This year John and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary!! As a documentary wedding photographer based in Orlando, I thought it was only fitting that I document our marriage and share what we’ve learned as we have gone through the ups and downs. I wanted to help engaged couples see past their wedding planning and to begin to plan out their marriage as well. I posted one lesson each week on Facebook and Instagram from our 30 years together and I’m happy to share them all together in this post now.
Lesson #1 – Pay Attention to Details
While it’s important to plan the details of your wedding, be sure to also plan the details of your marriage. We all have expectations, so to avoid building up resentment, answer questions like these for what you expect in your first year of marriage:
- Who will cook dinner, if you both work?
- Who will do the dishes?
- What about laundry? Taking out the trash? Grocery shopping?
- Can you still keep your guy friends?
- Can he still keep his girl friends?
- How often will you see parents if they live close by?
And I’m sure you can think of many more. The point is to discuss these details now so there are no surprises and you can focus on building your life together.
Lesson #2 – Follow the Leader
There will be different times in your marriage when one of you will need to be strong for the other and take the lead on something. I saw this first played out during our wedding ceremony. I was a bundle of nerves when we were at the alter and John, who is usually the strong one, started to get emotional saying his vows that he started to cry and could hardly finish. I can recall something deep inside of me became strong for him and I gave him a loving encouraging look like, “You can do this!” And he took my lead…for a change, and was able to finish. It was my Dad, who passed away in 2016, that saw this and told me later that he could see I became strong for John and that always stuck with me as something to remember. The point is not to compete for leadership in your marriage, but learn to lead together and take turns through life.
Lesson #3 – Laugh Often
This may sound trivial, but it really isn’t. It’s easy to laugh with each other in the beginning of your dating relationship and as you fall in love. It’s easy to become giggly together when you’re anticipating the time when you’ll be married. It’s easy and expected that you’ll laugh a lot and enjoy yourselves throwing the party of your life on your wedding day. It may not always be easy though when things aren’t always perfect. But that is the time you need to laugh the most with each other. This is especially true if and when you decide to have children. I can tell you that my one regret so far is that I tend to take things too seriously. Thankfully, John loves to find humor in things and encourages me to do the same. It’s the days when we laugh so hard that I have tears in my eyes that I feel have carried us. 😂
If you can’t remember laughing that hard, then it’s time to lighten up and look for the humor in things. It’s there if you look hard enough. It always is.
Lesson #4 – Be On the Same Team
I’m not saying you both have to be cheering for the same team on Super Bowl Sunday. What I’m talking about is cheering for each other in setting and achieving your goals. Whether it’s about your career, physical fitness or any other goal, it’s important to be supportive of one another throughout your marriage. I can remember when John got a job offer in Michigan 4 years into our marriage. Our first son Nathan wasn’t quite 2 years old and we had a comfortable life with family and friends close by. This job meant we would have to leave all of that behind and move to a place where we knew no one! I was supportive because I knew this was a great career opportunity for John. It wasn’t always easy living so far away from family, but it was where we needed to be for the next 9 years and we had many blessings while we were there. There are going to be times like this when you’re going to have to decide to be encouraging and supportive even when it feels like you will have to sacrifice more. Chances are, your spouse will have to do the same for you later on. Being on the same team means you win together.
Lesson #5 – Surprise Each Other
The best way to keep your relationship lively is to not to always be predictable. I love to throw surprise parties for John on his milestone birthdays. For his 40th, when we lived in MI, I was able to convince our 3-year-old son Elliott to keep a secret and take him out to our backyard neighborhood ice skating pond. Little did John know that while they were skating, our house was filling up with neighbors and friends who totally “surprised” him when they came inside. It’s so great when it works!
Ten years later for his 50th, I led him to the mall thinking he had to return a gift, but instead he was greeted inside by a flash mob of friends singing Happy Birthday. Got him again! It will be hard to top that for his 60th. It hasn’t always been me doing the surprising. For our 20th anniversary, money was tight and he asked me which gift I would appreciate more, a diamond ring or a family vacation. I chose the vacation, but he surprised me with both the trip AND the ring that year!
Besides birthdays and anniversaries, look for other ways you can go rogue. Delight in being spontaneous, it’s way more fun!
Lesson #6 – Make Date Nights a Priority
Going out on Valentine’s Day is pretty much a standard, but after you’ve been married for awhile, it’s easy to fall into a dull routine. You might get used to just chllin’ together watching Netflix on weekends instead of going out. It’s super important that you make spending quality time together part of your weekly schedule though. As your lives get busier, look for creative and fun things to do together that may not always have to occur at night either.
