10 Critical Lessons I Learned About Marriage From The People I Love Most

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man and woman on beach

I never meant to meet my soulmate right out of college. My career was my priority, not my love life. But there he was, sitting across from me in the newsroom where we both ended up working after graduation. Chris and I became fast friends and, later, a quirky, opposites-attract kind of couple: he's laid-back and easygoing, whereas I'm high-strung and demanding.

Despite our differences, we somehow fit.

Last June, we celebrated our 10-year wedding anniversary. We're happier together now than we were on our wedding day, but that doesn't mean that life has been perfect...or even easy. Along with all the good things (like the birth of our son Mason three years ago), we’ve had plenty of setbacks over the years, from soul-crushing jobs to my miscarriage last August.

But we've managed to stick it out, thanks to our commitment to each other and some important lessons from people who love us. 

1. It's simple: Hold hands.

My in-laws are always holding hands. It fascinates me. How many couples do you see constantly holding hands after they've been married for 30-some-odd years?

I've seen them hold hands while taking walks around the neighborhood, watching their daughter graduate from college, and even when walking from the car to a restaurant. It's a sweet gesture that helps keep them connected after more than three decades of marriage.

It's also a good reminder to Chris and me that we should show each other some kind of affection every day, whether it's holding hands or giving each other a quick kiss before going off to work.

2. Remember to fight fairly.

When Chris and I were first together, we'd have very passionate (read: mean) fights. My parents had an ugly divorce and there was no way I wanted to end up like them, so I turned to my grandmother for advice. She'd been happily married to my grandfather for more than 50 years; surely they weren't this mean when they argued?

She advised me to avoid the low-blows—and to work on keeping arguments from escalating. In fact, she and my grandfather used baby talk to soften things. "How can you get angry at what someone is saying when they're talking that way?" she asked.

Chris and I learned to rely on ridiculous lines from movies like Napoleon Dynamite to defuse tense situations. A well-timed "Do the chickens have large talons?" breaks up the tension every time. Now we fight fairly out of habit.


Start a family when you want to (and ONLY if you want to).

Certain family members bugged us to have a baby before we even celebrated our first wedding anniversary. My mom, on the other hand, urged me to ignore the pressure. She stressed that Chris and I really needed to take time to make sure that our relationship was solid—and that we really wanted kids—before taking the parenthood plunge.

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For seven years, we traveled and did whatever we wanted to whenever we wanted to. By the time we decided to have a baby, we felt ready. And we're still glad we waited. Now, we’re okay not going out all the time (although we do miss our freedom sometimes), and we're solid enough to stay strong when Mason's up all night or throwing an epic temper tantrum.

4. GASP! You should always share the same bed.

Chris' grandparents Ned and Suzy, who were married for more than 60 years and clearly head-over-heels in love, swore that the key to a happy marriage is never sleeping apart. In fact, they instructed us to never sleep apart as part of their wedding day toast to us.

Chris and I took their advice for the most part. We share the same bed...most nights (I'm guilty of kicking him out to the couch if his snoring gets too loud). Their point wasn't about sex (at least I don’t think it didn't come up with them, thank God); it was about the intimacy that comes with physically sleeping in the same space.

5. Stick together no matter what.

Two weeks before her wedding day, my twin sister Erin went blind in one eye—and doctors confirmed what they had suspected for several years: she had Multiple Sclerosis. "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere," my brother-in-law Brent told her. And he didn't.

They celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary last March. They're the best example I've ever seen of how much stronger you become as a couple when you work through the hard times together, instead of letting those challenges drive you apart.

6. Keep your money separate.

Before we got married, we did pre-marital counseling with the same minister I had while growing up. One of the issues that came up? Money. She asked us how we handled our money right then (it was separate) and how we planned to handle it in the future (we didn't know).

She pointed out that being married didn't mean anything needed to change; we could keep our money separate and still be married. Our system of splitting everything down the middle was working perfectly, so why change it? We thought about it and realized we didn't want to deal with a joint account so we never set one up. Ten years later we still split everything down the middle, from our co-op maintenance fee to our son's daycare tuition.

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We spend whatever is left however we want to, no questions asked. I'm not annoyed by his pricey hockey tickets, and he's not annoyed by my shoe addiction.

7. This one's major: Compromise with your partner. 

During his toast on our wedding day my grandfather trotted out the old joke, "Chris, you always knew you were marrying Miss Right; you just didn’t realize that her middle name is Always." Even though it was said in jest, I took his message to heart, and I vowed to work hard at compromising.

We've compromised a lot over the years, most recently about a ceiling fan (It's embarrassing to admit, but, yes, we battled it out over the ugly ceiling fan in our new apartment.)

I wanted to rip it out and replace it with a chandelier. Chris wanted to keep a fan there since we only have window units; it would get hot in the summer, he explained, and we'd be happy to have it. In the end, I agreed to keep a ceiling fan in the living room, just not the one that was there. We went with an ultra-modern number that he loves...and that I can live with. The chandelier will go in the bedroom.

8. Date night is a MUST! 

"A night out alone makes us feel totally refreshed as a couple," my friend Kerry recently confided, after she and her husband had a lunch date one afternoon. I was immediately jealous: When was the last time Chris and I went out alone?

We had dropped the ball, but back at the beginning of our relationship, we were religious about date night. It was the only way we got to see each other since Chris covered nightlife as a newspaper reporter. Wednesday became our official night to be together, and we both committed to keeping that date no matter what (our friends made fun of us for it).

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Time to get those date nights back on track! 

9. Just have fun together.

Chris' second cousins Heidi and Scott are great at this. I met them for the first time after we had moved to New York City, and they took us to a Brazilian restaurant near Times Square. I had never been to a Brazilian restaurant, and I loved that these two (who live in Maine) were showing me something new about the city.

The night was so much fun, not just because Scott and Heidi were a blast to be around but because they clearly had a ton of fun together. They filled the evening with stories about their ski trips together, as well as an upcoming vacation they were planning on taking. They taught us the importance of enjoying each other’s company, even after being married for years and having kids, simply by being themselves.

10. Recognize how lucky you are. 

"You’re really lucky to have Chris," my friend Diane told me during a recent playdate. We were gossiping about all the crappy dads we know, and Diane was pointing out that Chris is amazing with our three-year-old son Mason. And she was right: He's a hands-on kind of dad that gets dirty with Mason at the playground, lets him blow bubbles during bath time, colors with him, and kicks the soccer ball around.

It's fair to say that I love Chris more because he's such a great dad, but Diane's comment made me realize that I probably hadn't ever told Chris that. "Do something nice for him," she urged. So I texted the babysitter and planned a night out. Having a friend point out one of the reasons I'm so fortunate to have Chris in my life was a good reminder to show him my gratitude more often.

Heather Morgan Scott is an author with YourTango.