and two weeks ago), Joe called his brother Nick, who had married his wife Caroline a couple months earlier, and asked if he had any last-minute advice.

“Marry the right girl,” Nick said, “and it’s easy.”

I imagine that people who have been married for decades, or even just a few years (versus a couple of months) would perhaps chuckle to themselves at the thought of anything making marriage “easy”. Our culture is bursting with reasons to believe that staying committed to—and happy with—one person is hard: movies, books, and TV shows that show couples arguing or barely communicating, complaining about each other to their friends, and/or growing apart; articles offering advice to “save” your relationship; bleak statistics in both the US and Canada revealing that 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. (Surprisingly, the divorce rate is higher in second and third marriages—60-73% in the US—than in first ones. So much for learning from our mistakes!)

My own parents divorced when I was two, and while that didn’t oppose me to the notion of getting married myself, it did make me realistic about the challenges a long-term relationship (married or not) can present, and wary of going down that path unless I felt very, very sure that the person I committed to shared the same values and vision for the future. (And, above all, was able to communicate effectively.)

Joe and I celebrated our one-year anniversary on Sept. 28th, and in the days surrounding the milestone I have reflected on what, so far, is helping keep us genuinely happy, communicating, and in love. Because despite the claims I’ve heard through various media that “the first year is the hardest”, our first year has honestly not been hard. (And you know I tell it like it is.)

Like life, some aspects of marriage flow more smoothly than others, and as with any relationship, issues arise that need to be dealt with. But for us, one year in, being married is awesome. In large part, that’s because, as Nick’s advice points to, we both married the right person. This, I believe, is the foundation, what makes everything else—if not easy—easier. (Finding that person, however, is not easy. It took me 32 years and a random meeting on a bus in South Korea. There is no formula for that.)

In the first few months of dating Joe, I thought we were so wildly different that I couldn’t quite imagine how things would work out long term. First of all, we’re eight years apart. That felt like a lot, especially since so much growth and change happens between the early/mid twenties, where Joe was at, and the early thirties, where I was at. (If we had met, for example, when Joe was 74 and I was 82, the age difference would likely not have been a concern.)

This gap combined with the contrast of our backgrounds made it hard at times to relate to each other. Joe grew up in a suburb of Illinois where he played for hours along the creek behind his house, went to sports camp in the summers, and ate dinner around the table each evening with his mom, dad, brother and sister. He has very few recollections of hearing his parents, who have been married now for 33 years, argue. The kids weren’t exposed to a lot of turmoil, and life’s challenges weren’t discussed in great depth. I’m not suggesting that his upbringing was without difficulty, only that a priority was given to shielding him and his siblings from upheaval, emotional or otherwise. He went straight to college after high school, did a semester in Rome, finished his biology degree, and moved to Korea to teach English. That’s when we met.

My childhood was dominated in large part by the health issues of my mom, who spent a lot of time in the hospital. My brother and I moved back and forth between parents and provinces, spending summers with my dad and the school year with my mom. There was a lot of love, but also a lot of instability. Within the circle of my mom, my brother, and me, everything was talked about—dreams, death, fears, frustrations, regret, illness, love—everything was out in the open. When my mom’s health rendered her unable to work we collected welfare, which was later replaced by a disability pension. I commuted an hour to school via city bus (my own stubborn decision, as I didn’t want to start over at a new school when we moved out of district), and in grade 11 and 12 bussed tables in the evenings to earn spending money and save for my future travels.

By the time I moved to Korea and met Joe, I had lived or travelled throughout Europe, Israel and Egypt, SE Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. I had completed my writing degree, been dealt a massively traumatic family event at 27 that I was still working through, and was paying off a crap load of student loan debt. My approach to navigating life had been greatly enriched by my experiences, but compared to Joe, who appeared to be a fun loving, light-hearted guy with seemingly few worries, I felt rather heavy and complicated. Alongside all this, I was a writer, and had up to that point dated mostly artist/musician/literary types. Joe is a science guy who planned to go into medicine. Though he loved to read, writing was about as far from an interest of his as scuba diving (a hobby he was pursuing) was of mine. Also, he loved football. How could two such different people be together in any kind of real way?

Turns out, we both liked to cuddle. That might sound funny, but cuddling isn’t for everyone! A good friend of mine told me once she didn’t really like to cuddle, but her boyfriend did. I remember thinking, wow, how could you not like cuddling? In those early days, when it seemed like Joe and I had little in common (aside from our love of travel and our obvious attraction to each other), the affection we shared surpassed any differences. We could spend hours together, just cuddling, talking, and laughing. We weren’t sharing the kind of in-depth conversations we would come to engage in later (though he was quickly learning that I liked to ask a lot of questions), but we were having fun, we wanted to see each other all the time, and something between us felt completely right. It was our beginning.

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Four years in, our differences have in many ways become a part of our greatest strength: the ability to work as a team. When Joe and I wrote the vows for our wedding ceremony, we viewed them as the foundation of our marriage, the verbal agreement of what we were committing to. We wanted the words we exchanged to be something we could return to throughout our life, to reflect on what our intentions were for our marriage and see if we were staying true to them or if there were aspects we could put more energy into. We spent hours writing what ended up being 10 vows, encompassing everything from communication to patience to adventure. Our final vow was this:

I will remember that we make a strong, capable team. We nurture and comfort each other, and together will create a life that fulfills and inspires us.

The words are simple, but they sum up a lot of what got us to the place of being ready to marry each other. By the time we were standing on the deck of a cottage in Yachats, Oregon, placing rings on each other’s fingers in the midst of a typhoon, we knew we made a good team. In marriage, we wanted to remember that strength, so we could keep building on it.

