9 Ways to Make Your Marriage a Brick House
written by Mary Katherine Backstrom
(so, I got excited and also shared my love story. . .if you are here for the 9 tips scroll down to the break!)
My freshman year of college had been one helluva party, but it was a disaster in many ways: academically, personally, spiritually. I spent the first semester discovering alcohol and losing little bits of myself. My closest friends expressed concern, but that just pissed me off. So I drifted. And I drifted.
I drifted until my grades came out and my parents snatched my butt home.
1 year later, I had just returned to Birmingham (after living in Thailand and Texas, but that’s another story). Time had changed me, for the better, and I was trying to find a balance between my newly-hatched faith and sorority life. I couldn’t quite figure out how those two things fit together, and UAB wasn’t feeling like the home it once did.
That February night, I was cheering on the UAB Blazers in Bartow Arena; our basketball team was killer. In a green t-shirt and jeans, I ran upstairs to grab a coke.
I stopped short of my destination with a confused look on my face. Standing in front of me was a blue-eyed boy with a big smile. He most certainly knew who I was. Ian reached his arms out for a hug—and being my awkward self, I replied, “Hey! I don’t know who you are, but I’ll hug you anyways!”
Hello, Future Husband. Good to see you.
We didn’t chat long. You know, I wanted to get that coke. I honestly don’t remember much other than both of us being a little embarrassed. Me, because I was unintentionally rude and him because I had no idea who he was.
When I returned to my seat Ian turned to his roommate and said, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
We eventually had a first date, and I invited my sister. She was amazingly awkward as a third wheel, and we all sat together watching The Phantom of the Opera (movie). Ian knew all of the music. He actually knew the WORDS. That’s when I realized that maybe—just maybe—
We went to church together. I decided to appear very serious about Jesus (because that’s attractive, right?) and sat one seat over from him. When he looked at me, understandably baffled, I confidently stated, “I need my worship space.”
So, yah. I was really bad at that whole “dating thing.”
Shortly thereafter, I got a phone call from Ian. It was either the most insane or most courageous thing a man has ever done. He told me simply that he had wished to date me—and only me. He thought that I could be his wife, and he wanted to make sure I understood what his thoughts and intentions were from the beginning.
I will never forget that I was sitting in traffic at 5 points Birmingham. I accidentally sat through the next green light, staring blankly ahead with my blinker ticking away. As strangers blared their horns behind me, I was frozen in the moment and wondering, “Is this guy REAL?”
He stole my heart, and it didn’t even take him two weeks.
It was the kind of romance that makes you forget your appetite. Coming from a girl like me, that’s saying a lot. Every emotion, every life experience was amplified by 10,000 when he was there. The most mundane errands felt like adventures when I was in the passenger seat of his beat up green Civic (he called “Flash”). Ian would sing along to the radio, horribly. He wore quirky shoes. He had this weird dance he called “The Shovel” that would occasionally make public appearances. I would be equal parts humiliated and enchanted.
He was also a very good student, which I was—am–not. He invited me to “study with him” sometimes, and I would pack a few books, head over to his apartment, and spend hours watching him intensely reading with a highlighter in hand. Like I said, the mundane things. But in my memories, they are larger than life.
Ian taught me soccer and we broke into golf courses to take long walks in our pajamas. We laid in the grass and stared at the stars and talked about things that people only talk about when they want you to know their soul. Those days were both dangerous and thrilling.
And when he wasn’t around, the days felt empty. I floated through the hours, spending time with friends and feeling a hollow pit in my stomach. I was mostly distracted, and probably very whiny and annoying. I’m not proud of that.
It’s the fun part, people say, when you are falling in love. But I have to disagree.
The thing about falling in love, is there is this passion that is closely linked to uncertainty. The intensity of everything blooms from the underlying possibility that it could all just end without warning. And that just fuels the insanity. It’s hot and cold, unstable and magic. Very romantic, I suppose.
