Thursday, May 23, 2013

Marriage advice (That I wish I'd gotten!)

Let me start by saying that I'm going to be very honest and very human right here. You're warned.

There was something I heard somewhere a long time ago (which means my mother's probably the one who said it):

"The key to keeping a man happy is a steak on the table and a clean kitchen floor."

I heard this when I was a kid, somewhere around ten. I'm sure I heard it again later. But the hard thing about condensing things into one sentence is that people like me go "oh, that's nice" and move on, not having understood what is being said. I wish someone had stopped me for five minutes when I got married and explained it to me. So I'm going to explain it to you:

1) A clean house changes everything.

This isn't a picture of my space, but it might as well be. 
I have always hated cleaning. My parents, my siblings, my childhood and high school friends, just about anyone can tell you that I have always hated cleaning. When I first got together with my husband this wasn't a problem. I was renting one bedroom and one bathroom in his house and if he got bothered that the space wasn't clean all he had to do was shut the door and remind himself that I was paying for the space, it was my space, and if I wanted to live in mess it was my decision. When we knew we were going to get married, the story changed. At that point he was looking at living with me forever. He wanted to marry me, and divorce
my mess.

Wanting to be a good wife and make my husband happy, I tried. Sort of. What I tried to do was keep the house clean enough that he wouldn't be unhappy enough to complain about it, and still be as lazy as possible. I started cleaning like some people diet. I'd let the mess accumulate until even I was uncomfortable, and then I'd take a day or two to completely deep-clean all of it. I'd feel accomplished, comment on how much I love the house being clean (because I do), and then go back to sitting on the couch and not cleaning up after myself. It became a cycle that caused problems in our relationship. My wonderful (and persevering) husband hates living in mess and I have the astounding ability to be apathetic to almost anything, and so we would fight.

For two and a half years this has gone on. He would be patient and hope (and probably pray) that I would start caring enough to clean. I would ignore the mess until there were no more forks - which is saying something, since we have about 4 silverware sets' worth of forks. He would finally be upset enough about my non-caring to mention something ("Hey honey, those dishes have been sitting there for 3 days.") and then I would get defensive - because I knew I was guilty - and yell.

Not a good cycle.

What I didn't realize is just how much having a messy house was affecting everything else. I could easily justify in my mind that we were fighting because he was very critical, or expected an unreasonable level of perfection from me, and then I could dismiss the whole thing so I didn't have to feel guilty about it. This meant that I never took the time to evaluate why I was in a constant state of depression, grumpy, and sometimes downright angry over nothing. Nothing felt possible, everything was an insult, and the world was out to get me.

With our second anniversary coming up, I've gotten really reflective. I've spent the past three(ish) months thinking really hard about how our marriage has been so far, and how I want it to be three, five, fifty years down the road. I've thought about what I'd like to see change, and what I can do to change it, and what's really important to me. I've come to a very important conclusion:

I associate happiness, success, and peace with having a clean house. Every time I think about my happiest self, my most successful self, my most at peace self, that self has a clean house.

I also associate my happiest, most successful, most at peace self with other things, like spending lots of time with my husband and having money to spare. Well, I can't have lots of time with my husband (at least not the kind that I want) if we're always fighting about the house not being clean. And I can't have money to spare if my husband's energy and my attitude are always being wasted on fighting about the house not being clean.

So I sat myself down, and I looked at the options.

1) I could hire a housekeeper. There's tons of maid services out here, and there's always some college student or single mom who is looking for a way to pick up some extra money, so it's not unreasonable to think that I could hire someone to take care of cleaning the house for me.

Except for this thing my parents raised me with called work ethic, that tells me that I haven't earned the right to have a housekeeper yet.

2) I could just develop some new habits, stop being so stubborn and lazy, and clean my own house.

3) I could sit on my butt and continue to complain about the house not being clean, fight with my husband about whether I should be keeping the house clean, and wish that we had a nicer house.

I went with option 2. I've been working really hard on my self-development for the past few months and the first area that requires attention - because the others tend to fall in line behind it - is self discipline. Where better to practice that than on cleaning up?

