7 Things We Learned in 7 Years of Marriage

tim chan —  October 11, 2015 — Leave a comment

It’s our anniversary today. Seven years ago we celebrated the beginning of our marriage with friends and family. In the weeks leading to this anniversary we have been reflecting on some of the things we’ve learned about marriage since our wedding day. Here are 7 things we’ve learned in the last 7 years of marriage – most of them in this seventh year.

7 lessons in 7 years marriage

Appreciation Adds Strength to a Marriage

It was a particularly hard week. I (Tim) was behind on work. The van had broken down and needed to be fixed. And probably the worst of all, the dentist announced that I had 2 cavities (I really hate cavities). As I climbed into the car on Thursday morning, I noticed a pink card on the dashboard that said, “You’re My Star.”

I’m not even sure when Olive had time to make a card and put it in the car without me noticing. She had been complaining of being tired as of late. I had been doing my best to help out extra around the house all month, staying up late to wash the dishes and waking up early to watch the kids. But I was tired too. In the card my wife wrote that she noticed. She noticed that I was helping out more and she appreciated it.

It’s hard to describe what I felt when I read the card. It was like my chest swelled up with pride, knowing that my extra effort had made a difference and had been noticed. The gift of appreciation strengthened me and I felt like I could wash another 1000 dishes and wake up with the kids at 6am for another 100 days.

Having Margin in Our Lives has Helped the Well-Being of Our Marriage

This summer, we took our first vacation as a family of four. We booked a little beach-side cottage on one of the nearby islands. As we planned out the morning of departure, we gave ourselves an hour to drive to the ferry terminal, half an hour to load up the car and another ten minutes to stop by Tim Hortons to pick up a second breakfast. Ample time, we thought.

The morning we were supposed to catch the ferry, Tim went downstairs to load up the van and was surprised to see that his keys were in the ignition. Somehow, he’d forgotten to take them out the night before. Now the van wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. We quickly tried to jump start the van but it didn’t work. We’d already booked and paid for our ferry tickets. The next ferry out wouldn’t be until the evening. Time was ticking away. Thankfully, Tim’s dad’s car was available for us to use so we frantically unpacked the van, moved the car seats and tried to stuff all our luggage into the little Corolla.

We finally got on the road and were the last car to go on the ferry. Close call!

As we talked about our morning, we realized how important it is for us to have margin in our lives. Not just for catching ferries, but for the rest of life. Our society likes to maximize and max out on things. But as we’ve done life together, we’ve learned that there are always unexpected turn of events that come up; circumstances and situations that require time, energy and sometimes money. Having margin allows us to face these surprises with grace, patience and less anxiety. Lack of margin impacts the well-being of our relationship. With kids, there’s even more need for margin because they are so unpredictable (read: potty breaks, meltdowns, messes, and more meltdowns)!

You’re Only As Strong As the Weakest Member

When we first got married, I (Olive) thought I had to be strong, to “pull my own weight,” so to speak. Marriage was a partnership, so I should bring my strengths. I mostly kept my struggles to myself. Why bother Tim? I reasoned.

After we had our second child, I floundered deeply. I remember one conversation in particular, sitting at our kitchen island, a box of tissues at my elbow and weeping in front of Tim. Suddenly I had this shocking realization: when I am weak, we are weak. My struggle is not only mine, it’s ours. This is part of the mystery of union.

My limitations = our limitations. My being unwell meant that Tim had to adjust his life, including pulling back from work. I felt embarrassed and frustrated when I realized this. I didn’t want to be the weakest link! But part of the beauty of the marriage relationship is that instead of finger-pointing and blaming, there is acceptance and companionship. Tim’s response to me helped me to accept the truth about my state as well. And that acceptance helped me to make some positive changes to help me move toward getting back on my feet again.

As I thought about it more, I saw how Tim’s struggles impacted me, too. A cavity in his tooth meant an extra trip to the dentist, which meant my day had to accommodate extra time caring for the kids.

This realization has motivated us to be each other’s advocates for self-care. We want the other person to thrive! Practically speaking, we’ve become more intentional about our Sabbath hours, making sure that we each have at least a bit of Sunday afternoon to do something life-giving. We are more watchful for each other’s areas of weakness: Tim makes sure I get to bed at a decent hour and I make sure he’s on top of his oral hygiene.

We are only as strong as the weakest member. But if the weakest is strong, then how much better is that?

Building a Solid Foundation was Necessary to Handle the Strain that Children Add to Marriage

As the four separate studies in this graph show, marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child and increases only when the last child leaves home. This graph is from Daniel Gilbert's bestselling book, "Stumbling on Happiness."

This graph is from Daniel Gilbert’s bestselling book, “Stumbling on Happiness” and shows the results of four separate studies. (Note: The sharp contrast in the graph is a bit deceiving. The numbers on the left start at 46 and end at 56, and I’m pretty sure marital satisfaction in the studies was measured on a scale of 1 to 100.)

I (Tim) remember being shocked when I saw the graph that showed martial satisfaction decreased after children were born, and did not rise until children left the house for college. Now having two young children, I can see how this is very true.

