Claire is getting married today. Her future husband is Michael. I love all my nieces and nephews, but I have a special connection to Claire, which probably started when she was a toddler because she looked just like me when I was the same age. I even have a snapshot of her holding a framed picture of me to prove my case. Her dad says she has a decent helping of my mother’s DNA, which is a blessing but it’s also a little scarry. Joyce Robertson was a force of nature.
As we are planning the logistics to celebrate Claire and Michael with the family, I have been thinking about marriage in general this week, reflecting on my own wedding and the associated festivities. We had a big Mississippi Delta affair, with the ceremony at a little Arkansas Baptist church followed by a backyard fish fry which turned into a party under a tent on a sunny April afternoon. I remember lots of things from our wedding, but what stands out as I type these words is how happy my dad was on our wedding day. He was exuberant. Maybe it was because he snuck a beer or two when my mom wasn’t looking, but more than likely there was a sense of pride and accomplishment knowing his son had found a partner for life –something worthy of a celebration. I know he will be eagerly watching Claire’s ceremony from a balcony seat in heaven.
I now have over 20 years of marriage behind me, and countless lessons observed from the sidelines –vicariously experiencing the missteps of others as I have worked in and around the legal breakdown of marriages my entire career. What follows is advice from a calloused, divorce lawyer uncle to a bright-eyed, Gen Z couple on their wedding day.
Know yourself. When I got married, I did not know who I was. I was searching for a post-sports, pre-career identity. I think Rachel would say she did not know herself either. We were navigating our relationship in the dark. Not knowing ourselves made the early days harder, because if you do not know yourself, it is impossible to truly have empathy for another. I think a healthy marriage starts with individual internal work. Ask yourself lots of questions.
What motivates me?
What helps me relax?
What are my triggers?
What gets me excited?
What childhood messages did I receive and how do they impact my thoughts and actions?
Over the years, I have discovered many readily available tools to aid in self-discovery. The Enneagram, the Birkman Method (career-focused), Myers Briggs and tools from the VIA Institute on Character are just a few. Another great tool is working to understand and being able to tell your life story, picking up on themes from the ups and downs of your past. Your spouse is the ideal person to offer feedback and compassion about your experiences. Remember, healthy people can be with each other. The same goes for the unhealthy. However, a healthy person can never sustain a long-term relationship with an unhealthy person. Knowledge of yourself is the essential foundation for a strong marriage.
Life is about meaning and belonging. Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, describing the mental health work he did with his fellow prisoners. He discovered even in the horrific circumstances faced by Jewish captives, those who were able to identify a positive purpose in life had far more positive experiences and reasons for hope. Of course, marriage is not a concentration camp, although you may feel like it is from time to time, but the lessons learned by Frankl remain true when navigating a marriage. We all need to engage in activities we love with a group of people in community, and our life’s work must be in service to others. This is the only way to live transcendently. Notwithstanding what popular culture may tell you, one spouse does not have the capacity to “complete” the other. That’s called codependency and is a blog post for another day. If you want to have a happy marriage, diligently seek opportunities for service to others in the company of trustworthy community.
Communicate early and often. In life and in marriage, it is very difficult to over communicate. If you are going to be late, send a text. If something in your relationship or your life is creating feelings that need to be expressed, share them. In addition to being a great communicator, you must also learn the art of listening. To actively listen, a simple strategy is mirroring or repeating back what you heard. While feelings may deceive you from time to time, you also cannot argue with the way someone else feels. People commonly tell newlyweds they should never go to bed angry, but I disagree. What is the first thing a technician tells you if your computer is acting up? Reboot. Sleeping on a problem does the same thing. Sleep has a way of rearranging the chemicals in our brain, giving us the ability to approach a dispute anew. Time also usually takes the energy and emotion away from the conflict. Remember, if the response is hysterical, the root of the reaction is probably historical. This goes back to knowing yourself and your partner. The “thing” is almost never the “thing.” Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling will destroy your relationship. Relationship expert, Dr John Gottman, called them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Avoid them at all cost. Instead, express needs, seek understanding, offer appreciation, take responsibility for your actions and reengage your partner after healthy time outs.
Live in the moment. While you should know your backstory and plan for the future, the only thing that is real is the present. Live in it. Life can be hard, and we human beings tend to medicate with alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, shopping, work, exercise and food. Keep things simple and seek balance in your life. Also, invest in your relationship. An affair is never worth it. To avoid an affair, create basic boundaries around opposite sex relationships. Human beings long for connection, and if we are not connected to our partner, we will be at risk to connect with someone else, and connection to another person who is not your spouse will decimate your marriage. Be intentional about staying connected with each other through things you both enjoy. For example, Rachel and I love to take short trips together. We call it a 24-hour blast. We are due for another one right now. Our favorite destination is New Orleans. We have found that notwithstanding the complexities of life, a short road trip together where we can enjoy great food, shopping, music and lots of rest is a great way to reconnect with each other and build a sense of togetherness we need when life inevitably gets hard.
You do not have to follow everyone else’s plan for your life. Everyone has a preconceived idea about the order of life events. Social pressure tells us we should go from school to a job, to marriage and then a house and kids and then a bigger house and so on. I guess I have essentially followed this path, but have done so with intentionality. Although I adore my kids, being parents may not be your path, and that’s okay. You may resist the urge to be burdened with a huge mortgage so you can use your resources to create experiences or a different career trajectory. Also, you each have unique superpowers that make you stronger as a couple. Learn to trust them, rely upon them and express gratitude for your partner’s unique strengths. It is a common misconception that half of all marriages fail. In fact, most first marriages are successful. It is the second, third and fourth marriages that pull down the statistics. Your best chance to have a successful marriage is with each other.
Today we will celebrate the unique relational trek you will traverse together, while soaking in each little moment along the way. Marriage is an incredible gift that will enrich your life, but its also really hard, and you will need more than just each other for the road ahead. In life, nothing worthwhile is easy, and a great marriage is no exception. But things are better with a partner, and knowing yourself is the prerequisite for discovering transcendent meaning and belonging.
Congratulations, good luck, and enjoy the journey!
Craig Robertson is the founder of Robertson + Easterling. For over 20 years, he has practiced exclusively high net worth divorce and complicated family law in Mississippi. You will want him in your corner because he believes every case is his most important, and he knows the things you care about deeply are at stake –family, safety, and security. He is strategic, collaborative, creative and the proud Uncle of Claire Robertson Allen.