25 *Real* Things I’ve Learned in 25 Years of Marriage {and the One That’s More Important than All the Others}

Greg and I have been married 25 years as of yesterday which, as we say every year, is a long time not to smother someone with a pillow. A long, LONG time. And, in that time, we’ve learned a few surprising things, 25 of which I’ll share with you here. 

25 *Real* Things I’ve Learned in 25 Years of Marriage

(1) Any amount of time is a long time not to smother someone with a pillow. Listen, I do not care if you’re married 1 year or 100 years, (2) LIVING WITH ANOTHER HUMAN IS HARD. No matter how precious and wonderful and thoughtful and well intentioned that human is, that human also makes horrific, wet, gagging/choking sounds — above 80 decibels which has the ability to cause permanent hearing damage — when clearing his throat in public. Or that human, no matter how many times you tell him over 25 years, will never — NOT EVER — take some butter and pass the dish before meticulously and painstakingly buttering his own roll so that others at the table might have a go at the butter before he’s finished. It’s TERRIBLE but true. So BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE, we all deserve ALL the credit in the world for never — not once — sitting on a pillow on their face. WELL DONE, MARRIED FRIENDS. High fives all around.

(3) Divorce is, too, an option. And it’s an option you should use if you are harming yourself or your partner or if you’re being harmed by them. Be in a marriage because you WANT to be in it. (4) Be in a marriage because it’s HEALTHY to be in it. Be in it because it’s WORTH THE RELENTLESS WORK to be in it. DO NOT BE IN IT BECAUSE “DIVORCE IS NOT AN OPTION.” Of course divorce is an option. In an equal society, divorce should be an option. In an equal society, all contracts should have an exit clause; otherwise, it’s slavery or feudalism or another form of ownership and the human with the traditional, structural power in the relationship (hint: usually the man) is afforded the ability to abuse that power. DO all humans in power abuse it? OF COURSE NOT. Can they, though? YES. Which is why an out is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT and why saying “divorce is not an option,” even if what you mean is “we’re both going to do everything within our power to make this thing work for a lifetime” is unhelpful. Divorce is, too, an option, and if you’re only in your marriage because you think it’s not, you need to rethink your marriage. Greg and I did. We rethought it. And it saved us. Because all of a sudden, we weren’t in it because we lacked options. We were in it because we PICKED IT. Over and over. After assessing our personal and mutual mental health. After taking a fearless inventory of the harm we were causing ourselves and each other. After personal and joint counseling. We put the divorce option on the table. And we’re married not out of some bizarre commitment to marriage for marriage’s sake. We’re married because we choose to be a team. We’re married because we’re each and both able to champion ourselves and each other to be healthier and happier.  

(5) The two real problems with marriage are that we keep asking humans to do it and we’re expected to participate EVERY DAY.“Honest to God, I feel like someone should’ve thought this whole thing through a little more thoroughly before implementing the plan. Like maybe we didn’t have our best strategic thinkers on this. Or the project engineers used my college work ethic, procrastinated like hell, pulled a last minute all-nighter, and turned in a half-assed, ill-considered product hoping the professor wouldn’t notice. Hey, Project Engineers — WE NOTICED. I mean, you have some serious potential here with the whole “human component” of your plan — there is magic there, for sure, and there’s genius and mystery and surprise and discovery — but there are some kinks, folks. Some messiness and murkiness and muddling and muck. Which we can deal with — we can — and even turn the mess into magic, conjurers of hope and harbingers of healing that we are. It’s the every damn day part that messes us up.”

(6) BUT ALSO, it’s OK to be human and fallible. And it’s OK to be married to someone who’s human and fallible. I mean, that’s what we have to work with, so the sooner we come to terms with imperfection and failure as part of the warp and the weft of ALL our human relationships — the sooner we can look at what we’re weaving as WHOLE and BEAUTIFUL and VALUABLE both despite and because of the fact that it’s raw and rough and frayed in places — the sooner we will be able to breathe and to take the joy alongside the sorrow, accepting both as intricate to the whole experience.

