With Valentine's Day right around the corner, I decided to make this month's blog post about matters of the heart - building a happy lasting love that stands the test of time.
I am fortunate to be celebrating thirty years with my husband. Stephen and I had a whirlwind romance and were married after just five months together. There were more than a few raised eyebrows, and whispers. No one thought we would make it. After all, neither of us had a good track record with relationships or positive role models to learn from.
We each brought our own baggage to the relationship and the odds were stacked against us. When we first met, I was divorced with a three-year-old and a baby on the way. I had been raised by a raging alcoholic in a home filled with domestic violence and abuse. Steve had an equally dysfunctional childhood neglected and surrounded by abusive alcoholics and violence. We were quite the pair!
I considered myself broken, unable to have a healthy relationship - unlucky in love. Could two broken people create one healthy relationship? Could we break the chains of our past and create a happy family of our own in spite of it? Well, here we are thirty years later happily married. Life has not been perfect by any means, but I am so grateful to have him as my life partner, best friend and soul mate.
Why do I share such personal details? I would like this article to offer hope to others that have struggled with relationships and, like us, wonder if they’ll ever get it right. Yes – you can. It won’t be easy. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, but you CAN have happy long-lasting love. If Steve and I can do it – anyone can! Without further delay, here are our 10 keys to success...
Let’s face it, without chemistry (e.g. sexual attraction) it’s hard to endure the ups and downs that life throws at you. It’s the making up that makes the fighting all that much more palatable. My heart still skips a beat when my husband walks into the room and there is nowhere that I would rather be than snuggled up beside him with my head on his chest and his arms around me.
That chemical attraction we had over thirty years ago has matured and endured. It has helped us through insecurity and brought us back together no matter how far apart we drifted. Like two magnets we sometimes turned back to back and moved away from each other, but before long when we turned back to see what really mattered, the pull of that magnetic force brought us together. While I agree that sex cannot be the only thing in a relationship, chemistry is a powerful force / bond in a healthy relationship and can help you endure the ups and downs over time.
Devotion is defined as love, loyalty or enthusiasm for a person, activity or cause. Synonyms are loyalty, faithfulness and fidelity. Devotion is commitment, mutual respect and admiration. It is knowing you are safe, loved and cherished – knowing This is my Person. With each year, struggle and triumph our relationship grew, and we became more devoted to one another.
Neither one of us had a history of staying in a relationship for very long. We decided together that this relationship was not disposable and no matter what it would take, we were committed to making it work. We agreed to love each other unconditionally – for better or worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and health as long as we both shall live. We took that promise seriously and literally.
I think about it in the same way that I think about my children. No matter what they do, I love them unconditionally and am committed to doing whatever it takes to help them be happy, healthy and well-adjusted. Why should our relationships with our spouse or significant other be any different? Of course, this doesn’t mean you should accept abuse EVER, but I think you understand what I'm getting at.
Always remember that you deserve to have someone cheering for you, someone who will bring out the best in you and make you want to be a better version of yourself. Your partner deserves the same. If you want a strong relationship that will stand the test of time, this is an important pillar in order to get there.
A counselor once wrote on her white board the words intimacy = into-me-see. It is about more than physical intimacy. It’s about letting your guard down and allowing someone to see every part of you. Sharing your hopes, dreams, fears and experiences is not easy, but it’s important. It takes time to break down barriers, tear down walls (especially when there has been dysfunction, abuse or negative experiences in the past). I had built walls around those parts of me that were vulnerable, and it took time and patience to build intimacy. Counseling helped, but eventually trust built between us allowing us to make progress more easily. It’s worth the time and hard work it takes to get there –- and make no mistake, it is hard work!
Keep romance alive. Spend time putting your relationship as a couple first – even if that means getting a sitter once a week. Steve often surprises me with a candlelit dinner or a rose just because. A text that says “Have I told you how much you mean to me?” costs nothing and means everything. Take the time to build that closeness and treat your significant other the way you have always wanted to be treated… or better yet, the way THEY have always wanted to be treated.
Communication is an important skill set, which includes talking, listening and being able to navigate conflict. What are your visions / goals? Do you want the same things? Are you able to ask for what you want / need?
