Still Crazy After All These Years

Yesterday marked our 28th anniversary. I keep thinking that I am not old enough to have been married that long. Jeff keeps pointing out that I have been with him for more than half of my life. I have no idea how that happened. Really. I don’t.

A few months ago, I ran into one of my former students at the gym (and if that isn’t awkward, I don’t know what is. But that’s another post for another time.). He was getting ready to up his commitment level with his long-term girlfriend, and he asked if I had any advice. I lobbed a couple of ideas his way, but the interaction got Jeff and I thinking back to the early days of our own relationship. How did we figure it out?

Honestly? We had absolutely no idea what we were doing. We were 20-something adults with very different views on life that we knew we wanted to pull together – somehow.

For us, it came down to the fact that neither of us were afraid to ask the tough questions. We put all our cards on the table and dedicated time and attention to hammering out the structure we would build our relationship around.

We did not assume we were on the same page, and that is probably one of the top suggestions we have to offer. Whether you are one of our ‘younger’ readers, or you have adult kids who are getting ready to take the next step, here are some points to consider.

The only person you can change is you.

Roughly 25 years ago, Jeff and I were watching the Oprah Winfrey Show. The guests were newly-married couples who had crazy issues – like paying off a $75,000 wedding – and wanted advice. We were struck by the number of people who were shocked that the person they married was the same as he or she was before the wedding. Like the guy who still wanted to watch football on Sunday with his buddies. Or the woman who still loved to shop. Or that friend that one of you just can’t stand? That’s still gonna be a problem.

Give up the idea that you are going to change the core of anyone’s behavior just because you’re now living together or married. No, seriously. Get over it. You fell in love with that person knowing exactly who he was, exactly how she acted. If all of a sudden you decide you don’t like that behavior, then you shouldn’t have become involved in the first place, and you certainly shouldn’t have married that person!

Jeff teaching Zach to play chess, while watching Sunday football

Yes, we do change as we grow; life experiences and maturity have a habit of doing that to us. But Jeff still loves watching football as much today as he did when we met – and I still love watching it with him. Do we revolve every waking moment around sports? No. Well, sort of. Mostly. But that’s not the point. Jeff still loves ESPN, and I still love NCIS. Jeff could care less how the dishwasher is loaded, and I will reload it to my exact specifications before turning it on. Jeff has been pushing my buttons for nearly 30 years (check out our Top 10 Marriage Button Pushers if you’re looking for a laugh!). Nothing is going to change that. So we work it out.

The $$ trap.

Anyone who has been in a relationship knows how quickly money can drive you apart. Jeff and I have very different money management styles, and he was far more financially stable than I was, so we knew we needed to set these rules up right from the start – and stick to them. Here are the questions we asked.

  1. How are bills going to be paid? Will you share one checkbook with your combined money or two checkbooks and you divvy up expenses? 
  2. How big does a purchase have to be before you need to discuss it as a couple? 
  3. What about credit cards? Individual or joint? What limit? Make payments or pay it off at the end of the month?

Jeff is a big fan of the 24-hour rule for big purchases. Me? Not so much. He loves process, I love purchase. But we know that about each other. Compromise. Compromise. Compromise.

To kid or not to kid, that is the question.

This was a big one. If one of us wanted kids and the other didn’t want any, someone was eventually going to be very unhappy. Be very sure on this because, five years down the road, when one of you is ready to have kids and the other says uh-uh, you will be far more emotionally engaged than you are now.

Resentment can turn a relationship ugly. And that includes talking your other half into your way of thinking. If you have to argue your way into agreement, be aware that this may come back to haunt you. You might win the battle, but what does that get you? So ask – do you? How many? WHEN??

Yes on kids? Here’s Part II:

Great! You decide to have kids. A little girl or boy to chase after and laugh with. To raise exactly the way you want to.

The first child is born, beautiful daughter or handsome son and both of you are beyond excited.  And then reality sets in. There is a huge shift in your house. Dad? You are now number two in your wife’s eyes.  You are no longer her primary focus. It’s a big adjustment, which we don’t think is discussed enough in our society.  New dads are surprised and often times disappointed in the lack of attention they are now getting. This does not mean your wife does not love you, it is just most of her energy is needed for your baby.  And with each child born your status descends.  

Mom? Your body is no longer your own. Neither is your time. And many moms – too many moms – try to juggle everything all at once. Society places this crazy expectation that your house should be clean, you should be dressed – and showered! – and meals should be ready pretty close to on schedule. And that’s on top of making sure your sweet baby is clean, fed, and preferably not screaming loud enough to wake the neighbors.