(7)Marriage is not 50/50… (8) and marriage doesn’t require both partners to give 100% all the time. Look, marriage is too complicated to split duties in half. That’s silly, and it’s never going to happen. Quantifying everything alone would take the rest of a lifetime, much less negotiating who gets which bits of the minutiae. And, truthfully, the people who say “you can’t give just 50%, you have to each give 100%” are onto something, but in the end they’re wrong, too. No one can give their ALL to EVERYTHING ALL OF THE TIME. So setting up your marriage to think you’re either going to put in HALF which is FAIR… or to think you’re both going to be hustling with everything you’ve got like paratroopers jumping into a war zone, all “Go! Go! Go!”… is the same as setting up your marriage for failure. People don’t work that way, so neither do marriages. Sometimes we’re TIRED. Sometimes we can BARELY MOVE. Sometimes we’re dealing with health crises or job woes or money issues, and focusing with laser precision on marriage cannot happen. And that’s OK. “Honestly, Greg and I aren’t in a 50/50 marriage very often. Oh, we strive for equality. And we try to bear one another’s burdens. Sometimes we even hold up our ends of our public marriage bargain. Sometimes, we rise above the difficulties and each give 100%, which is when the toilets get cleaned and the children are bathed and we don’t forget parent/teacher conferences. But sometimes we fall down on the job, friends. Sometimes, I give 5% and Greg gives 5% and we’re grumpy and petty and we both wonder where the hell the other 90% went.” And that’s part of it, too. It just is.

(9) It’s better to let the sun go down on your anger than to stay awake trying to hash things out while exhausted and strung out. SOMETIMES YOU JUST NEED TO SLEEP ON IT. Look, the principle is still true — don’t let your anger fester. Deal with that crap. Deal with what’s underneath the anger which is almost always hurt. Deal with the causes and effects of how you treat one another. Take the necessary steps so resentment and bitterness don’t get a strong foothold. But NO ONE IS BETTER FOR A LACK OF SLEEP, and your relationship won’t be better for it, either. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” IS NOT LITERAL ADVICE. Or, if it is, it’s BAD advice. Studies have shown that lack of sleep causes the human brain to behave as though it’s drunk. If you wouldn’t say”being drunk is excellent for solving marital woes,” then trying to solve them without a rested, in tact brain makes equally little sense. GO TO BED, FRIENDS. Rest. Tackle the issue again tomorrow.

(10) Also, sometimes you just need some protein. For reals. Being hangry is a fast pass to marital rage. Drink a glass of milk, take 10 slow, calming breaths, and give yourself a half hour. TRUST ME. I know that of which I speak.

(11) Also-also, sometimes you just need a break from each other. There really is such a thing as too much togetherness. There are ZERO PEOPLE in the world who are not intensely irritating if given enough time together. Frankly, I’d take a break from myself if I could; I am EXHAUSTING. It is decidedly Not Terrible to take time apart. An hour. A day. A weekend. More. It doesn’t mean you don’t love each other to pieces. It means you’d like to see if the axiom “distance makes the heart grow fonder” is true. <— THAT IS A WORTHY SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT. Try it. 

(12) Do not throw a bar stool at your partner. Not even if you really, really, really want to. For real. I mean it. It doesn’t end well. As in, Class C Felony “not well.” Also, be careful when you’re picked for a jury and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, because an attorney might ask you for marriage advice in a court of law, and then you will feel obligated to give it.

(13) Counseling is THE BEST, and individual counseling may be EVEN BETTER than marriage counseling. It’s AMAZING what can happen in a marriage when there’s more than one partner who’s willing to work on and own their issues. Sadly, you can’t force your partner to do this. But you CAN set the example yourself, and dealing with your crap is surprisingly worthwhile.

(14) Love is made of a thousand successes. But it’s also made of millions of failures. And that’s OK. It’s even, maybe, how it should be. “When we were first married, I knew about love. I did. And I wasn’t wrong because love is, in fact, gentle and love is kind. Love is a two-way street. And love is a choice. And love, it’s true, is what conquers against all odds. I knew. I did. And I wasn’t wrong.  But I didn’t know that love, also, was made up of failure. And of bruises. And of falling down. And of getting up. Sometimes. Eventually. And of a thousand thousand tiny moments and little sighs and brief caresses and small hurts and exhaustion and healing and time…”

(15) We are not still together by the grace of God. God’s grace is for everyone, no matter where you are in (or out) of marriage. There are people who are miserable in marriage, and God’s grace is there for them. There are people who are happy in marriage, and God’s grace is there for them. There are people who are miserably divorced, and God’s grace is there for them. There are people who are happily divorced, and God’s grace is there for them. The end. 

(16) Sometimes, the problem inside a marriage is YOU. And sometimes that’s not your fault, but you need help anyway. Take a fearless inventory. Ask your friends if you seem healthy. Really listen if they’re concerned about or for you. And if, after you’ve done this, you (like me) discover you’re enraged by your partner because depression has taken over — again — get medical help. 