We all know that men and women communicate very differently. Learning each other’s love language is an important part of having a successful relationship. When we first got together, I would write love notes or send cute texts (because that’s what I liked). It wasn’t what Steve wanted or appreciated. He learned that I liked those things. He is always sure to get me the mushy cards and I get him the funny ones. If you aren’t sure what someone wants or needs… ask and then listen -- really listen.
Listening is the most important part of communication. When you put the phone down and truly engage with your loved ones you show them how important they are to you. Build each other up. Tell each other what you love about them or how much you appreciate the little thing they did. Don’t take it for granted that they know and even if you’ve said it a hundred times… say it again.
Conflict resolution is also critical. Steve and I needed to learn to fight fair. We had to stop pushing each other’s buttons and find ways to work through conflict.
Here are some things that work for us:
No trash talking – Name calling or putting each other down isn’t helpful
Time out – If things get heated, either one of us can call a time out and we stop fighting and go back after we cool down. That was hard to learn, but very helpful. I’m not a fan of the “no going to bed angry” rule because sometimes I need a time out to sleep on something and start fresh in the morning.
Some buttons are off limit - As a couple we both know which buttons to push to get to the other person. We have made a couple of them off-limits. For me it is loud yelling that triggers childhood issues for me. For Steve it’s anything that would trigger abandonment issues. We care enough for each other NOT to go there and have set those ground rules. Steve won’t ever hear “I’m leaving you.” during a fight and I will never have to feel physically threatened during an argument.
In times of conflict - apologize. We are going to hurt one another and because we love each other, we will forgive. An apology goes a long way in wiping the slate clean. It must be heart-felt and sincere and must be followed by the desire to change behavior that we know hurt our mate. Sure, there are times when both sides feel that the other person was wrong. Apologize for your part in the argument anyway and treat each other with dignity and grace..
Trust is earned over time. For me and Steve, trust was hard to come by since so many key people in our lives had let us down throughout childhood. It was our very strong bond and lots of hard work that helped build the trust. Working through issues, having each other’s back over time and fighting fair made a difference. No one is perfect and you will disappoint one another. Move past it and keep growing. Be honest – lies (even lies of omission) will result in steps backwards.
A strong sense of self / independence is another important part of trust. It is not healthy to be completely enmeshed or codependent. Make sure you have some autonomy, time to yourself and things that are your own.
Avoid temptations with people of the opposite sex. Avoid the appearance of impropriety or temptation that can come during those times when you and your mate may be drifting apart. It is normal to be attracted to the opposite sex. Face it and address it in counseling if necessary. A sure fire way to lose all trust is to have a physical or emotional affair.
The one thing I love most about my husband is that he can always make me laugh. I am way too serious, and he is a big kid who balances me out with his silliness. You must learn to laugh at yourselves, make happy memories and have fun.
When we were younger, we often piled the kids in the car and took off for the weekend. Trips to New
Hampshire visiting Story Land, Santa’s Village or Lake Winnipesaukee. We went to Disney every year for quite awhile and had a wonderful time. We laughed and played and have some fantastic memories to look back on. Make it a point to have fun – no matter what your budget and continue to make new memories.
It’s also important to be able to laugh at yourselves. My husband was a stay at home Dad before being Mr. Mom was cool. Many times I came home to find my my husband with a bandanna tied around his nose and mouth as he navigated changing a poopy diaper. My favorite memory is Steve, leaf blower in hand, dusting my son's room by blowing everything out the open window. Dust bunnies and all kinds of junk were flying out from under his entertainment center. It worked like a charm! That wouldn't be the last time I'd walk in on him dusting with a leaf blower. It still gets a chuckle every time I think about it.
It’s those fond memories that will carry you through the rough times. Sometimes you need to find something funny in a situation that’s just too serious or grim. It can be a great coping mechanism when you need it.
My faith has helped me over the years to be more positive by putting things in God’s hands when I feel overwhelmed or consumed with negativity. Prayer, meditation and my walks / talks with God were often the difference between despair and hope.
