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Everyday I am stunned by another friend getting a divorce. Sometimes it’s a good thing, but more often than not, it is a tragedy that could have been prevented. I’m all for leaving oppressive, abusive relationships. I can even concede that once in a while a couple has grown apart to the extent that there is no reason to put it back together again. What I don’t get is how someone can walk away from someone they once loved without really trying to make it work, especially when there is still love, when hearts will be broken, and when there are children who will be irrevocably damaged.

We all walk down that aisle with high hopes and idealistic predictions, but how do we prevent our own relationship from deteriorating into just another statistic? There are hundreds of thousands of books written on the subject, some by marriage and family counselors, some by psychologists, and others by theologians and pastors, all giving their warnings, advice, and wisdom. It would seem someone who had been married for years and years would have some good suggestions from experience. I’ve been told you have to have a regular date night; you have to keep romance alive. I’ve heard many of them say, “Love is a choice,” and “You have to commit to stay even when you don’t want to,” and my personal favorite (insert sarcasm into the narrative voice in your head), “Marriage is hard work.” Yeah, that sounds like fun.

Before I embarked on my second marriage, I read all the books, talked to old successfully married couples, and even went to pre-marital counseling. I was ready for the struggle. But it never really came. True, I have not been married for that long—a little over eight years, but isn’t there supposed to be trouble around year seven? Another little tidbit I picked up somewhere. But certainly I would hesitate to give advice this early in the marital scheme of things, and yet, we are doing something right. I mean my husband and I have endured a lot of things since we first married, but our love has only gotten stronger, and I can honestly say that being with him has been the easiest part of my life ever since we got together. It’s never been difficult. Of course, we’ve had disagreements, even a few fights, but we quickly got over it, and they were nothing that caused any damage at all. Honestly, I was really surprised how easy marriage could be.

Maybe because we’d both been divorced, we made our expectations clear, or maybe it is all the ground rules we established. Maybe it’s our work schedules or just our personalities. When we got married, we set certain rules in place to protect our marriage. One of the things we established is that neither one of us would have close friends of the opposite sex in whom we confided. Hanging out with friends of the opposite sex would be limited to group settings, preferably with our spouse present. We even have social media rules for Facebook in particular. We do not friend anyone whom we previously dated. If we are friends with single people of the opposite sex on Facebook, we encourage our spouse to friend them too. We don’t ever cathartically complain about our spouse to a friend of the opposite sex. We share our passwords, so we have access to each other’s emails, texts, and Facebook page. It’s not that we don’t trust each other. But things could change. Knowing we have no secrets from each other gives us security and keeps us from making foolish mistakes. And it isn’t just about preventing jealousy or cheating.  By limiting emotional intimacy to your partner, it keeps the emotional intimacy where it belongs, in the relationship. I have only one confidant who knows all my innermost feelings and fears. Doing this creates complete trust and deepens the level of attachment. Which brings me to honesty, the most important trait of a good marriage.

Without honesty, we’re just strangers. I want my husband to know me. I want to know him. I want to share the embarrassing, the unflattering and humiliating mistakes that I don’t want anyone to know about me. Because when he loves me despite them, I am experiencing true acceptance, and we grow even closer together. And being this transparent with another individual creates the truest form of intimacy I can imagine. It also means that we don’t store up resentments. We talk about something as soon as it bothers us. We solve it and move on.

We also try to put each other’s needs before our own. It is almost impossible to not love someone who treats you better than they treat themselves, when they care more about your happiness than their own. Which means we never stoop to name-calling or lashing out in anger. The one thing that is okay to hold back is words spoken in anger. No matter how mad you get, be careful what you say. When you are putting someone before yourself, his feelings are more important than your need to vent your anger.

One piece of advice sticks with me. I think it was Benjamin Franklin’s wise little aphorism that states, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.” When you’ve chosen your life partner, don’t look for things to drive you crazy. Purposefully ignore them. Tell yourself that in the scheme of things, they don’t even matter. I remember once hearing a story of a woman who was so disgusted by the little hairs her husband would carelessly leave in the bottom of the sink after trimming his mustache. She always nagged him about it, and they’d even had some fights over it. After he passed away unexpectedly, she would cry every time she looked down at her clean sink.

Which brings me to that piece of advice that says, “Love is a choice, not a feeling.” Well, I think it is definitely a feeling, an emotion, and it should be, but it is also a choice. I choose to love my husband. That means overlooking his flaws, looking for the best in him, recognizing his highest qualities, being careful with his heart, and being willing to share all of myself with him, and accept all of him in return. And if we keep this up, we won’t grow apart. We will change, but the change doesn’t have to distance us if we share all the minuscule changes along the way.

My husband and I have been through the death of four parents, estrangement from family members, depression, illness, job stress, and several changes in core religious beliefs on my part, but we have only grown closer together. Leaving him now would mean ripping a part of myself in two.

But we do give each other space. We both enjoy being alone and doing our own things. I write, read, paint, and do many other solitary activities. He writes music and plays guitar. We are not threatened by time alone. It makes us that much more anxious to be together. When we are together, we really enjoy it. We look forward to it—just like when we were dating, except without all that nervous excitement. Now it is a peaceful, comforting feeling, but it’s actually better than when we were dating. It’s richer, deeper. The butterflies in my stomach have been replaced with something else—a swelling in my heart that feels, at times, like it will burst with how much I love him. That’s the only difficult thing about being married to him—realizing what it would feel like to lose him. He feels the same about me, and so we protect our marriage in every way we can.

So, I’m not saying we have it all figured out, or that we are some kind of experts on marriage after eight years, but these things work for us—love and a few ground rules.—Christina Knowles

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