So for the past few months I've been developing habits. I started in the kitchen, with making sure to do dishes and wash the counters every day. Then I added the living room, first by tidying the tables on a regular basis and getting dirty dishes and garbage into their appropriate places, second by actually cleaning the tables and vacuuming the floor. Our bedroom was added third, and I think you get the gist of this. Now keeping the whole house clean is just a habit.

This isn't to say that I'm perfect. As I type this I have last night's dishes in the sink waiting to be washed, and a load of laundry waiting to be folded. I'm sure I still have a long way to go and at this time next year I'll probably look back on this and think "I can't believe I thought THAT was an accomplishment!"

My point is that it feels good. My house is clean, and sure it takes a little extra concentration to remember to take my dish all the way to the sink and wash it, but I feel so much better. My general energy level has increased, my sense of peace is higher, my feelings of being overwhelmed and rushed are gone, and anything feels possible, even if it's going to be difficult.

Unexpected guests? As long as I'm wearing clothes it's no problem!
Four kids by 25? Sure!
Dump the extra person living inside my skin? Absolutely!

All of the problems that just a few months - truthfully, even a few weeks - ago plagued me and kept me tossing and turning at night are suddenly challenges instead of problems. They're opportunities for growth instead of road blocks. And why? Because I changed my attitude and cleaned my home.

Oh, and did I mention that my husband feels more appreciated too? Go figure!

At this point I'm sure you've forgotten there was even a second part to this. There was, and here it is:

2) There's a lot to be said for a good meal.

My patient, persevering, saint of a husband has been eating my steak for three years.

For three years he's been eating a serving of steak that's been cooked for at least an hour.


Why? Because I didn't know any better! Because I had no clue that there's a difference between steak cooked on a barbeque and steak cooked in a kitchen. Because I thought that the way steak came out at restaurants was due to some sort of special equipment. Because I had no idea how to cook and didn't bother to *actually* find out.

For three years.

The other day, I started wondering why a pound of steak and a one pound pot roast took the same amount of time to cook. So I googled it.

As it turns out, it doesn't.

As it turns out, there's actually a little bit of math that goes into cooking steak. You figure the thickness of the steak and how well done you want it and then you time it very carefully to make sure that you get it right.

And guess what?


Really and truly, steak that's been cooked properly tastes wonderful. It's juicy, it's delicious, and I finally understand why people like steak so much.

My saint of a husband has been eating WAY overdone steak for three years. He looks forward to dinner a lot more now that I've figured it out! That means that when I put his plate in front of him, I get a smile and a thank you instead of a sigh - Which, I must say, has done absolute wonders for my attitude about cooking.

Nobody gave me these pieces of advice, at least not in words I could understand. We've talked to dozens of couples who have been married for decades and more. We've gotten marriage advice from all of them; heard everything from tips about date night to the importance of communication to reminders not to forget about each other when kids come along. But never once has anyone looked at me and said "Honey, keep the house clean and learn how to cook." Not even once!

I imagine the reason for this is simple and very valid. When you've been married for 20 or 30 years, you've dealt with bigger stuff. Arguing about the dishes is small potatoes when compared to the death of a loved one, raising teenagers, or the first time you're genuinely not sure if that kid of yours is safe. Whether the floor has been vacuumed is not nearly as important as the fight against cancer, or a bankruptcy. So these wonderful and wise people who have been married for so long give us advice that I know I will use. And in the meantime, I'm still here having just now figured out that it's actually not that big a deal to keep the house clean.

So, having been married for two years, I have advice to give. It's advice that I wish someone would have given me when I got married. And in 18 years, I'll probably have forgotten all about it in favor of advice about bigger, more important issues.

To wives:
First, learn how to clean the house. If you both work and need to cooperate and work together to make this happen, that's fine. But learn how to keep a clean house. It will take so much stress off your shoulders and his, and this will make your marriage happier faster.
Second, take a cooking class. Even if you think you know already, go find someone who really knows. Learn to learn, learn to accept criticism so you can learn faster, and learn to cook.

Here's to many more years of clean homes, delicious steak, and many more lessons learned.