(17) Lower your expectations. It’s more fun down here anyway. Real marriage is not Hollywood marriage. Romantic marriage isn’t always roses or chocolates or jewelry or inspired poetry. Do what you ACTUALLY want to do with your relationship instead of what Instaglam tells you you SHOULD be doing. Let it look messy instead of meticulous — you’ll be surprised how much magic is in that mess.

(18) Find things that bring you joy and bring them into your life, even if your partner disapproves. Like pianos and puppies. Listen, some people are practical, and some people marry people who are practical. Greg is the former, and I am the latter. And while, YES, TECHNICALLY the Practical Person keeps the Impractical Person from doing things like selling all their belongings and moving to Belize, the Practical Person can ALSO try to Out-Logic the Nonpractical Person when it comes to Things That Bring Joy. “That Thing that Brings You Joy makes no sense,” they will say. “That Thing That Brings You Joy costs too much money,” they will say. “We have no room for That Thing That Brings You Joy,” they will say. And then the Nonpractical Person can become bitter and resentful. Hypothetically. 😉 So if you’re the Nonpractical Person, it’s important to remember YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE PRACTICAL ABOUT EVERYTHING. And you don’t always have to justify which items do or do not bring you joy. “Practical joy” is not a thing.  “Logical joy” is not a thing. DO PLEASE listen to the Practical Person prior to emptying the bank accounts and selling your house to build a yurt and live off the grid in the tundra; I’m not saying you can’t do it, just that this is the sort of decision you need to get the Practical Person’s buy-in on first (unless you’re good with using the divorce option). But truthfully, if you need a puppy in your life or fairy houses or to fake purchase a miniature horse to simultaneously torture/teach a lesson to your Practical Person and bring you unfathomable joy, DO IT. Eventually, even the Practical Person will admit it’s more logical to live with a joyful partner than to live with one who’s resentful and sad. 

(19) Lose weight and stay physically fit for your partner. HA HA HA HA — JUST KIDDING. Instead, do the work necessary to love your body and let your partner love it, too. Now, Greg’s the luckiest because I have a natural Burrito Body, and I’m happy to share it with him, so this one’s easy for us. <— Lies. For real, though, IT IS HARD TO CHOOSE TO BE HAPPY WITH OUR PHYSICAL SELVES, but it is critically important for happiness in life and in marriage. Weight is rough for me — I have lots of Big Feelings about it, and in the meantime my weight goes up and down the way the moon waxes and wanes. Predictably. Inevitably. I have worked for YEARS on believing Greg when he says I’m sexy. It gets to the very heart of whether or not I’m willing to trust him in general, and it affects everything from basic affection and sex to trusting his judgement in every other area. Confronting feelings of self-worth related to weight is REAL WORK, and at least in my case it takes decades. It’s also one of the most worthwhile tasks I’ve undertaken to improve my relationship with Greg. In related news, Greg and I are going to go eat chocolate raspberry cake now. And then we’re going to do it like bunnies. 

(20) Your partner does not have to be your best friend. My friend Tiffany-Lin always says she has 30 best friends because they’re all best at something different. I LOVE THIS because I find it so deeply true. And while I’m totally fine with all the folks (and they seem legion) who shout from the rooftops how glad they are to have married their “best friend,” I’m more in line with Tiffany-Lin on this one. Greg is 100% ONE of my best friends. And he’s my lover and my partner and my co-parent and sometimes the person who drives me more crazy than anyone else breathing on Planet Earth, which to me goes far, far beyond best friendship. I also have about a dozen Best Friends who are each best at something different. There’s the best friend who’s allowed to call me on my mental illness bullshit (not Greg). And the best friend I like to go to Whiskey Wednesday with to work our way slowly through the menu and find our new favorites while catching up on life (not Greg). And there’s the best friend I confide in when marriage is REALLY, REALLY HARD (not Greg). And the best friend who would absolutely, 100% stay calm while helping me bury a body and hide the evidence (not Greg). Greg is good at a lot of things. SO MANY THINGS. But Greg is not good at everything, and he can’t meet all my needs or even most of my needs, and that’s OK. BETTER, even, because a marriage partner is not meant to fulfill us. They’re not meant to complete us. They’re not Magical Beings who can suss out and proactively meet all our needs. They’re not our other half who makes us whole because — spoiler alert — we’re already whole and complete and also we’re all in need of a deep and broad community of fellow humans to help us and hold us and sustain us in times of trouble. We need EVERYONE, is what I’m saying, and it’s not fair to put that much pressure on ONE HUMAN to do the work of dozens. 