I love my two girls. They bring me so much joy. But they bring me so much work. There is so much responsibility that comes with parenting – there are little people that rely on us to survive, to grow, and to be happy. Olive and I cannot put off or ignore the work of parenting. Our children need to sleep. They need to eat. They need to be clothed. They need to be cleaned. That leaves much less time for dating, for movies together, for going out to eat, for sex, and for conversation. There is no doubt that our martial satisfaction has decreased since having children. Maybe other couples are somehow able to keep their marital satisfaction the same after having kids (if this is you, please contact me and let me know your secret… as long as your secret is not being super rich and having 3 nannies, 4 servants, and a chauffeur.)

This reality has made me appreciate how intentional Olive and I were in building a strong foundation in our marriage in the early years. We were able to create memories together by travelling and trying new experiences together. We learned to fight well and resolve conflict. We read books, talked to mentors, attended conferences to learn how to build our marriage. We built a deeper friendship by having fun together and enjoying each other’s company. We developed a shared and compelling vision for our life together. All these things have helped to develop a strong foundation for our marriage, which has so far been able to handle the additional strain that comes with having children.

Your Spouse Has a Unique Role in Bringing Out Your Best

One evening, Tim decided do a painting. After he was finished, he had some colours left over on the palette. On a whim, he challenged me, “How about you do a painting using only my leftover paints?” I looked at what was there: a glob of pale yellow, some dark blue, a tiny bit of brown and a smidgen of green. I hadn’t been challenged like this before. I looked at him, the competitive nature in me egging me on, “Challenge accepted!”

I stared at the blank piece of paper and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. What should I paint? I decided to go with a nature scene inspired by the ocean view we had while on vacation. It took me about 15 minutes before I ran out of paint.

seaside by olive chan

Olive’s response to Tim’s challenge of using up his leftover paint.

When I finished, I was astonished at what I had produced. “You certainly are a painter,” said Tim with a huge grin when I showed him. I felt proud of my abilities and renewed confidence in my gifts. Creating this piece sparked a sense of passion and joy about painting that I hadn’t felt in years. I was excited to keep creating more.

As I reflected on the experience, I realized that Tim was able to challenge me and call out my talent because he knew me well. After being married to me for seven years, he had a sense of what I was capable of, even when I’d lost sight of it. And because I trusted him, I could respond to his challenge. Part of marriage is continually calling out the best in each other.

Part of Journeying Together Is Waiting Together Through the Hard Times

A few weeks ago my friend Ying asked me (Tim), “How’s Olive doing?”
Ying is a good friend of ours and so I wanted to answer her honestly, “She’s feeling stretched. Really stretched.”

There’s a difference between tiredness and weariness. A good night’s rest will end your tiredness, but it will not help your weariness. Olive was weary. Having two young kids and working on our business had been slowly taking a toll on her over the past year. There were too many mornings where she did not want to get out of bed. We had made minor changes to help her get more rest (like sleeping by 11pm every evening, sending her away on a 2-day personal retreat to catch up on sleep, and getting her started on a Zumba class). But I could tell that they weren’t helping enough. She wasn’t getting any better.

Olive had burnt out 8 years ago, before we got married. It took her 2 full years to recover. I knew that if things didn’t change, there was the very real possibility that Olive could burn out again. But part of me was ignoring these warning signs, hoping that they would go away.

We had launched our marketing business two years ago, and it was doing well and growing. I am a competitive person and I had goals for business growth this year. We were on track to reaching those goals. One year ago I made the decision to pull back our business by 50% to give Olive and I extra time to care for our newborn baby. After 3 months, we started ramping up the business again. But business doesn’t always come when you want it to come. It took an additional 3-4 months of hard work for me to find new customers and new projects to get back at the level we wanted to be. I didn’t want to slow down the business again – at least not so soon.

In the journey of marriage we have encountered difficult seasons in our life. Olive went through burnout. I’ve gone through depression multiple times. What we’ve learned is that the best thing we can do during these hardships of life is to wait together. It’s like sitting in the dark together, waiting for the sun to rise.

Practically what that means for me is that I wait with my wife during this difficult season of sleep deprivation, anxiety, and weariness. So I made the difficult decision to take the gas pedal off our business, free up some time and energy, and wait with Olive. I will wait, the business will wait, and the business growth will wait. We’ll wait together for as long as it takes for the sun to rise.

Traditions Become Richer Over Time

One of my (Olive’s) favourite aspects of being married for seven years is that I’ve been able to watch our traditions grow richer.

On the mantle above our fireplace, we have nine small glass jars filled with sand from beaches from all over the world. We’ve collected this sand as we’ve travelled. It began on our honeymoon when we drove down the Oregon coast. It brings us joy every time we think back on these trips.

When we first started collecting sand, it didn’t have as much meaning as it does now. It’s the elements of time and experience that have added the dimension of richness. The sand is a tangible reminder of the life we’ve lived.

Crepes for Christmas brunch is another tradition that has gained meaning over the years. These meals are a way for us to mark the passage of time. Each Christmas morning when we sit down to a table of crepes, bananas, Nutella, bacon, and eggs, we remember the years before. We experience it as history layered upon itself. That first year when we decided to start the tradition, we had no clue what it would come to mean seven years later.

Seven years isn’t a particularly long time, but it’s enough of a taste for us to know that as we continue forward, these traditions will only gain meaning and depth as more and more memories are attached to them. It gives us hope and fills us with anticipation for what’s to come.