8 years later, I didn’t want that. Not when I was 7 months pregnant, looking like a whale and waddling like a duck. 9 years later, I didn’t want that. Not with student debt looming. Not as we navigated the exhausting lifestyle of parenting during residency.
And ten years later, I still don’t want that. Not with two children calling for me in tandem, butts to wipe, and rarely a minute to spare for washing my hair.
Hot, cold, and unstable are what brought Ian and I together—but it is our boring, everyday love that sustains us.
This boring love is more beautiful to me than the whirlwind that swept us together. Less like a violent storm and more like a carefully-built house. It’s lived in and comfortable and secure.
At the end of an exhausting week, our love is the place I can come home to in sweatpants and a ponytail. When he grabs my hand, I don’t necessarily get butterflies. But I do get assurance. I don’t get flowers, but he does switch the laundry to the dryer. He leaves me a little milk for my cereal rather than using the last bit. We moved every single year for 7 years straight, house to house, town to town. But it’s wherever my husband is that I feel at home.
You see, we’ve moved past the passion of involuntary love and into the daily decision of voluntary love. Ian has chosen to be at my side, not because he is drawn to me with an electric attraction, but because he has vowed to be there. I’ve gained weight, grown out of fashion, chipped some teeth and gotten gray hairs. That’s reality, and Ian is there.
Don’t get me wrong, we have our moments.
Spontaneous kisses on a storm-struck beach. Slow dances in the kitchen. Random love letters left on the kitchen table. Oh yah, honey. Those all happened this year.
But so did the vomiting and diarrhea from food poisoning, when Ian carefully pulled my hair into a pony tail, rubbing my back while I begged for God to strike me dead. (I get dramatic when I’m sick).
Which of those things do you think makes me feel most secure in our love?
Today, I celebrate ten years of being married to a man who has continuously amazed me.
When I watch him sleep after his 10th straight 12 hour shift, with sleep crusting his eyes and breath smelling like a dragon, I feel my heart swell with pride. He has incredibly rare work ethic. That is something that takes time to see in someone.
When he comes home and changes out of his doctor scrubs, hops on his skateboard and rolls off with our golden retrievers in tow, my heart fills with laughter. Someone who is so smart, so professional, and so mature still has the spirit of a kid. It took years to appreciate the resiliency of his child-like soul.
When I watch him paddle out to sea on a surfboard, bobbing in the waves for hours upon hours, I fall in love with the quiet of his heart all over again.
When we fell in love, it was dizzy-making. But it’s the rock-solid ground of our boring life that makes me wake up every morning a grateful wife.
Marriage is my home and my home is sacred.
While I don’t like to offer unsolicited advice, I would love to share some of the wisdom I’ve accumulated over these years of marriage, in the event that someone needs to read it. More than likely, that someone will be me. This blog is a journal for me and it’s amazing how often I visit it just to relearn lessons from years past.
So, here we go. A few nuggets of truth that will help you PROTECT YO HOUSE.
DON’T BE AN ISLAND
Falling in love is easy to do. But if I have one regret from the year I fell in love with Ian, it is that every bit of my happiness became correlated to his presence. That grew into a reliance on him that was unhealthy, unfair, and ultimately unsustainable. When your desire to be with someone morphs into an emotional demand that they must keep fulfilled, you are setting yourself up for some very rocky times. It is very easy in this phase of love to ditch your old life and move on to LoveDove Island. Don’t do it. Your soul requires more than the love of one person to flourish. You need to grow in your faith, stay connected with community and pursue your individual interests. If you find yourself ditching your book club every single week for a date with the boy-toy, that is a red flag. Stop going to church? Stop hanging with your girlfriends?
That island is gonna get pretty lonely, sister. And when you get bored, frustrated, and unfulfilled, the only person around to absorb your wrath will be that love of yours. People aren’t islands. Relationships can’t be, either.
