Yesterday was the 17th anniversary of the first date between Krissy and myself, the day before that the 16th anniversary of my marriage proposal, and today, as it happens, is the 15th anniversary of our wedding. Yes, that’s right, we have a three day anniversary festival every year. It makes anniversaries easier to remember, if nothing else.
If you’ve been reading along for the last couple of days, you’ve probably gotten the (correct) intimation that even after fifteen (or sixteen, or seventeen) years, I am still insensibly in love with my wife and just about unbearably happy to be married to her every day. This is, of course, entirely true. What this elides, however — what this sort of lightly skips over — is that this happiness does not just exist; it was to be created and built and maintained. Six years ago, when I was giving marriage advice to others, I wrote: “Marriage is work. It never stops being work. It never should.” This is something I still think is true. Human relationships are highly entropic; you have to keep putting energy into them or they fall apart. Marriages are especially entropic because they operate at such a high level of commitment, and yet ironically I think lots of people assume that once achieved, a marriage takes care of itself.
It doesn’t. But marriage isn’t an object or a thing or a pet with opposable thumbs and the ability to open Tupperware to feed itself while you’re out doing something else. It’s a system, a process, a relationship. It’s not solid state; it’s got lots of moving parts. You have to tend to it or it jams up and stops functioning. So: Marriage is work. It never stops being work. It never should.
Work is not a bad thing, mind you. Work can be joyful and pleasurable and a thing which illuminates and gives meaning to every corner of your life. Work can be a very good thing. What makes it work is simply that has to be done.
I’m not going to give you a list of “work tips” because I think a) that’d be a little smug of me and b) different marriages are made up of different people and what works for us isn’t necessarily going to work for them. But there is one thing Krissy and I do which I think does have universal application, so allow me to recommend it to you. And it is:
Krissy and I say “I love you” to each other. A lot. As in, it’s typically the first thing we say to each other in the morning, and the last thing we say to each other in the evening, and the thing that gets worked into the conversation during the rest of the day. We say it because we mean it, and we often also say it because we mean something else by it. Depending on context, “I love you” means “I love you,” or “I need your help with this thing I’m doing” or “I can’t believe this is the fourth time I’ve asked you to take out the trash” or “thank you” or “I miss you” or “I am saying these words to remind myself that I do in fact love you because right now what I really want to do is SMOTHER YOU TO DEATH WITH THIS PILLOW” or “You should get me ice cream” or “You are a good parent” or “Damn you are HAWT” or any number of other things.
And you ask, why don’t you just say those things instead of “I love you”? For one reason, because generally speaking we could say those things to just about anyone (when, you know, appropriate), but “I love you” is reserved away for the two of us, so it’s a reminder of what we mean to each other. For another reason, in those times that we’re frustrated or exasperated or angry or tired, it lets the other of us know that even though we are frustrated or exasperated or angry or tired, that doesn’t change the fact that we love them. For another reason, as long as you mean it, saying or hearing those words never gets old. For another reason, saying the words gives you an opportunity to actually remember that you do love the other person — it’s another opportunity to cherish them in your heart, even (especially) when it’s an “I love you” of the “take out the trash, already” variety. And for a final reason, hey, you know what? We just plain like saying it to each other, and that’s all the excuse we need.
Saying “I love you” isn’t in itself a sufficient act of marriage work; words have to be backed up by deeds. Even so, I think saying “I love you” can be both performative and sustaining, the mortar between the bricks in the edifice of a married life. I’d say without hesitation that each of us telling the other that we love them, as often as we tell each other, has mattered to our marriage. It seems a simple and maybe even silly thing, but, I don’t know. If you’re too complex and serious to tell your spouse that you love them, early and often, I wish you joy in your marriage nonetheless. It works for us, we’ll keep doing it, and I recommend it to everyone, for every day of their marriage and life together.
In fact, go do it now. If you’re married (and even if you’re not), seek out that person whom you love and who loves you, and tell them that you love them. Pretty sure they’ll be happy that you said it. Which will make you happy. Which will make Krissy and me happy, on this our 15th wedding anniversary.