When a Marriage Grows Up

Anniversary flowers

Mike and I celebrated 19 years of marriage this week, the same age we were when we first met. It wasn’t love at first sight, and we didn’t marry our best friend, but dammit – we make a good team. If our marriage was a person, it would be an adult now. It could drive a car, vote, and go to war.

As we raise our own teenager, I can’t help but reflect on this second half of marriage. I’m realizing that as our marriage leaves its teen years behind and we begin our third decade together, our marriage has grown up. Just like raising a kid, the changes are subtle. I didn’t wake up and think, “Oh glorious day! We’ve been through so much, and our marriage is perfect now!”

No, the first time I really thought about it was after we’d had an argument. I couldn’t even tell you what it was about – we argue over a lot of stupid stuff, along with a handful of some big stuff. (I’m very suspicious of people who say they never argue with their spouse. These same couples also seem to have sex multiple times a week after years of marriage and have never had a conversation with their spouse while the other one is pooping.)

The argument was resolved without any slamming doors, whatevers, or a prolonged period of existing with each other while doing everything we could to pretend the other person wasn’t actually there. (If that doesn’t describe at least twenty arguments you’ve had with your spouse, you may want to move along. Nothing to see here.) Soon after, Mike commented that he was happy that we were at a place where we could argue and get through it without hating each other for the next three days. Here’s the crazy thing: I was thinking the exact same thing.

Somewhere along the way our marriage had grown up to the point that we were able to fight fair. Lord knows we’ve had lots of practice, but being able to hash out grievances without name-calling or dropping totally unrelated emotional bombshells on your partner is a game-changer. It doesn’t mean we just call each other out willy-nilly. Instead it means that there is room for all kinds of growth and hope for our future – and that’s a beautiful thing when you hope to spend another few decades together.

Part of not calling each other out for every little petty thing has been learning to let go of control. After nearly twenty years of marriage, we have a pretty good idea of what our individual strengths are. Knowing that the other person is better suited to handle certain things didn’t mean the other person didn’t feel compelled to micromanage or share their (unsolicited) opinion. I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, though, that we’re both more comfortable with letting each other be responsible for handling certain things and being okay with keeping our hands off of those things.

At the same time, we’re getting better at not tuning out completely. Yes, Mike pays the bills and reconciles all the expenditures against our checking account. I used to let this be his completely, to the point where I’d let my receipts pile up and hiss at him if he tried to enter them into the budget for me. But once he showed me exactly what he does, and how difficult the job can be if you get too far behind, I understood where he was coming from. It’s still his domain, but I can be as helpful as possible to make the job easier and grateful that he does this task for me. I’m in charge of the kids’ schedules, from dentist appointments to rugby carpool and homework routines. But it’s not cool to have a clueless spouse, and so we worked together to figure out a calendar system that we both use and check routinely. He may not ever need to take a kid to the doctor, and he may not be responsible for getting home in time to get Elena from her choir rehearsal, but he knows when it happens and appreciates the time I spend getting everyone where they need to be any given day.

The other big thing I’ve noticed as our partnership has matured has been the most important thing of all. More often than not, we speak well of each other in front of others. In the infancy of our relationship, this didn’t seem like a big deal. Of course we would gush about each other! We chose each other for all these amazing reasons, and don’t you want to hear about each and every one of them? But then someone won’t un-ball their socks before putting them in the dirty laundry even though you’ve told them it makes you want to stab someone, and the other person keeps trying to sneak weird stuff in your food and changing perfectly good recipes, and GOD, CAN YOU BELIEVE I MARRIED SUCH A HEARTLESS IDIOT?

We struggled with this for so long, often using each other’s “quirks” as fodder for conversation with other couples. It’s passive-aggressively amusing for the one doing the talking, humiliating for the other. And for what purpose? I’ve yet to change any of my annoying ways because Mike told that “hilarious” anecdote over dinner with friends. Once we stopped doing it (mostly), it made me realize how terribly awkward it must’ve been for everyone around us. Once you’ve been the couple on the receiving end of one of these exchanges, where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh or tear the offending a spouse a new one, you think long and hard about calling your partner out.