STICKS AND STONES
The wedding itself was a beautiful celebration and one of the happiest days of my life. Ian cried and I giggled uncontrollably. Chelsea, one of my best friends, passed out on stage during the ceremony and I was completely oblivious. The ceremony was as hilarious as it was perfect.
But something about getting weddings rings makes a person feel secure. They aren’t going anywhere, baby! Now that the relationship has some security to it (hopefully–for goodness sake) it becomes easier to let little abuses slip in. Our first year of marriage was very difficult, and Ian and I are candid with anyone who asks. Not only had we found ourselves on LoveDove Island, but we also now felt secure enough to use words as weapons. Let me tell you something: you can plow a trench a mile wide right down the center of your relationship with something as simple as a toxic word. Just because somebody has vowed to stick by your side doesn’t mean you should make it difficult. Choose your words carefully. Our relationship healed from the foolishness of our newly-wed life, but it took time. It is better to get in your car and drive away in silence. Go to Arby’s and get a milkshake. Go for a run. Walk the dog. But do not–DO NOT–speak hatefully to the person who loves you most.
I saw an Arabic proverb the other day: The words that pass your tongue should have three gatekeepers: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
THANK YOU, HONEY.
I believe our marriage greatly improved with some simple words: Thank you, honey. You see those smiles? Those are the faces of accomplishment. Our second year of marriage was quite peaceful, actually. Ian was in medical school and we moved into an apartment complex where all the other residents were Chinese. I’m not exaggerating. It was amazing. One day, for Chinese New Year, a neighbor hung a raw animal carcass from our balcony. I still don’t know what that was supposed to mean, but he smiled, so I know it was a friendly gesture. Our rent was $400/month. I was a waitress. We were living large.
When your spouse does something for you, even if it’s “his role” on your Marriage Team,say “thank you.” Those simple words can remind someone that you don’t just expect them to contribute to your marriage, but you appreciate it.
LOVE IS A DANCE
In 2008, my uncle grew ill and I wanted to give him a kidney. Considering my age and the fact I had not yet had children, many of my friends and family members were not supportive of this decision. Truth be told, it scared Ian to death. To make matters more confusing, I was just certain that God was telling me I would be okay—and Ian wasn’t getting those affirmations. He told me he was scared, he told me the medical risks, and he told me it was my choice. Then he supported me with all his heart.
This is how love is a dance: There are times when you have to block out the world, come together as a couple, and decide that nothing else matters but your support for one another. Then you dance with the confidence that if you are being a fool, at least there is another soul dancing alongside you. Those months were rough. Ian lost sleep, I freaked out, and the surgery was rescheduled multiple times. It was a roller coaster, but it was also the first time as a married couple when we made a decision of OUR OWN. I fell in love with Ian so much more for supporting me during that time.
KEEP THE ADVENTURE ALIVE
Well, this one is quite simple. In 2009, Ian and I were broke, bored, and tired from medical school and paying bills. We saved a little money up, and you know what? We didn’t save it. Nope.
We decided on a Monday that we wanted to go to New York City. We flew out on Friday. We weren’t prepared for how freaking cold it was. We saw the Lion King on Broadway, shared hot chocolate in a taxi and kissed in front of the Statue of Liberty. We played on the piano in FAO Schwartz and stayed in a fancy-pants hotel. Then we flew home on Sunday, where the same pile of bills that we weren’t sure how to pay sat on the table. Was it stupid? Yes. Do I regret that memory? Not even a little bit. 99% of the time, it’s best to plan and be safe. Then, on occasion, it’s nice to just live a little. Recreate the adventure and fun from your first year of dating. Do something stupid.
SPEAK WITHOUT WORDS
I just recently read in the NY Times that married couples kiss less than once a week. How depressing is that? When you are dating, you make out at stop lights and snuggle in movie theaters. So…what happens?
