My wife and I celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary this week. By millennial standards, we have officially gained Old Married Couple status. To mark this new phase of our journey, I have started wearing Hawaiian shirts and fanny packs.
I am far from a relationship guru — if such a thing even exists — but I have learned a few things after eight years and four kids. I probably need another few years under my belt (or in my fanny pack, as the case may be) before I start dispensing marriage tips, but I can at least point out the bad ones. So, to celebrate eight years of matrimony, I thought I’d highlight the five worst, yet most common, pieces of advice often given to young couples. I am convinced that all of these morsels of faux-wisdom must originate with divorce attorneys:
1. “Never go to bed angry.”
Like most bad advice, this sounds nice in theory but can be lethal in practice. If you and your spouse are angry at the end of the day, you have two options: (A) Go to bed, sleep it off, wake up in the morning and realize that whatever you were mad about doesn’t really matter that much, or (B) fight it out until the wee hours of the morning, and still go to bed angry. The first option is almost always the better one.
In fact, 90% of arguments reach their functional conclusion after about five minutes. After the five-minute mark, all you’ll be doing is repeating everything you’ve already said, but louder. At 15 minutes, you’ll start making statements that begin with phrases like “You always do this … ” and “This is like the time when you…” and “You never listen to me….”. It is better to end every argument well before it has entered this hazardous stage. Especially if it’s late and you’re both tired. Go to sleep. You can always fight in the morning if you still want to. Which you won’t.
2. “The first year is the hardest.”
I have to assume that the person who came up with this idea divorced after 12 months. The first year was hardest for them because it was the only year. But if you stick it out for longer than that, you’re guaranteed to look back on the first year as a time of little conflict or difficulty. It’s not that marriage becomes progressively harder with each year (at least it shouldn’t work that way). It’s just that the most challenging moments will likely come as you have kids, grow your family, and meet whatever difficulties life throws at you. Your “hardest year” could come at any time, depending on circumstance, but it probably won’t happen right out of the gate.
3. “Never keep anything from your partner.”
This is good advice if “anything” refers to money, affairs, or things in that vein. But, in practice, this is usually translated as an invitation to share all of your feelings, concerns, worries, and complaints with your spouse all the time, never holding anything in or keeping anything to yourself or shouldering any emotional burden on your own. It’s in this second context that the advice begins to have a toxic effect.
To borrow a phrase from someone on Twitter, your spouse is not your emotional toilet. Yes, we should share our feelings and be open with each other, but that doesn’t mean we should become a dysfunctional fountain of stress and negativity, constantly spraying our complaints and miseries all over our spouses. Before we unload our baggage onto our partner’s lap, we should ask ourselves: What is the point of this? Why am I doing it? What can they do with the information I am about to share?
If the point is just to “vent,” and we’re doing it because it will make us feel good, and there’s nothing at all they can do with it or about it, then maybe, sometimes, it’s best to keep it to ourselves. Or go scream into a pillow. Or see a therapist. Spouses may sometimes function as screaming-pillows and therapists, but if they’re forced to spend too much time in that role, they’ll begin to resent it and you.
4. “Marriage is 50/50.”
This is obviously horrible advice. We can’t treat marriage like two children arguing over who got more cereal in their bowl. Trying to split things exactly evenly is a fool’s errand. And in this case the fool has the emotional maturity of a 5-year-old.
We should note that “Marriage is 100/100” is a better variation of this theme, but still wrong. There is never going to be any situation when both spouses are giving 100%. It’s always going to be 70/30 or 92/8 or 65/35, and that’s assuming that your efforts will actually add up to 100 in the end. When it comes to certain household chores, my wife and I are liable to give, like, 17/5 or 5/3 or 0/0.
The point is that there are some areas where one spouse will contribute more than the other, and vice versa, and some areas where both of you will slack off, and some areas where you’ll both be considerably invested. It’s hard to know who is “doing the most” overall, and if you’re worried about that, you’re already barking up the wrong tree. Better to play your part, realizing that your spouse isn’t perfect and will need you to carry more of the load sometimes, just as they do for you other times.
5. “Happy wife, happy life.”
This, again, is advice that could be worthwhile depending on how it’s interpreted. If by “happy wife, happy life” we simply mean that a husband should try, within reason, to make his wife happy — fine. As long as we acknowledge that the wife has just as much responsibility in the opposite direction.
But this cliche is often interpreted as a responsibility on the husband to agree with everything his wife says, cooperate with all of her demands, let her win every argument, and so on. Henpecked men will often convey this notion, “jokingly” (but not really), by saying something like “The most important words in a marriage are ‘Yes, Dear.'” Or “The best advice I can give: she’s always right.” Or a similar sentiment. The general idea is that men should make women happy by letting them run the show.
First of all, this strikes me as enormously patronizing to women. Second, more to the point, it’s an absolutely pathetic way for a man to conduct himself in a marriage. It’s also ineffective. Weak, pushover husbands do not make their domineering wives happy. I have never seen a happy domineering wife and I don’t think such a thing could possibly exist. Wives cannot respect husbands who act like door mats, and there cannot be happiness in a marriage if there isn’t respect.
It’s often said that husbands can never “win” arguments. This is only true if the wife is a selfish, immature, narcissist completely unwilling to admit her faults. It’s probably not good to think of marital arguments in terms of wins and losses, but, for lack of a better term, I have “won” arguments with my wife in the sense that she realized she was in the wrong and acknowledged it. That’s because she’s a grown adult capable of listening to reason, and I’m also a grown adult capable of expressing my point of view. If I think she’s wrong, I’ll tell her. Just as she does for me. Nobody is happy to be told they’re wrong, but a woman will ultimately be far less happy if she’s stuck in a marriage with a spineless yes-man.