We’ve been married for more than 10 years now, so we are a full decade wiser than we were as newlyweds. Marriage (and divorce) is also a professional specialty for us, so we’ve been thinking about what makes a good marriage for a long time.
Through trial and error, ups and downs, and the blessing of mentors more seasoned than us, we can look back and see several habits that were valuable to us as newlyweds. Here are the foundations that helped us build a strong marriage together.
Find and nurture a community of couples
One of the best things we did as newlyweds was join a newly formed group of couples at our parish. We met monthly with five other couples (sometimes a priest joined us, too) to share about our “highs and lows” of the month and discuss insights about all aspects of marriage and family life.
Don’t get us wrong — we have single friends who are a huge blessing to us, and are important in our lives. But there has been something invaluable about sharing life with other married couples. At any one time, at least one of us has been facing some sort of crisis in our family life, and it’s been a huge help to have other couples cheering us on through such difficulties.
Whether in a formalized group or not, it’s beneficial to have other couples with you “in the ring” as married life unfolds — couples who are equally committed to making it last.
Build traditions together (but be relaxed about it)
We both brought to marriage our own family-of-origin traditions, and as a newly formed family, we wanted to blend these and also create new ways of doing life together. This is not an effortless process, though, and is always ongoing!
For us, family traditions that we cherish include going on a trip for our anniversary in May, sharing a relaxed afternoon espresso on Sunday afternoons (a tradition from Dan’s Italian family), and eating family meals together as much as possible.
As important as these traditions are, we’ve learned not to be too rigid about any of them. As our family has grown, for example, we’ve both added and discontinued traditions to fit our needs. There’s no one way to live a beautiful family life, and we’ve tried to be responsive to our family’s best interests rather than anyone else’s expectations (and certainly not a fictionalized Hallmark ideal!).
And don’t be afraid to try new things — those experiences may become new family traditions, or perhaps just fun one-offs.
Strive to ‘leave and cleave’
As the Bible says, getting married is about “leaving and cleaving” — leaving one’s father and mother and joining intimately to one’s spouse to form a brand-new family. Neither the leaving nor the joining are painless!
“Leaving” one’s family of origin could be a literal moving out of one’s childhood home; or it could be more “figurative” as each receives and claims a new primary identity as spouse. Becoming a spouse doesn’t negate one’s identity as daughter, son, friend, etc., but it does re-order our priorities through the lens of our new family. Because marriage is a life-long and total commitment, our identity as a spouse is our primary calling — before anything else, one is a husband or wife. At times, leaving means setting healthy boundaries with one’s family of origin (for example) as those relationships are re-configured accordingly.
Regarding “cleaving” — while we became an inseparable union on our wedding day, that union is also something we’re always striving to live into more fully. It takes time and practice for two imperfect, independent people to become a united team. Having a mindset of cleaving or joining means intentionally inviting the other person’s thoughts and needs into our own considerations, remembering that we face our future together. We’ve tried to “lean in” to this reality of our marriage — even when it seems easier to “go our own way” — knowing that our task now is to really live the communion we formed on our wedding day.
Be open to growth together
Have you ever heard that quip from a long-married couple, “I’ve had three marriages … all to the same person”? The idea is that none of us stay the exact same person forever. We grow and change as life happens.
The person I was when we got married at 26 hadn’t yet experienced the joys — and the sufferings — of the person I am now. Our jobs have changed, our family has grown, we’ve gone through infertility and been blessed by adoption, our interests and priorities have fluctuated — all within the same marriage.
A mindset of being open to growth within marriage can lead to some beautiful things. We have a front-row seat to the strides we each make in becoming a more mature, more integrated human being. But growth can also be painful, like when we are trying to overcome an unhealthy pattern in our relationship, or when we respond differently to a new situation in our lives. As we anticipate growth and change in our personal identities, we can rest on the foundation of our bond together.
Married life after the honeymoon stage can get so serious, so quickly. Job pressures, financial stresses, big decisions, chores, all the daily life together that’s necessary but not glamorous — there is a lot of instability in that first year of marriage. It takes intentionality to build fun and leisure into marriage, but it’s so worth it.
We now run a non-profit together and are also parents, so it’s that much more important to connect as spouses and friends in times of light-hearted fun, like watching a new Marvel show together or trying out a new and ridiculous game (like Throw Throw Burrito!).
At the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus turned water into wine, which delighted the newlyweds and their guests. We love that image: our Lord is always ready to give us the “new wine” of joy in our marriage, no matter what difficulties or drudgeries we face. And as our marriage continues, our love becomes richer and more flavorful over time — just like wine. Looking back 10 years, we smile fondly at our newlywed selves in their blissful giddiness — but we also want to tell them, “The best is yet to come!”