This past May, Tim and I celebrated seven years of marriage. When people talk to me about my relationship with Tim, they often express amazement at my positive attitude. Isn’t the honeymoon over by now? Haven’t we reached the point where we’re really just tolerating each other? Where’s my cynical, eye-rolling attitude toward marriage? They often ask me for my secret. Well, there’s no real secret, but here’s a short list of what I see as the three most important attributes of a healthy relationship.
A friend of mine who recently got engaged asked me how important I thought it was for two people in a relationship to have the same level of education. She’s a college grad looking at a Masters degree, while her husband-to-be started a job after receiving his high school diploma. I replied that I thought level of education was irrelevant: attitude toward learning was much more important. When I was growing up, my dad earned his Masters degree and then his Ph.D., while my mom didn’t earn her Bachelors degree until she was in her 50’s (go Mom!). But when I think about my mother, her love of learning and her desire to communicate that love to us is one of her defining features. I will always remember her getting really excited reading Little House on the Prairie and then Little Women and then Jane Eyre to us. Letters behind the name notwithstanding, she was my father’s intellectual equal.
Equality is the first ingredient of a healthy relationship, because it’s the foundation for respect. If I think my husband is foolish or ignorant, I won’t be able to respect him. If he thinks I’m frivolous or stupid, he won’t be able to respect me. Without respect, a lopsided relationship forms in which one partner assumes the role of martyr, patiently tolerating the foibles of his or her mate. Martyrs do not make good spouses.
I started thinking about another key ingredient this past weekend, when my husband and I were backpacking. We’re really different. He’s a computer geek; I’m an English teacher. I love poetry, fashion, and cooking. He loves cycling, skiing, and reading volumes of systematic theology. Match.com or eHarmony might never have paired us up. But somehow, we’re not just good spouses; we’re terrific friends. Our friendship works because we have a few key overlapping interests and also because of–not in spite of–our separate pursuits. Backpacking is one of those key areas of overlap. We both love spending time in the great outdoors, roughing it in remote woods, watching stars, and roasting potatoes in campfire coals. It’s something for us to pursue and enjoy together. Our separate areas of interest make us fascinating to each other, give us a lot to talk about, and keep us healthily independent. Think of it as a well-balanced Venn diagram. He has his pursuits, I have mine, and we have a few that we enjoy together. It works well.
The third key ingredient has to do with pillars and flamingos. My friend Katie and I came up with this analogy when we were fifteen years old. There were things that were absolutely necessary to us in our future husbands. These were the pillars: the values and characteristics we refused to compromise on. Some of my pillars included the same religious beliefs, a solid work ethic (no living in Mom’s basement!), and a calm demeanor. If he didn’t have those things, there would be constant tension and strife in our relationship. Then there were the flamingos. These were attributes that would be nice to find, but that were negotiable. You know, like lawn ornaments. One of my flamingos was finding a guy who was so tall that I could wear my highest heels and still not be taller than him. Another was having a highly intellectual husband who loved deep discussion. Another was blue eyes and dark hair. Another was getting a guy who could write me epic love poems. Minus the poetry, I got all of the pillars and flamingos listed above, plus a whole lot more awesome flamingos I wasn’t looking for.
So there you have it: equality, a Venn diagram of interests, and all your pillars plus a few flamingos. Of course, no relationship is perfect, and all of them take a lot of hard work. But the rewards of a healthy relationship are well worth the investment.