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I see our differences now less as differences and more as points of balance. The analytical side of me, which continually seeks a response to the question ‘why’, that wants details, that asks for context in order to fully understand a situation (a part of my nature that undoubtedly stems from the influence of my mom, for whom sharing feelings was vital to survival) has brought out in Joe the yearning to discover and explore aspects of himself and the people in his life through communicating with deeper intention and awareness. Conversely, his ability to cut through the complexity I sometimes get caught up in and come to a place of resolution brings a sense of ease to my life I’m not sure I had experienced before.

I’m still not into football, and I have a hard time retaining information on anything to do with the internal systems of the human body (which Joe will be studying when he embarks on his education in medicine). But being a writer and editor came in pretty handy when supporting Joe through the PA school applications process. And when I’m grappling with some of the difficult circumstances that crop up in my life related to family, having a partner who can objectively listen without it raising issues of their own is vastly comforting.

With teamwork as our base, the challenges inherent in sharing a life become far more manageable. But within that framework, there are also some other key elements that have helped us strengthen our connection. Here are a few…

1. Focus on the good. Joe and I have our share of pet peeves. I’m always running ten minutes behind (no matter how many times he says “I don’t want to be late”…there I am, searching last-minute for my keys/lip gloss/earrings, etc). I stir our french-press coffee with a chopstick and then leave the chopstick, covered in grinds, on the counter. There’s an ongoing pile of (my) clothes on top of our dresser, and right when Joe is trying to fall asleep, on a weeknight, I often discover there’s something I want to talk about or a story I want to tell.

When Joe gets home from work he takes off his dirty socks and leaves them on the couch or on the bed, instead of just putting them in the hamper, pretty much every day. He rarely begins a load of laundry…folds and puts away, yes, but getting the clothes into the machine, not so much. And recently he started flossing in bed. In bed! (I am in the process of outlawing this.)

If we focused on the irritation of these things every time they happened, we’d be annoyed with each other daily. But we don’t. A gentle mention, sure. But when I see the socks on the couch or that the laundry basket is full, again, mostly I remind myself that he also brews our coffee almost every morning (a cup is waiting for me when I get up), or that when we’re on our way out and he’s waiting for me, instead of getting outwardly frustrated, he asks, “can I do anything to help?” Gratitude dissipates irritation. Which brings me to…

2. Say thank you. “Thanks for taking the garbage out.” “Thank you for booking the flights.” “Thanks for the fun day together.” We thank each other all the time. So little effort, so much impact.

3. Bring it up (and work it out). Recently we watched the documentary 112 Weddings. While discussing the breakdown of her marriage, a woman says that she was totally taken aback when her husband told her, “I haven’t been happy for years.” I was shocked that this would surprise her. How could you not realize, for years, that your partner is unhappy? (And how could someone not tell their partner, for years, they are unhappy in their marriage?) In my view, this would be nearly impossible if you prioritize communication. I have never shied away from conflict, so when something is distressing me, I bring it up. Usually pretty quickly. While delving into an issue is never fun, it creates the opportunity to resolve it, which is essential in keeping our relationship healthy. (And so much better than letting it build up, inside.)

4. Use the magic “How do you feel about . . . ” phrase. Last fall Joe and I hit a bump during which we realized our communication needed improvement. We bought a book called “The Power of Two Workbook”, which gives really helpful techniques. The one that stuck with us the most is this: instead of starting a request or statement with “I want”, “I don’t want”, “Can you”, etc., try “How do you feel about . . .”

For example, instead of, “Can you make dinner Monday nights?” it’s, “How do you feel about making dinner on Mondays?” Obviously you’re asking the same thing, but it just sounds so much nicer, and invites a response beyond “yes” or “no”. (The book is loaded with easy tips like this one.)

5. Change what’s not working. Easier said than done, but when a real shift takes place, it’s so rewarding, and eliminates rehashing the same gripe over and over. A while back I mentioned to Joe that sometimes he cuts me off mid-sentence when we’re with other people, without realizing it. I didn’t like having to bring it up, but I don’t think he’s done it since, and I’m really thankful. (Not just because he stopped, but because he cares enough about my feelings to make a point of changing something that truly bothers me, without me having to bring it up again.) Right now I’m working on getting up earlier, before 7 am, so that we can have coffee together before Joe leaves for work. (Early mornings are not my strong point.) I’ll let you know the progress…

6. Keep cuddling. Forever.

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What have you found helpful in relationships? Any surprising tips? I would love to hear!

I’m sure I’ll learn so much more about marriage in the coming months and years, and perhaps I’ll look back one day and think my outlook at the one-year mark was a touch naive. But I think it’s important to appreciate what you know now (regarding relationships or anything else in life), no matter what stage you’re at.

Have a wonderful week, everyone. It’s good to be back on the blog…thanks for reading. :)

ps. Relationship wisdom from my girlfriends, 15 Ways to Stay Married, and How we end up marrying the wrong people

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10 responses

  1. Courtney, what a beautiful tribute to your marriage. I so enjoy your thoughts and wonderful writing. Happy Anniversary to you and Joe!! Love you, Sue

  2. This is lovely, Coco. Honest narrative, solid wisdom and shared experience of what works for you two. Congrats on your first year! xo

  3. Well HELLO Courtney!! i came across this, don’t know how. Just surfing I suppose! You are an amazing writer and I’m so so happy to read about your amazing adventures and lovely man! yay! Hope you are well and maybe one day we will cross paths again!
    xo Kels

    • Aw, thanks Kelsie, it is so nice to hear from you :) I hear you have a rainwear boutique in Victoria now, I will try to pop in when I am in town and hopefully catch you! Thanks for following the blog, I’ve got lots of fun posts planned for 2015, hope you enjoy. xox

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