That doesn’t mean if you invite Mike and I over for drinks that we’re going to fawn all over each other and tell you how wonderful the other person is. Nineteen years is a long time to come up with reasons we’re not so wonderful. And also, we’ve seen each other poop. But we will try our best to follow the sage advice of Thumper, and if we can’t say something nice about each other we’ll change the subject or suggest tequila shots. And because we aren’t each other’s best friend, we each have a small handful of trusted friends with whom we can vent when we absolutely need to.

If that sounds terribly difficult (and believe me, I know in some seasons of marriage it truly is), try to take a step back and see your partner as others see them. Up close we all have faults, and no one knows them better than the person we married. Step away, and suddenly you’re able to see them in a completely different light.

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Happy anniversary, Mike. Thanks for giving me a place to sit and a warm bowl of Kraft Mac and Cheese when I got locked out of my apartment 22 years ago. You’ve been keeping me safe and cozy ever since, and I’m so very glad.

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Sixteen

sixteen years

Photo credit: Julie Setmeyer

Tomorrow Mike and I will celebrate seventeen years of marriage. We’ve officially hit that mark where we’ve been together longer than we’ve been apart. That’s crazy! And also: we are getting old.

I feel like every year I reflect on marriage and write some riff on how marriage is hard, how Mike and I have to work at it to make it good. Just like parenting, some years and phases are more difficult than others. This, however, was not one of those years. Year number sixteen was good, friends.

I want to bottle this year and repeat it every year forward. It feels as if we moved into this new home together and unpacked more than just boxes. We unpacked years of judgement, comparison, and doubt and set them to the curb with the rest of the worldly possessions that didn’t seem to fit in this new house. And in the place where those things lived there was suddenly room for good and beautiful things.

I wish I could say “Do this one thing and watch the sparks fly all over again!” But marriage seems to be like an intricate puzzle, and who knows which piece will be the one your own marriage is missing to make everything fit just so. But if I had to point to one thing that was different for me, that seemed to shift the pieces into place, it would be this:

Look at your spouse the way others see them.

It is so very tempting and easy to view them through the lens of the eternally disappointed roommate. You look at your spouse and can only see the things that drive you mad: the dirty clothes on the floor, the honey-do list that doesn’t get done, the thermostat you can’t agree on, the pet peeves and petty disagreements.

I dare you, the next time you are out socially with your spouse, to step away and watch them in the presence of others. Listen to how the people he or she works with talks about them. See your spouse through your children’s eyes.

I made a conscious effort to do this over the last year. I saw a man who is the life of a party. If it’s fun, he’ll make it epic (at least until 10 p.m). If it’s dull, he’s your lifesaver. I saw a man who makes people smile and laugh. I saw a man who gets up at the crack of dawn five days a week and goes to work at a job that is both physically and mentally demanding. I saw a man who works outside on the hottest and coldest of days and never complains. I saw peers and clients praise him for his problem-solving skills, for going above and beyond what was expected. I saw a man whose kids think he’s the coolest dad they know. A dad who will snuggle, read, play kickball, take them to concerts, teach them, and above all, love them fully and without restraint. I saw a man who wants nothing more than to provide a good life for his family, to make his wife and kids happy (okay, so maybe the kids would be happier with less kissing).

Six Family Photo

Photo credit: Julie Setmeyer

I don’t know about Mike, but I feel like I fell in love all over again this year. I opened my eyes and saw the guy I want to be married to for the rest of my life.

Happy Anniversary, Mr. Six. I am so very happy to be your wife.

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3 Keys to Managing Family Finances Without Fighting

Thank you to TurboTax for sponsoring my writing about household finances.  Learn more about how TurboTax can help you find every tax deduction you deserve. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective, which endorses Blog With Integrity, as I do.

