Whether you've been dating your significant other for a few months or have been married now for several years, one thing probably rings true: You continue to learn more about your partner every day. While relationships, and marriages especially, are never easy, it's the small, daily challenges that teach us so much about what it takes to make it long-term. These challenges will change over time, especially as you and your husband or wife enter new stages of life, like becoming homeowners, getting pregnant, raising children, and dealing with the many ups, downs, and curveballs life will undoubtedly throw at you. The mark of a successful marriage, according to those who've worked hard and been lucky enough to achieve one, is constantly working to better their relationship and making their love a priority.
For Francine DiFilippo Kent, who's been married to her husband for 32 years, the most important truth she's learned in marriage is that the work that goes into it will not be a 50/50 split. In other words, pulling half the weight is sometimes not enough—sometimes, one party even has to give 150 percent to the relationship and the responsibilities of family and the household. "I've seen people do the transactional, 'You do this and I'll do that,' or 'It's my turn to put my career first,' type of thing," Francine says. "Sometimes you get sick or just aren't up to what has to be done for other reasons." In her experience, an attitude of "tit for tat" often makes for a very contentious marriage. "If you want to be happy, trust that it all evens out eventually, or maybe not, but it's okay," she says.
Once children are part of your life, the most important bit of advice that Dana Cutler, who's been married to her husband, Keith, for 29 years, can give is to be selfish with your relationship. "Your kids are always part of your life, but they eventually grow up to lead their own lives," she says. "It is easier to let them make their way in the world if you maintain a life outside of them—otherwise, you may find yourself trying to control them and stay front and center in their lives in a way that is not healthy for them or you." Focusing on having a meaningful and rich life as a couple helped the Cutlers create a solid foundation that they could rely on as they moved into the "empty nest" chapter of their lives.
While Keith Cutler agrees that not losing your marriage in the middle of raising a family is important, he also urges the importance of making the internal decision to be "all in." "Your behavior should not be based on how your spouse acts or what he or she does, but on your decision to be 'all in' regardless of what he or she does," he explains. "If both spouses bring that type of attitude, then forgiveness is easier and grace can be extended one to the other—in other words, embracing the sentiment that 'how deeply I love you and do for you is not based on what you do for me, but strictly on my love for you.'" Of course, he points out that this is hard to do when your spouse is being difficult, but you should realize that the next time you're being awful, the same grace and forgiveness will be extended to you.
Diane Hoffmaster might not have known this when she married her husband 21 years ago, but has since learned that marriage is about so much more than love. "Love is a beautiful thing, but without shared goals, friendship, and a whole lot of communication, the chances of a marriage succeeding are slim," she says. She also urges the importance of marriage counseling, which she says is the best thing she and her husband did before they actually got married. "We discussed life goals, our ideas on raising children, and even how we typically react to stressful situations," she says. "We knew we loved each other, but we learned what it would take to keep our marriage strong even after a few decades had passed and those happy little flutters of love had become muted—which is much more than love."
And although most of us recite the words "in sickness and in health" during our vows, we don't anticipate this happening for several decades down the line, if ever at all. For Christine Egan, this happened 14 years into her marriage when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although she ultimately did the cancer treatments, she and her husband acted as a team—something she will forever be grateful for. "My husband, Frank, was the one who helped me heal from the invisible scars cancer left behind," she says. "He accepted and loved my post-cancer body immediately, and without that, I would have never fully recovered." Her takeaway for future married couples is to appreciate your health and the time you have to enjoy it together.
Adam Cole and his wife have been lucky enough to avoid serious illness during their 20-year-long marriage, but they have had their share of ups and downs. "I used to expect my wife to take care of me in the way that I wanted to be taken care of, and I took care of her in the way that I thought she needed to be taken care of. Over the years, I've come to learn to appreciate the ways she takes care of me, rather than try to manipulate her to do it my way," he says. "I've also come to discover what she actually needs from me, and to try to give that to her." His advice to young couples is to let each other be and do what feels natural unless it's seriously getting in the way of your relationship—you may come to find that he or she is taking care of you in an even better way than you could have ever imagined or hoped for.