About seven years into our marriage when our boys were very little and it wasn’t always easy to go out at night, I often created a “date breakfast” in our basement. While the boys slept upstairs, John and I enjoyed some romantic time together eating breakfast by candlelight downstairs. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
The point is to never stop putting your relationship first above everything else. Growing together is key to a lasting marriage and this doesn’t usually happen unless you stay connected.
Lesson #7 – Seek Out Good Marriage Role Models
I’m sure I don’t have to talk too much about how hard it is to maintain a healthy and happy marriage in today’s world. That’s why I’m recommending that you find some other married friends or relatives who share the same value system with you. These are the people that will be there to do life with you and validate your marriage commitment to each other. Think about it like this, if you wanted to lose 20 lbs., wouldn’t you want to be around other people who ate healthy and exercised more than those who didn’t? John and I have been blessed with some great friends over the years wherever we’ve lived and even today, we have role models for us. It’s not a total guarantee, but it sure helps to surround yourself with like minded people.
Lesson #8 – Learn Each Other’s Love Language
There’s a book about this that I’d recommend reading now even before your wedding day. It’s called “The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman. We all have different ways that we want to express and receive love and chances are, your spouse’s love languages are different than yours. We discovered early on that John’s love languages are physical touch and words of affirmation. Mine are gift giving and acts of service. Let me tell you, if I think I’m showing how much I love John by buying him an awesome shirt that I think would look so handsome on him, he’s not going to feel loved. Vice versa, if he tells me how wonderful I am, but has neglected to do something around the house that I asked him to do, I am not going to feel loved. You can see where the problems can occur. And I have to admit we don’t always get it right, but it’s a pretty powerful piece of knowledge when you learn how to truly love one another the right way.
Lesson #9 – Communicate, Even When it’s Hard
I can’t tell you how many times conflicts have occurred in my marriage that could have been avoided if we had communicated better. Also, sometimes we think we are communicating what we want or how we feel and then are surprised when we don’t get the reaction we wanted. This is exactly what happened to John and I just the other day. He had something he wanted to get off his chest and he spent a lot of time choosing his words about it via text to me. Texting is never a great way to communicate your feelings because you can’t really hear the person saying the words. I took his text to be rather harsh, but that was not his intent at all. It wasn’t until we sat face to face and talked it out that we came to be on the same page about something. There’s going to be times in your marriage where you will think it’s easier to NOT say something because you want to avoid a confrontation. I get it and there are definitely wrong times like late at night when you’re both too tired to have a heated discussion, but don’t let that stop you from finding a better time. It is through these difficult discussions that you’ll grow closer together. Don’t fear them, but embrace them.
Lesson #10 – Have Some Common Interests
I can assure you opposites definitely attract when it comes to married couples. John and I are practically the poster couple for opposites. If that’s not the case for you, then consider yourself blessed. While John and I are complete opposites in a lot of areas, we’ve learned to appreciate our differences. It’s hard to find common interests if your personalities are different though. John likes to exercise way more than I do. I love to cook and he doesn’t. I prefer reading fiction while he reads non-fiction. Honestly, we have been challenged to find things we enjoy doing together, but we have always found at least one common interest we share.
Sharing common interests in your marriage is vital to prevent isolation in your relationship. The danger of growing apart is greater when you find yourself doing more things without your spouse so keep pursuing hobbies and activities together.
Lesson #11 – Stay Closely Connected Through Life’s Storms
What we are going through right now with the pandemic is extremely troubling and worrisome. We all handle our fears in different ways. I have felt the need to talk openly about what’s making me anxious and tend to go a little overboard on the “what if’s?” John is more of a processor and likes to keep quiet and take things one day at a time. In our 30 years together, we have been though many frightening times such as Hurricane Andrew and a few other scary storms. We have gone through the uncertainty of having our first born son diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The most unprecedented crisis we have weathered together was 9/11. The one thing that made all of these events worse was not feeling connected to John emotionally. I have learned to give John time to process things and he has learned to listen to me verbalize my fears. Now that we’re all staying close to home more, it is the perfect time to figure out how you best cope in stressful situations and what you need from each other. When you do, that’s where your true connecting will begin.