My husband, on the other hand, is a naturally glass half full kind of guy. When troubles come, he chimes in with stories about how it could be so much worse and how lucky we are. On the rare occasion when he is the one struggling with negativity, I have learned to do the same for him. It is always helpful to remind ourselves how much we have been through successfully and that together we can get through anything.
Challenges and struggles bring us closer and make us stronger. For example, our first apartment we had nothing except a mattress on the floor. We borrowed a tent and set it up in our empty living room for my three-year-old to sleep in. He had a blast and we played camp-out for a few weeks. We worked hard and bought furniture over a few months. We did it together and it drew us closer. Embrace the challenges – they will strengthen your bond. Meet them with a positive spirit and laugh when you can and your stress will be reduced.
Steve and I are complete opposites and don’t agree on much except that we love each other! We have had to learn ways to compromise in order to live a happy life. Experiment and be open-minded and you will find things that work for you. Here are some of our go-tos.
How important is it? When we are having a disagreement about something, we have learned to ask, “How important is this to you on a scale of 1 to 10?” If one of us ranks it a 9 and one has it at a 3, we defer to the other. It's not important enough to drive a wedge between us.
Negotiation – We each get something we want (unrelated usually). Example: I wanted a new puppy, he wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted to renovate the basement for a man-cave. I thought it was a waste of money. What if he cut some costs and got the man-cave and I got my puppy too! That's exactly what happened!.
Take Turns - When we go to dinner and a movie , one of us will choose the restaurant and the other will choose the movie then switch next time we go. No one has to feel like they didn't get a say in how we spend our time.
Veto Power – When you can't just take turns, like selecting the next vacation destination or new flooring for the bedroom, we struggled for years always ending in argument or hard feelings. We came up with the idea of having VETO power. We keep looking until we find something that neither of us vetos. Our selection won't be first choice for either of us, but it is something we can both live with.
It doesn’t take much to drive a wedge between a relationship.Apologies unspoken, grudges develop and things can fester.We can also bring anger and baggage from childhood or previous relationships. No one is perfect.The best thing I ever did was to learn to make peace with my past and forgive those who hurt me.It was something I had to do for myself and a heavy weight was lifted.
Steve and I committed to apologizing and working through issues between us.It took time, but with practice it got easier.As trust builds, devotion builds, forgiveness is easier.Anger is self-destructive and holding onto grudges, bringing things up over and over again is a recipe for disaster in a relationship.
My philosophy is to offer forgiveness to others the way that I hope my husband, family and kids will provide me in the future.I know I’ve made mistakes and will make more.I wouldn’t want others to hold onto that anger and to sacrifice our relationship, so why should I do that to others?
Life is filled with challenges. If you want to be happy, you need to be resilient. Things will knock you down. Bad things may come in clusters. Hang in there! Lean on each other. Remember the good things, focus on the positive, ask for help. Don’t give up – you can do it!
Over thirty years, Steve and I have had many struggles, financial, personal, lost jobs, addiction, loss of loved ones and much more. Challenges will bring you closer over time. It may feel awful when you’re going through it, but when you come together and are able to make it through, it makes the next one that much easier. You learn to depend on each other and have each other’s back.
Love and relationships have their ups and downs. You will not always feel close to your significant other. There have been times when I was sure I hated Steve and I’m sure he felt the same way. Hold on tight and keep at it. I can’t really explain it except that we all have our moods and challenges and there are times when we are both struggling with different things and just can’t be there for each other. We drift apart and things between our mate can become much harder for a spell.
Get counseling if you need to. There is no shame in asking for help, but if you plan to make it through better and worse you can't give up. You will be stronger for having gone through it and the closeness you gain will be extraordinary.
Hold tight and soon you may be celebrating thirty years with the love of your life!
About April Cox
April Cox is a blogger, entrepreneur and author. She founded Little Labradoodle Publishing in 2018 and has released a number of children's book. She lives in Pawtucket, RI with her husband, Steve and their two Labradoodles. She dedicates her work to the four beautiful grandkids that have inspired her to begin this journey and bring her so much joy and happiness. Check out free digital downloads from Little Labradoodle Publishing at: http://www.thelittlelabradoodle.com/digital-downloads.