When it comes to marriage advice, I’m experienced. One divorce, a thousand bad relationships. There’s a lot I wish I’d known before I made my vows.
Before I share what I’ve learned, let’s consider marriage as it really is. It wraps itself around “relationship,” but it is not the same thing.
1. Marriage is a financial transaction.
To this, people might say, “You are too cynical.” But I think this is the most common mistake people make.
No, I’m not cynical. I love being in a long-term relationship. I live for it, but very specifically, marriage is a legal arrangement. What it means is if I die, my spouse will share in my estate. If I have any and if I’ve made no other recourse, my spouse can share my medical benefits depending on where I work and what country I live in. And if I’m injured or incapacitated enough that I can’t represent myself, my spouse will make decisions on my behalf.
Following a divorce, if we have kids, then whoever makes more money will have some financial responsibility (just having kids outside of a marriage is enough for that). Depending on the state, if we are married and get divorced, then each state has rules for how assets are divided.
Most of the above can be handled with contracts so that a divorce can unwind without interference from the government or a judge. Otherwise, you get married not only to your spouse, but also the government. It’s important, again, to recognize that “marriage” and “relationship” are not the same. This is not cynical. This is the law.
2. Don’t ask ‘Why?’
When something bad happened in my marriage, I think I spent too much time asking, “Why did this happen?” There are no answers. There is no truthful answer to why. It happened. It can’t be undone. Why does not make when not exist.
3. Nobody wins an argument.
“But he’s wrong!”
“But you’re wrong!”
This doesn’t matter. There is no winner once a voice is raised. Knowing this is the difference between a relationship that survives until tomorrow and a relationship that dissolves tonight.
4. You can’t change the other person.
A good relationship depends on the relationship you have with yourself. You have to love yourself to know how to love others or else fear will crop up too much—fear that someone will leave you or do something you don’t want them to do. You can only change yourself in this regard by having more self-esteem.
If you’re trying to change your spouse, one has to wonder why you committed to them in the first place. Was it in the hope that they would change? It’s hard enough to change yourself. How can you hope to survive if you have to change both yourself and someone entirely different from you?
5. Relationships don’t have to last forever to be worth it.
I have two kids with my first wife, and I love them. So to me, it was worth it. I hope every relationship I am in lasts forever, and I’m a sucker for monogamy and commitment. But the reality is, most relationship don’t last forever. And a large percentage of marriages end in divorce.
Government, religion, culture, and family program us to think that we fail when a marriage fails. But many legal contracts go awry and have to be rewritten. And sometimes people grow apart. Often growth is considered a good thing—except when it means that a relationship might have been “outgrown.” Don’t fall for that myth.
6. It’s OK to go to sleep angry.
When I was a kid, Tom Bradford, the father in the TV show Eight Is Enough, gives advice to his oldest son on his son’s wedding day: “Don’t go to sleep angry.”
For 30 years, I remember this because I always thought, Huh, that sounds like good advice.
Often at night, for a variety of reasons, people are upset, just like when I sometimes (often) wake up at 3 in the morning with anxiety. When that happens, I now tell myself—this anxiety is irrational, but how about we (me and me) schedule a time at 3 in the afternoon the next day to discuss.
By 3 in the afternoon, I am never that anxious. There is nothing left to discuss. Sometimes when two people who love each other are upset, it’s OK if they simply wait and even sleep. Sleeping calms the body down, rejuvenates the brain, reduces the risk of illness (physical and psychological), and has many other benefits, including saving relationships.
So it’s OK to fall asleep angry. And try to wake up with the sun, and not with the fires of the night before.
7. Anger is fear with clothes.
When you’re angry, first ask, “What am I afraid of?”
8. Don’t give your self-esteem to someone else to watch over.
I am insecure. It’s hard to hold onto my insecurity. When someone looks at me with love, I think to myself: Finally someone who can help me feel more secure! And I often outsource my self-esteem. Now she has to hold onto not only her self-esteem but mine as well. This story doesn’t end well. Give everything of yourself. But keep your self-esteem. Don’t give it to someone else to hold onto.
9. Kids change everything.
First it’s you and your partner. Then, it’s you and your partner and a government license. Then, it’s you and your partner and a new human being. This human being is 1-foot tall, doesn’t speak, cries and screams all the time, and poops on the floor. And lives in your house. And will die if you don’t watch it 24-hours a day.
The big mistake I made in my first marriage was not realizing how much having a kid would actually change the dynamic between my wife and me. Because I made that mistake, I was miserable almost all the time. All I had to do was acknowledge that this was a big change and any change requires work to get through.
10. If she tells me she has cancer tomorrow, would I leave?
This seems like a stupid question. But just hear me out.
It’s easy: If the answer to the above is “no, of course not” then you are in love. If you pause, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It probably just means you shouldn’t get married, and you should think about ending the relationship.
By the way, the reverse also holds: “If I tell her I have cancer tomorrow, is there a chance she might leave?” If the answer to that is “maybe,” or “I don’t know,” or “I’m afraid of what will happen,” then maybe it’s time to pause things.
Again, I’m not being cynical—a lot of marriages and relationships end when the life goals of people change or are forced to change through illness or job changes or whatever. If your relationship can’t handle massive change, that’s OK. Just don’t get married.
So why should two people get married? I will be honest and say why I did it again. Despite it being a government transaction, and despite having at least one divorce, and despite it having nothing to do with love, I simply like being married.
I like giving the gift that even though I know this whole thing is a sham, culturally it means I above-and-beyond love you and want you to share this gift with me—even if it means we are idiots. I hope we grow old together and die in each other’s arms while we sleep.
This post originally appeared on Quora.
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