Lesson #12 – Slow Down and Appreciate the Small Things
Instead of getting frustrated that your routine has drastically changed right now, use this time to unplug and enjoy simple things together like going for a bike ride or walk (not tied to working out) or totally unplugging and working on a home project together. John and I realized the benefit of unplugging years ago in MI when we lost power for 5 days in the summer with small kids at home. It forced us to go outside more and connect with neighbors (something we can still do now, but 6 ft apart.) Our whole family learned to appreciate things that we took for granted and when it was over, we almost didn’t want the slower pace to end. In fact, in an effort to repeat that special time, our neighborhood started a tradition of having a backyard campout every summer after that. While we don’t know how long our slower pace will last, I do know it can be a blessing in your marriage if you let it.
Lesson #13 – It’s Ok to Argue
I think some of you might need to hear that again. It is ok to argue. Some of you might be really great at avoiding conflicts in your relationship, but keeping your anger and resentment bottled up inside is not good. While John and I clearly don’t have that problem because we know how to disagree very well. We once had a shouting match over whether Nathan should have his bottle. LOL! But we have struggled in figuring out how to fight fair. I’m talking about not bringing up past grievances, but staying in the moment. It’s never a good idea to keep a mental scorecard on your spouse. When you disagree, argue and talk it out and then move on. I imagine that some nerves are becoming more sensitive now. That is normal as we all are getting cabin fever, but just remember that being annoyed might be more about you than your spouse. Either way, if you must argue, make sure you’re both seeking a solution not a revolution.
Lesson #14 – Seek Out Intimacy Daily
You might find it odd that I’m posting a picture of a couple holding hands at this critical time in our lives where we are so self conscious about NOT holding hands or touching anyone. These pictures were taken at a marriage vow renewal ceremony that I did a few years ago and I think it illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about. If we let our fears get the better of us and avoid something so simple and yet so powerful such as holding hands with our partner, then we are losing out on the very thing our marriages need the most at a time like this, to feel connected and loved. John and I have this goofy thing we do where we hold hands and sway our arms back and forth like little kids when we’re walking outside together. It may only last for 30 seconds, but it gets us laughing and helps us let our guard down to talk about our day. We also often hold hands when we’re watching a movie on the couch. When we let days go by without remembering to kiss each other good morning or goodnight, or hug, or find a moment to hold hands, we feel detached from one another, It’s the small touch of a hand that pulls us back together.
Lesson #15 – Blending Families Takes Time
After you experience your first holiday together as a married couple, you probably will understand the challenges of blending two families together. Our first holidays as a couple were Christmas and Hannukah (I grew up Jewish) and we lived an hour away from my family, but only five minutes from John’s. I can remember feeling a little pressure to give each side equal time, but never feeling like I did. There might also be family members that are a little more high maintenance than others. I believe every family has at least one. I know ours did. I want to encourage you and your spouse to set boundaries early on in your marriage to protect yourselves from always trying to please everyone else. This is especially hard to do when kids may come along later, so I recommend that you begin the work early to establish yourselves as your own family unit. I promise you that after you do that, holidays and other special occasions will be much more fun.
Lesson #16 – Brag About Your Spouse
This may seem like a weird piece of advice for a married couple, but there is going to come a time in your marriage when you may only see the things your spouse is NOT doing. Negativity is contagious and before you know it, your spouse will start noticing all the things about you that bother him, and on and on…
The way out of this negative cycle is to start looking for the good things, however small they be, and start mentioning it to your friends and family. When you mention how your spouse unexpectedly picked up your favorite sushi dish on his way home or how he cleaned the dishes, it will be easier for you to forget about the five things he didn’t do. I have also found that the praise is even more effective when they are around to hear it. Words of affirmation are powerful. Try it next time when you find yourself being overly critical and see for yourself the transformation that can happen in both of you.
Lesson #17 – Continue Traditions
A popular wedding reception tradition is the father-daughter dance because it’s a touching and sentimental way of appreciating that special relationship between the bride and her father. But traditions shouldn’t end on your wedding day. Traditions should be woven throughout your marriage, celebrating both of your cultures, religion, and/or ethnicity. I was raised Jewish while John had a Norwegian- Lutheran background. We have always embraced both cultures and religions and have continued that as we raised our three children. Most of our traditions revolve around food so every Christmas, John and the kids make a Norwegian dessert called Lefse or Podakaka, which means potato cake. And in the Spring, we usually open up our home and host a Passover Seder dinner. Establishing traditions in your marriage help you form that lasting bond and family identity. They will no longer be just “your” traditions or “his” traditions, but they’ll become known as “OUR” traditions.
