I’ve never understood why people say that relationships shouldn’t be hard work. Whether it’s keeping up a house or keeping the peace inside it, hard work is good. It’s constructive. It makes you a better man. For me, living under the same roof with my wife and two toddlers is hard work. And I love it – even when I don’t like it.
In my short thirty-year life, I've managed to make almost every relational mistake you could put on the list. But the older I get, the more excited I become about learning from my mistakes, and about learning how to be a better man, a better husband, and a better father. If you’re in a relationship, maybe you can learn a thing or two from some of my blunders.
Listening Matters – Especially When It's About You
I’m a school teacher, which means that I’m great at talking and enjoying the sound of my own voice, but listening does not come naturally to me. When my wife comes home after a hard day at work and needs to vent, she doesn’t need me to tell her how to solve the problem (she’s not one of my students); she needs me to listen, to shut my mouth, and be present in the moment. This is pretty classic advice: Don’t try to solve your partner’s problems, just listen and sympathize. But here’s where it gets difficult: sometimes, I’m the problem. And my wife doesn’t need to vent because she’s had a bad day; she needs to vent because she’s upset with me. I’m learning that it's in these situations that listening matters most.
My first response to criticism is that I get my feelings hurt, which makes me get angry. But that isn’t productive. I need to slow down, listen to my wife, and internalize what she’s saying. I don’t have to agree with everything she says, but if she’s really my partner and my equal, then I at least need to listen. And by the way, men, listening to your partner does not mean nodding your head and putting on a contrite face, all the while planning your next comment. Believe me, they know when we’re doing that.
You Have to Fight Fair
You’re going to fight. It’s normal. What matters isn’t if you fight, it’s how you fight.
Men are often the first ones to hurt someone else’s feelings, but we’re also often the first ones to get our feelings hurt. It’s ok to say it out loud: “Hey, that hurt my feelings.” I’m learning that it’s also ok to let a fight have a little space and time so you can both cool down. I’m a fixer, a problem-solver, and a verbal processor. I want to talk about the problem until we’ve solved it, and I want to talk about it right now. But my wife is an internal processor. She needs time to think and mull things over. And in a healthy relationship, that needs to be ok. There’s a balance here.
If my wife and I need to table an argument, I’m not letting it go for three weeks. But I’ll suggest a timeline: “How about we revisit this over the weekend?” My wife knows that I’m still trying to consider her needs, and I know that the problem will get solved in due time.
Be Ok with Baggage
I’m 30 years old. I have an almost three-year-old daughter, from when I was previously married and subsequently divorced. I talk to my ex-wife every day because we co-parent our daughter. And now I’m remarried to an amazing woman... who also has a daughter. Did you follow all of that?
There's nothing squeaky clean about my situation. I have baggage, but I’m learning to embrace that this is the reality in which I live. The woman of your dreams will probably come complete with a childhood, a family, at least one bad break up, a boss who clearly doesn’t understand her, or any number of other things like it. This is all baggage. Embrace it – because you have it, too.
There is no such thing as a relationship in a vacuum. When my girls aren’t getting along, when my wife and I have to deal with our exes, or when one of our family members are driving us insane, we’ve got to just stop, laugh, and embrace everything about our situation. The good, the bad, the baggage – you signed up for all of it, and sometimes it’s going to suck. That's ok. You've just got to remember that you chose each other for a reason. You can do this.
Reconnect Every Once in a While
Your relationship will not be a blissful romantic comedy 24/7. Sometimes couples have a few days or even a few weeks where they’re out of sync for one reason or another. Don’t panic – there is a way through.
My wife and I have stressful jobs, and our cute-but-crazy girls give us very little time to sit down and have actual adult conversations. Occasionally we'll go a whole week without really having a chance to sit down together, hold hands, talk, and laugh. And when one of us finally realizes we’re out of touch, we make it a point to reconnect. It’s time for a date night, a romantic dinner, an early bedtime for the kids, a day trip... something. Reconnecting with your partner when you’re feeling distant does not happen accidentally, and it does not happen on its own. You have to be intentional; you have to find a reason to laugh, to remember what you love about each other.
You’re two people in a romantic relationship, possibly living together, and trying to get along all the time. That’s hard work, but it’s also great work. I’ve had the horrible break up, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, and now I have a somewhat complicated situation. I’m learning from all of it.
But the end goal of my relationship is not the absence of hard work – it's growth and love in the face of any struggle that may come our way.