Never forget to update your marriage.
We spent almost a year planning the wedding (by which I mean, my then-fiancee and future mother-in-law planned it, and we all pretended my opinion that mattered).
It was a beautiful event. My mother-in-law had carefully matched the bridesmaids' dresses to the stained glass windows of the cute stone chapel.
My father and father-in-law officiated. Family and friends surrounded us. Everyone was pulling for us, wishing us a wonderful life together.
Here's what I remember. In just a bit more than 30 minutes, I went from single to married.
We were walking out of the chapel and headed to the reception, and I was thinking to myself, "What now? I have no idea how marriage works!"
And when we checked into the hotel for the first night of our honeymoon, I felt like all eyes were on us.
We pulled up in a decorated car met at the door by a gentleman teasingly saying, "We've been waiting for you!"
All I could think was, "They know what we will be doing tonight!" I was a bit self-conscious.
I admit it, I was feeling a bit nervous about how we would do marriage together.
Sure, we had both watched our parents. And sure, we went as a couple to pre-marital counseling.
But let's face it, much of marriage is invisible to everyone else. Nobody knows about the discussions, the intimacy, the "just the two of us" parts of marriage.
There is the public face of every couple, but the real heart of marriage is invisible for all to see.
So, I was a bit—well—lost. I could feign confidence, but I was just hoping and praying we could figure this marriage thing out.
I still find it odd after 26 years of marriage and a career in helping marriages that we marry people off, pat them on their back, wish them well and throw them to the world.
No owner's manual. No clear guidelines (well, actually, those wedding vows serve pretty well, if couples actually listened and paid attention). Just "on-the-job" training.
Sometimes, that works out. Too often, it doesn't.
Nice people often find themselves in painful marriages.
The Minimally Viable Product
When I speak with couples before they marry, I like to use the analogy of a start-up company. That is all they have at that point.
The wedding was their "articles of incorporation," a starting point for a new entity. But it is only a starting point. In fact, it is mostly an entity on paper.
Since we live in the world of "start-ups," we all have seen the infant company. Sometimes, it makes it. Sometimes, it flounders.
Part of the difference is the attitude of the founders (in the case of a marriage, the couple).
Do they think they have it all together? Or are they willing to look at the strengths and weaknesses?
In the business world, there is a "lean start-up" philosophy of the "minimally viable product." The "MVP" is the most basic product that offers something to the world.
Instead of bursting on the scene with a full-featured product, the company starts with a "bare minimum" product. That way, they can build on what is working, not what they think will work.
Every marriage is a "minimally viable product" at the beginning. It has only what it needs to start—not what it needs to carry the couple through life.
Unfortunately, many couples assume they have the "end product" at the beginning: what it is now is what it will be.
But what if we always assume a marriage is a "product in development?" It's never an end product. It's always in development and refinement.
If you are like me, technology is everywhere in your life. I am writing this on my Mac, with my iPad off to the side and my iPhone in my pocket.
Just over my shoulder is my PC. Over to the right, is my internet radio.
With each of these devices, it seems there is always some upgrade or update to the operating systems. For some reason, I fall into the trap of thinking the operating system and the programs on the devices are "final editions."
But as technology and needs develop, the programs and operating systems receieve updates. When a "bug" appears, there is an update.
The devices are static, but their operating systems are in a constant state of flux.
What if we approached marriage the same way? Over time, the device—marriage—remains constant, but our operating system for the relationship is always in a state of development.
Sometimes, we need a major upgrade—a new version. Sometimes, we just need a little update to fix the "bugs."
The upgrades come at major transition points. Those are often the same points when people believe the marriage is "unviable" and broken.
Perhaps it just needs an upgrade!
Remember that point when you realized your preconceived notions about marriage were not accurate?
Perhaps you started with the model of your parents' marriage (or tried the exact opposite), and realized it didn't fit for the two of you? That is the upgrade to your Marriage 2.0.
When children come along, you suddenly have to figure out that balance of spouses/parents. Marriage 3.0.
Job changes, illnesses, relocations and other life events come along. Marriage 4.0, 5.0, 6.0 ...
As life happens, we have to upgrade how we understand ourselves—how we operate and how our marriage operates.
Sometimes, we hang onto the old versions. We refuse to see the need to upgrade, and we stress the relationship.
We have chosen to ignore some changes and shifts in life that require growth, and in the process, we freeze our marriage in place. It can't keep up with the life events.
These start-up companies that start with an MVP understand that they are figuring it out as they go.
Feedback from others lets them know what to tweak, what to change and what to leave alone. There is a constant cycle of learning, testing, and developing, and they are always looking down the road.
Robust companies never focus on this point-in-time, but what is in the future.
When Apple or Microsoft releases a new operating system, the next operating system is already far along in development. This foresight is the only way to stay ahead of future needs.