Lesson #18 – Start Documenting Your Life After Your Wedding
When the last wedding gift is put away and your wedding album is on your coffee table, start taking pictures of your life as a married couple. I’m not not just talking about just snapping pictures with your phone when you go out, I’m talking about actively documenting moments with a good SLR camera as you live your life together. Organize them in folders on your computer and print albums with photos of special occasions and vacations. If kids are in your plans, you’ll definitely be taking lots of pictures so get in the habit early. I can’t tell you how many albums or videos we have accumulated since our first year of marriage, but what I can tell you is all the forgotten moments come back in full swing when we look at them again. We often laugh and sometimes tear up seeing images of loved ones who aren’t with us anymore. We see moments with our kids as their little personalities were forming. We see our first duplex, our first dog, our first home, we see birthday parties, school events, weddings, and vacations. We see our life in pictures and there is nothing that compares to that.
Lesson #19 – Get a Pet Together
It’s great to have a pet that belongs to the two of you, not one that you brought with you into the marriage. It can be a small pet if you already have a dog or cat. The goal is for both of you to share in the responsibilities of caring for it together. In our first year of marriage, John and I got “Dottie,” an adorable English Springer Spaniel that unfortunately was a close cousin to the Golden Retriever in “Marley and Me.” She got into everything from toilets to trash cans, but we loved her dearly for 12 years. Having Dottie proved to be the perfect way to start preparing us for having children. I quickly assumed the nurturing role with Dottie and John became the father figure who thought she needed the discipline of long runs around the track at our local high school. By the time our first son was born, we had started to perfect those roles, not saying we had them down because raising kids is obviously more involved than a pet, but we were off to a good start.
Lesson #20 – Eat At Least One Meal A Day Together
Sharing a meal, distraction-free is the easiest way to stay connected. It’s easier said than done when you both get busy with jobs, etc. So many of us eat together, but we’re watching TV, scrolling on our phones or working on our laptops. We’re not engaging in face-to face communication where you actually talk about the details of your day. As John and I were raising our kids, we were committed to having family dinners every night. Some meals might have been quicker than others, but at least it was a time we set aside to be together. It’s a lot easier to continue with family dinners if you establish the habit from the start, so I hope you can make it a priority early in your marriage.
Lesson #21 – Re-Live Your Wedding Day More Than Once a Year
That feeling you’ll feel just before you’re going to walk down the aisle, the look on his face when he first sees you in your dress, the sense of joy when you walk hand in hand united, the celebration, the flowers, the music and dancing, the food, the send-off… all of these memories tend to get pushed back as we move through life. That’s why I’m recommending that you re-live those feelings by looking at your wedding album and watching your wedding video more than once a year. You might find it unthinkable that your wedding album might grow dust, but I’m here to say it could if you let it. I hope you don’t.
Lesson #22 – You’ll Know When It’s the Right Time to Have a Baby
Some couples want to make sure they have everything in order before having a baby. Others might have be willing to let things just happen. But what’s true for everyone is that no one is ever really prepared to have a child until you have one. Then it’s a learn as you go process that is worth every second. I can still remember holding my infant nephew when I had the feeling that I wanted to be a mother. I was in my late twenties and up until then, John and I were enjoying our married life unscripted. We could do what we wanted when we wanted and hadn’t felt the desire to have kids. But when those feelings hit me, they came on strong. Thankfully John agreed, but it took a year before I became pregnant. So don’t get hung up on overthinking or over planning because ultimately the perfect time to have a baby is the time you actually have one. Enjoy the journey.
Lesson #23 – Learn to change together. You’re not going to be the same people and that’s ok
Recently, my 17-year-old daughter saw a photo of me from the 80’s and said, “Wow Mom, you used to be so cool!” While that’s laughable now, it’s true. I am definitely not the same person I was when I married John. And neither is he. Actually, we’re both not the same people we were 10 years ago or 20 years ago. You’re going to change. You’ll change your looks, your likes and dislikes, your political views, your friends, your parenting, etc. The goal is to learn to embrace all of your changes. I can say that I love who my husband is now more then the guy I married. It took a lot of uncomfortable times to get there, but I’m here.
Lesson #24 – Sacrifices…don’t keep score, but know when it’s your turn
Giving birth to my three children is something I will always treasure and wouldn’t trade for anything. I’m very grateful that John is a wonderful father and has aways shared in the responsibilities of raising our kids. But let’s keep it real, it’s the women that make the initial sacrifices. Our bodies take a toll throughout the pregnancy and childbirth. This is not something our partners can do for us obviously. In the first few weeks of giving birth, it’s usually us moms that bear the burden of getting up every couple hours for feedings, etc.