You need to breathe. The next 18 years are an exercise in love – not perfection. You are going to make mistakes. So many mistakes. But it’s okay. The kids are your focus. No question. And it’s hard not to resent that at times. But make time for each other, even if it’s a date night on the back deck. Split up the housework as best you can. Jeff is a whiz at laundry, but not so much at cleaning bathrooms. We work our strengths.

Eventually, as your kids grow, finding time to be together becomes easier. Trust us. We are currently moving our two amazing young adult children out into the world. In the midst of a pandemic. We haven’t had a night alone in our house in months. But that will pass, and we will have these months to look back on and laugh over.

Goin’ to the chapel.

Religion is one of those issues that has become a deliberately avoided topic at family gatherings, but it can’t be if you’re starting a relationship. Ideally, both of you will have similar spiritual backgrounds, or at least similar thinking – but not always. It’s when you don’t agree that problems can crop up, but coming to an agreement is possible with open discussion.

  1. What are your thoughts on going to church? And which denomination do you want to attend?
  2. Is our child/children going to be raised in a church? Which religion? Or none at all? And what about baptism?

Daddy’s girl. Mamma’s boy.

This reminds me of the old comedy skit “Who’s on first?” Except, there really isn’t any question – your partner is first. Always.

If you are running to Mom or Dad to complain about your relationship, you’re not talking to the right person. We have known so many young couples who fell into that trap early on and never dug their way out. Ultimately, those relationships ended badly, because that sense of loyalty to their partners never had a chance to develop. 

Then there are those parents who somehow seem to have missed the idea that their kids have their own homes and families now. Maybe your brother has a habit of showing up unannounced and digging through the refrigerator. Maybe Mom constantly criticizes her daughter-in-law’s entertaining and parenting abilities – with the best of intentions, of course – and Dad has been known to call his son-in-law a ‘good for nothing’. Not cool. If that happens, you needs to step up and step in. Because, as much as you love your mom, your loyalty should have shifted to your spouse. It’s up to you to set your family straight.

Special note for military couples: A spouse’s deployment is not an excuse to go ‘home’ to live with your parents. Home is wherever you are stationed, and you need to embrace that reality.

As a military family, and a wife who watched her husband head out to sea every 5 weeks or so, we watched marriage after marriage fail under these circumstances. I once drove 6 hours one way to Key West, Florida with an 8-month old and a 4 year-old. The USCGC Vigilant was pulling in to port, just for two days, and the kids needed to see Daddy. So we went. And despite the absolute insanity of that trip, I would do it again.

Stay. Become part of the community of spouses who support their loved ones who serve. Help each other. Build a new life.

Unless there is some compelling situation that makes it critical for you to live with your parents while your spouse is deployed, don’t.

Coping with the unexpected

Once Jeff and I had talked everything through, we were pretty confident. We had a plan. We were on the same page. Then, on August 24, 1992, just four months after our wedding, Hurricane Andrew struck.

As a Coast Guardsman, Jeff was required to man the offices in the Federal Building in downtown Miami. I was required to evacuate. Letting him walk away from me was, at that moment, the hardest thing I ever did. It did not matter that Jeff didn’t want to leave me. It did not matter that I was calm but terrified. Duty called, and he answered.

Andrew was a Category 5 storm with 165mph winds. I was on the telephone with Jeff when pieces of the Federal Building roof blew off. We were disconnected, leaving me stunned. Meteorologist Bryan Norcross – the only local meteorologist who was absolutely convinced we were going to get hit – was the sole voice in the literal darkess of the storm.

We would love to be able to tell you that life gets easier. And maybe, in some ways, it does. But marriage has never been easy.

Miscarriages and two difficult pregnancies. Two moves in 16 months on behalf of the U.S. Coast Guard. Never living near family. Not once in 30 years together. Job losses. Feeling like a failure at parenting. Going back to school to become a teacher, and the major stress that being a teacher brings to a relationship.

It’s never all bad, either!

But we have had such joy, too. Watching these two little humans we created grow. Coaching soccer and basketball. Girl Scouts and Camp Carl. Jump rope competitions and basketball tournaments. Vacations, vacations, vacations. Halloween costumes and Christmas. Hot Wheels and Lego’s and American Girl dolls. Homecoming and Prom.

Through it all, we have fought through. Stuck through.

29 years ago, we made these discussions a priority. We were very different people then. And we still are. But that foundation we built has held true. We were honest from the beginning, and that saved us when life got in the way. We may be adding on to the house we built way back then, but the supports are still there to hold anything we can come up with.

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