(21) THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MARRIAGE IS KINDNESS.

(22) THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MARRIAGE IS KINDNESS.

(23) THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MARRIAGE IS KINDNESS.

(24) THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MARRIAGE IS KINDNESS. Bar none. My 25 Things really should’ve just read kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness, kindness. Nothing is hotter than kindness. Nothing is sexier. Nothing is more longed for or desperately needed. Nothing is more healing. Nothing is more of an opening to authenticity. Nothing is sweeter. Nothing is more loving. Nothing better motivates us to stick with the relationship. And so I will say again, THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MARRIAGE IS KINDNESS. Because when our humanity and magic and mess and madness is met with kindness, we know we truly are — finally — home.

(25) But a sense of humor is a very close second

Waving in the dark, friends,

 

 

 

P.S. For our anniversary, our beloved children gave us a list of “the 25 things mom and dad have taught us,” a few of which I’ll share here in order to inspire you. First, I’d like to point out their use of the word “the,” as in the 25 things mom and dad have taught us, making it clear there are only 25 things and not to get cocky about having taught them anything more.

Mom you taught me how to cook and not starve. (Please do note the implication that if I hadn’t taught him to feed himself, no one else was going to do it. 😂 I mean, accurate.)

You taught me how to care for one another.

How to drink whiskey. (You can hope with me that this one was written by one of the children who’s over 21. No promises, though.)

Sarcasim. (But not spelling.)

How to not shit on the floor. (Maybe you should try that with Nyx.) — I’ll be honest, this is obviously none of my doing. Everything in my background would indicate my kids would be floor shitters like their Mama. I assume Greg taught them this one. 

Mom you taught me how to swear even though I sometimes use it incorrectly. (True. I’m working on it.)

That it’s OK to be different.

Dad you taught me that I don’t need to buy everything I see.

You taught me how to follow the rules. (Again — OBVIOUSLY just Greg is responsible for this one.)

How to love everyone equally (or at least pretend.)

How to be strong, passionate, and crazy. 

Open arms wherever and whenever. 

How to be a role model, how to be a family, and how we want to be as amazing to our families as you are to us. 😭 (But my favorite part of this card is that two of my children signed their last name in case we weren’t totally sure which Aden or which Cai. 😂)

P.P.S. One of my very, very favorite things to do is hang out with members of our incredible, worldwide community and offer rest and respite from our regular lives. I would LOVE to have you join me. Our next retreat is in MARCH at the Oregon Coast — a PERFECT time for a break after the craziness of the holiday season.

{Also, more info soon on our July Food and Wine Retreat in ITALY!} 

Click here for general retreat information. Or, if you want to head straight to the registration pages, you can register via my farm website, CAIRNS FARM:

ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
11 comments
  1. Long time reader here! Love these tips!

  2. Sitting here at 32 years and nodding in agreement. The “divorce is not an option” was a phrase I used early on because it can be thrown as a projectile weapon in arguments when neither truly means it. But of course there ARE times when it needs to be on the table (as you so clearly wrote).
    Now please tell me more about Whiskey Wednesdays and why did I not know about this?!?

  3. If we could figure out #18 we’d be golden.

  4. Thank you, Beth! This was beautiful, meaningful, clever, and humorous.

  5. You know how sometimes when you go to weddings and they ask you to leave advice or words of wisdom to the newly married couple? I’m just going to make copies of this and cram it into those trendy little boxes 🙂

  6. Kindness… that’s the most important thing in everything, I think. If we always put kindness first, think what our world would be like. If all political decisions were made with kindness as the first consideration – kindness to our fellow humans, to our animals, our wildlife, our planet. You make me hopeful, Beth. And you make me believe that a better world is possible. Thank you.

  7. As someone who has literally said to their accountant husband “Let’s live in a yurt on the tundra” and my offered practical compromise of “Fine – it can be on an island.” this speaks an abundance of truth!!

  8. So well put. And Congrats!

  9. I wish this list was given to my 24 year old newly married self. Would have saved us so much time from the bs that we put ourselves through. Grateful that after 17 years together, we left all that behind and live more in the truth you so perfectly wrote. Thanks for the real truth of marriage.

  10. You, are the cleverest – thank you, Beth – I *love* these.xx

  11. Yes, yes, and double, triple, quadruple yes. To all of this.

    And since my husband and I have been married 26 years, may I add a 26? People say “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” To which I call BS. Love – and marriage – means having to say “I’m sorry” a lot. And, hopefully, meaning it – at least most of the time. (See your #5 regarding humans.)

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