As time moves on though, there are chances for our spouses to step up and give up something. It might be giving up going to a game or letting you have a weekend all to yourself. A healthy marriage involves each of you making sacrifices for your family.
Lesson #25 – Open Up Your Home to Neighbors
Throughout our marriage, wherever we have lived, we always made it a point to get to know our neighbors. It didn’t matter what the age differences or what stage of life they were in, we opened up our home. This ranged from progressive dinners, book clubs, pancake breakfasts, Super Bowl, Christmas, and New Year’s parties, etc. When you expand your hospitality outside your immediate circle of friends and family, you’re helping to build your community together. Obviously during a pandemic, it will look different. Why not try a socially distanced happy hour in your driveway or a block party with just a few in your col de sac? Look for creative ways to still connect even during such a challenging time as this.
Lesson #26 – Take Risks
Everyone likes to feel safe and comfortable, but sometimes it’s worth it to take risks if the right opportunity comes along. This happened to us early into our marriage. We were living safe and comfortable lives. We owned a cute home, had our first son, lived close to family, had great friends… until John got a great career offer that required relocation from South Florida to West Michigan. Seeing it as a necessary career move, we left all of that comfort behind and moved to unfamiliar territory where we knew no one. That first year was super hard. We had to adjust to different weather, ways of doing things, and seek out therapies for 2-year-old Nathan who had just been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. Talk about risks and stress! But I have to say, over the next eight years we grew closer and learned to deal with things without family nearby. We became more involved with our neighborhood and we built long standing friendships. And now as I look back, I wouldn’t trade those nine years for anything. Taking risks make your marriage stronger. So don’t avoid those things that take you out of your comfort zone. You’ll end up where you need to be.
Lesson #27 – Seek Professional Help When Needed
Admitting you and your spouse need marriage counseling is not a pleasant thing, but doing so could save your marriage. It’s that important and nothing to be embarrassed about. John and I have gone to marriage counseling at pivotal points in our relationship a few times and every time it has been total game changer. Sometimes you just need that outside person to help you through some challenging times. Counseling helps you to see things from a different perspective and often reveals blindspots that both of you might have. It also deepens your understanding of why you both react the way you do. That’s a huge step toward resolving a current conflict or even better, preventing future ones. There’s no shame in wanting to improve your marriage. If anything, it’s the opposite. You should feel proud that you are making your marriage a top priority in your life.
Lesson #28 – Travel as Much as You Can
This picture was taken two years ago overlooking the seaside village of Cassis in the south of France. Obviously the idea of vacationing abroad or anywhere right now is not recommended, but our current conditions will not last and travel possibilities will open up again. When I first met John, he was working for a steamship line in sales and his territory was Belize and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Early on in our marriage, we were blessed with the ability to travel, experience different cultures, enjoy delicious ethnic foods, and make new friends. Doing all of this before having kids was great because we were could be as spontaneous as we wanted. Sadly, this month we were planning to travel to Italy for our 30th anniversary, but that will have to wait. Even if you don’t consider yourself the adventurous type, I highly recommend getting away as much as you can to recharge and reconnect.
Lesson #29 – “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Your Anger”… a Good Goal to Strive For
I wish I could say that after 30 years we have lived up to that old saying of never going to bed angry. The truth is there were plenty of nights when that wasn’t the case. Sometimes it’s just hard to get over something before the sun sets. What I’ve learned is that having a restless night or two to mull things over, pray, and meditate over a argument was beneficial. I realized where I may have overreacted or said the wrong things. That extra time may be all you both really need to cool off and to see each other’s perspective.
It’s worth it when you can get to a place to say I’m sorry and really mean it.
Lesson #30 – Write Each Other
I have kept every card, note, and love letter that John ever wrote to me and when I brought them all out to take this photo, my heart was overwhelmed. I knew that there was a lot, but I had no idea of how many years and monumental happenings were documented and poured out on paper. I will always treasure them. You don’t have to be a gifted writer, but write down what’s in your heart as you journey through life together. I realize we live in the era of texting and emailing. Just be sure to preserve those sentimental texts and emails though so you’ll know where to find them.
A Marriage Well-Documented
So as you can see, it’s been an eventful 30 years! I hope these marriage lessons are helpful whether you’re newly engaged, planning your wedding, or are already married. Just for fun, here’s a before and after picture of John and I. The photo on the left was taken when we were dating in the late 80’s and the photo beside is us now.
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