The Key

Who wants to talk about money today?!  Anyone?  Anyone? (Cue crickets chirping).

Yeah, so talking about finances can be a huge downer.  It’s one of the reasons why, for a long time, my preferred method of talking about money with Mike was to essentially stick my head in the sand.  It’s such a common behavior that economists have a name for it: the ostrich effect.  While we were never dealing with any particularly risky financial situations, the day-to-day decisions of trying to agree on how to allocate a finite income into what seemed to be an infinite number of needs and wants was enough to make me crazy.  If we didn’t talk about it, things would just sort themselves out eventually, right?

Not so much.  Handling finances is one of those things that will continue to pester you until you and your spouse or partner come to some system that works for both of you.  It’s been said that couples tend to have variations of the same few arguments over and over throughout their marriage, and it comes as no surprise that arguments about money top the list.

I recently read a statistic on Dave Ramsey’s blog said 57% of divorced couples cited money fights as the primary reason they didn’t get along.  And yet most of us still prefer to spend our time hedging the money conversation – pretending it’s not an issue, putting out financial fires as they pop up, and arguing about it rather than finding a solution.  In the same article, the author asks how we would feel if we knew that 50% of our neighbors were being attacked by bears?  Would we do something about it?  Perhaps talk to our family about it, and come up with a plan of how to avoid a bear attack?  Last time I checked, there were no bears in my suburban neighborhood, but I bet each and every one of us gets a bill or two in our mailbox.  Maybe it’s time for a plan.

It took us over 10 years of marriage to finally get a system in place that takes into account each of personalities, but we finally have a solid method of handling our finances together.  Here’s what we’ve found works for us.

1. Budget

We start each month with a fresh budget.  We use a spreadsheet on the computer, but experiment with different systems until you find one that works for you (There are online resources like Pear Budget and Mint.com.  Dave Ramsey, of course, has online tools.  And there’s always the good, old-fashioned pen and paper).  We tally up our projected expenses in each category and estimate our income for the month.  The goal is a zero-based budget, where expenses – income = zero.  Every dollar has a name, whether it goes to eating out or saving up for a car.

2. Budget Meetings

We set aside time to talk about the budget twice a month – once at the beginning of the month to set up the budget and look over the previous month’s budget, and once mid-month to see if we need to make any adjustments.

Here’s where you might get frustrated, as in the beginning these meetings can be synonymous with arguing.  It takes time to figure out a good, working budget.  It’s hard to change spending habits and compromise.  By coming together over and over again and discussing finances, you get better at it.  Habits and perspectives will shift and you’ll find yourselves working together.  Set aside a block of time when you’re both able to focus fully on each other.  I find a glass of wine and agreeing to do something fun together when it’s over works miracles on your outlook.

3. Spending Policy

We have a specific dollar amount where, if we want to buy something over that number, we agree to check in with the other person first.  It helps keep spending in check and it avoids any number of arguments that begin with, “You spent how much on what?!”

By committing to following those three things, we’ve experienced tremendous rewards and growth in our marriage.

  • Relief:  Knowing that you are on the same page and that you have a plan eliminates stress and worry.
  • Trust:  We know the other person isn’t going to blow a significant chunk of money on a whim.
  • Confidence:  I’m not inclined to think about financial planning (see reference to my denial above).  Working on this stuff together has given me the confidence to feel secure that if anything ever happens to Mike, I know exactly what to do to keep myself financially sound.
  • Vision:  The ability to have calm, honest discussions about money has opened doors for us to talk about our plans for the future.

The time and energy we’ve invested into finding a way to manage our finances together has been so worth it.  Now we have more energy to devote to our other big arguments, like whose job it is to wash stinky things!  Just kidding (mostly).

Do you have a system that works for you?  Or are you struggling with your inner ostrich?

3 keys to budgeting and managing personal finance without fighting. Tips like these helped us as we were paying off debt and keep us debt free today!

 

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