I don’t know. If I knew that, I would be famous with a book or something, not ranting on a quiet blog in the corner of internet-nowhere. But I DO know one thing. Physical affection is a language that must be spoken if you are to keep your marriage alive. I’m not saying you have to be bedroom rock stars. Ain’t nobody got time for that. (and I’m not willing to go there on this blog, anyways). But guys, let me give you some advice: Gently guide her by the elbow when you go through a party of strangers. Reach for her hand in the movie, even if your palm is sweaty and you need it to eat popcorn. A kiss on the cheek is worth 1,000 words. I am grateful that Ian is somebody who speaks this language, well and often. He is a hand-holder and a hugger and I’m not gonna lie, it makes me feel important. When I’m walking through the mall and I realize that I’m 30 pounds heavier than all the girls there and my “cute outfit” actually looks a lot like mom clothes…things can get bad quickly. Then my husband unknowingly erases my insecurity by grabbing my hand. Without words, he has told me that I’m beautiful, that I matter, and I’m worth holding on to.
SHARE THE JOY OF EACH OTHERS’ PASSIONS
My whole life I wanted a horse. Ian’s whole life he wanted to surf. Now, how much fun would marriage be if we flushed those dreams down the toilet? It’s the best feeling to watch the love of your life do something that brings them great joy. It’s an even better feeling to share in that joy with them. I’m not saying I’m gonna buy a wet suit and shred the ocean. But I will paddle out and float with him. I will watch him from the shore and clap like a lunatic when he gets the perfect wave. And he will jump on the occasional horse and ride around pasture with me talking about life. If your husband is a writer, read his book. If he bowls, watch him play. If he paints, grab a brush and pull up a chair beside him. He may laugh at your stick person under a rainbow, that’s true. But with the person you love most by your side, the joy of that activity increases exponentially–and so does the depth of your relationship.
ROLE PLAY: SWITCH IT UP
If you want to have a successful marriage, empathy is key. And what better way to empathize with your spouse than to put on their shoes for a day (or an hour). Ian may not know this, but when he changes the laundry over from the washer to the dryer, I spend the rest of the day thinking, “What a wonderful husband I have!”
That may sound crazy, but it’s really quite simple. If you try to do something for your spouse that they normally do, two things happen:
1) You take a burden off their back, sending them the clear message that their feelings and efforts matter.
2) You create a quiet bond by putting yourself in their shoes. You aren’t too manly for laundry. She isn’t too girly to cut the grass. You aren’t too cool to help one another or fulfill the others’ role.
Role play, people. It’s all about switching it up.
THEN REMEMBER, EVERYTHING CHANGES
Then, just when you get used to this whole “marriage” thing, something–or everything–changes. You lose a job, you move out of state, or you get pregnant.
Or all of those things.
The point is, other than this person by your side, not many things/people/places in your life will stay constant. In fact, the two of you will change. Your dreams, ambitions, physical appearance, political ideas–they all evolve as you grow. Take it in stride. There is a season for everything, you know. The Bible and the Beatles both said so. That means it’s true for everyone.
The truth is, the fact that everything changes means you have something to be grateful for: your wedding vows. I look back on 8 years ago when I met Ian. My view of the world, my behavior, my feelings–all of those things are as foreign to me as if another person lived them. What would happen if Ian and I had expected to “feel” the same way toward each other as when we first met? We’d be hosed, that’s what.
I’m not saying that you fall out of love with your spouse. This isn’t that blog. I’m saying that your love becomes something different: stronger, more resilient, and far more fierce than it ever was. If you want to be prepared for the storms of life, you need to hurricane-proof your house. And that takes intentional work. Thoughtful, daily work.
And that’s what my marriage is. Daily, thoughtful, intentional work. The very best kind. I know that as I change and as Ian changes, we will both be there for one another, working on this beautiful love we have chosen to grow and nurture. It will be difficult. It HAS been difficult.
But if it was easy, would it honestly be this good?
…..Or this interesting?