We're supposed to be in this for life, but are we growing together?

I love those House Hunters International episodes on HGTV where the couple has decided to move from their northern life of cold and chaos down to some obscure, tropical island in order to "live the good life", you know, retiring early so they can really enjoy one another...

There seem to be so many of these couples on television, and yet I have never met any like them in the real world.

What I have personally encountered are some distinct cycles to marriage and family life.

 For the first few years Tom and I were together, we were kept busy attending a lot of weddings... then, it was years of baby showers, after which things on the "party" front became a lot quieter as we all worked hard at keeping our heads above water with many sets of small footprints running (often crying) throughout the hallways at all hours of the day and night.  Kids got older, and once again we were able to (or felt the desperate need to) get out and socialize as couples again.

These days it's not hard to see we have entered into a new phase of coupledom, one I can't say I'm real crazy about...people we know who are announcing (seemingly left and right) they are splitting up.

This new phase has caused me to think a lot about marriage/life-long commitment.  I have spent time looking at my parents, my in-laws, my siblings, and of course at our friends who, after fifteen/twenty/thirty years of being together have, or are in the process of, opting out.  In addition to observing those couples, I have also thought a great deal about the ones who are continuing to be able to honor their commitment, or who have separated and then managed to get back together.

 I don't mean to imply any of the people who are separating or divorced have taken a light, "oh well", nonchalant attitude about it.  On the contrary, one universal message I have heard from many in the process, or long past it, is initially they felt like a failure for not being able to work things out.

Analyzing all I have seen, heard and experienced of marriage..my own, as well as what I can see of others (and we all know there is a lot going on behind the front door that we aren't privy to), I have come to some conclusions about what keeps two people holding on (and happy most days) through the inevitable challenges living together day in and day out brings.

First and foremost, people who are able to continue a healthy marriage have a willingness and ability to look at themselves when times get really tough in their relationship. They have the courage to look inside, take responsibility for their own behavior and contributions to the bumps, and become vulnerable with their partner in working together towards a better union.

In short, they take the necessary time, they brave examining themselves as individuals before they can grow as a couple.

In fact, I would go so far as to say without working on yourself first, the marriage won't pan out.  All I have seen in the cases where it becomes easier to end it all is a lot of blaming, finger pointing, and focusing on who should get what as the relationship dissolves.

If we can tear down the walls around our own heart, becoming vulnerable with ourselves first, only then can one potentially find the fortitude to do this with a spouse.  Because it is here we can begin to build emotional intimacy, which is the way to navigate a strong, healthy marriage relationship.

The people who decide marriage is too much, and who choose to walk away, don't understand the first place to look when the relationship gets rocky is not at the other person, but at yourself.  

Now, the other person might be really good at pointing out to you exacting what you should be looking at, right? And, the painful truth is oftentimes they aren't off base.  But if the relationship is going to weather the storm between two people long term, there has to come a point when you stop turning outward and work on your own shit.

Because we all have it.

Another helpful component to a strong partnership is each person spending time taking care of themselves by pursuing their own interests.  

Tom has always enjoyed tennis, and he is very competitive, so his weekly matches are (I believe) really important to his physical and mental health.  He's also gotten into wood working.  In the last year alone he's tackled making barn doors for our media room, rebuilding the backyard fence, and has made a lovely coffee table for our family room.

I, on the other hand, nourish myself through taking several exercise classes each week, spending time reading and writing, as well as connecting with other women over coffee because I love to hear about their life triumphs and challenges, and to share my own as well. One-on-one connection is really important to my overall health.

A third crucial aspect of continuing a healthy marriage is taking time to learn something or do something new together.  Whether it's a sport, or cooking, a DIY project, or a card game, life long learning and growing together is important.  

This is an area Tom and I need to work on.

And last, at least in my situation, what I need to remind myself more often is that Tom and I are the prime example for our kids as to what marriage and family life looks like.  I need to be more present, asking myself:  What do I want my kids to understand about how a lifelong commitment works?  How do I want them to see me treat the most important, intimate relationship in my life? And, conversely, what are they learning from me in the way I am treated by their dad?

This weekend will be a big one for me personally (in terms of growth), which I hope will, in turn, help our marriage grow as well.  

What do you think is necessary to keep your marriage happy and healthy?