In the next year, my wife and I will launch into our next upgrade—the "empty nest." Our youngest child (now a young adult) will launch off to college.
It happens to every parent at some point. Yet many surprised couples stare at each other, with no child to distract (both in good and bad ways), no parental needs (well, as if that every fully stops), and with only each other.
"What now?" they might ask. I would suggest that question is at least 6 months too late.
Couples who thrive through the "upgrade" see the change coming, and they re-tool. They take the opportunity to reconnect, to pursue interests, and to enjoy the shift in scheduling. They plan ahead.
There are the radical changes, those life shifts that require a total reconsideration, but there are also the refinements during each stage.
Those are the updates (Marriage 2.1, 2.2, 2.3). These happen in the midst of life, as you grow into the new stage.
For years, I have used the idea of Kaizen for personal development. If you are not familiar with this term, it comes from Edward Deming's idea of how companies can have continual improvement.
This method is how Japanese automakers dominated U.S. automakers for years—until the US companies caught on.
The idea is to make small changes, taking in feedback from everywhere and trying new things. No "sacred cows," no permanent features.
My suggestion is for people to follow the Kaizen (continual improvement) cycle: Plan. Do. Study. Act.
Perhaps you see a point where things have gotten a little stale or ineffective, so you do a little research into what might improve it (your love life is a bit stale, so you find a new position). That is the planning.
Then you try it out (see how that new position works for you).
Then, you take a look at how it was ("Was that good for you? Was that good for me?"). That is the "study" part. Then you either keep it or discard it.
Requirements for this to work are a willingness to experiment, research, ponder and grow. Really, it's that simple.
But here is the problem; we often forget that we are, for our entire lifetime, a project in-progress.
We are always learning, growing, and changing. So are our spouses.
Many times, growth is fairly invisible. We adjust our beliefs and attitudes, but fail to notice we are doing that.
Something changes your perception, but since it happens internally, you don't really pay attention.
The same thing is happening to your spouse, but since it goes unnoticed, it's possibly something that you don't discuss.
And one day, you think, "Who is this person?" Your spouse is likely thinking the same thing.
Time for a system update.
Taking On The "Competition"
In the business world, the company always has to worry about the competition. Who might come up with the better product, the better features, the better approach?
Your marriage "start-up" doesn't have the same threat. In fact, you can always watch another marriage and take on their best updates. You can learn and grow.
There is no "zero sum" to marriages. The opposite is true. The more people take on the best of other marriages, the better for all.
But there is competition. The competition is for attention. Marriages grow or flounder on attention (or lack of it).
As I have observed marriages, there are always two sets of priorities in play: the explicit and the implicit.
The explicit priorities are the ones you would tell me, if I asked. You may say that your marriage is number 1.
The problem, though, is with your implicit priorities. Children, work, hobbies, and activities can all vie for attention.
The question is, how close are your implicit and explicit priorities? Do you make time and room for what you think is most important?
Do you protect your priorities?
One truth has emerged for me: "There is no pause button for your marriage." Yet, I see people make that mistake every day.
They think that once they get through school, get through those child-rearing years, become partner/owner/manager/whatever, get back into shape, or reach some other goal, then they will get back to the marriage.
Most discover, to their surprise, that the marriage has not been on pause, but it has been in a downward spiral.
It's kind of like those spinning plates and circus clowns. If attention is not paid to the relationship and if the marriage is not nurtured, it begins to wobble, falling to the ground, like when the clown is busy tending to other plates.
Commit To Growth
We start out, all of us, as beginners. Every struggle, every bump along the way, every new stage, teaches us something new, especially when we commit to growing and changing.
Since we are always growing, we may as well acknowledge that and start looking for the growth opportunities. Commit to growing yourself and your marriage.
Test. Try out something new. Accept that sometimes, it will be a miserable failure.
You might find that "It just isn't us." But before you discard something, remember that feeling and being awkward is a part of the growth process.
When my kids were learning to walk, I chuckled at their "Frankenstein" walk. It was awkward and off-balance. They both fell multiple times.
But for some reason, neither decided "walking is not for me." They gathered themselves up and tried it again.
I am proud to say that, to this day, both are excellent walkers!
It is true that whenever we try something new, it's going to feel awkward and foreign ... until it doesn't. The difference is continuing to practice until it becomes second-nature.
So, before discarding something as "it just isn"t us," decide if it's just the awkwardness of learning.
Let go of what is no longer working in your relationship such as a role, a task, or a way of relating.
But part of the growth from a "minimally viable relationship" to a robust relationship is not just about adding features. It's about letting what is no longer needed fall away.
So, be committed to the marriage and to the relationship. Don't be committed to the current features, current iteration, and the current version.
There are more upgrades and updates to come!
Are you ready to grow? Ready to transform your marriage? Dr. Lee Baucom has two podcasts designed to help you grow and change.