Design Principles for Marriage
Seth and I are celebrating 9 years of marriage today, 10 years of dating this month. Here are a few things we’ve learned…
People often ask how we decided to get married so young and after only one year of mostly long-distance dating. (Seth asked me out after I finished my sophomore year at Ohio State and then left for grad school at Berkeley a month later.) I like to respond by sharing a few of the realizations that first led us to decide to say “I will love you all my life” (despite the limited and imperfect knowledge of each other we had at the time) and have continued to provide the foundation for our marriage since.
We came up with these “guiding principles” for our marriage over the course of many late night phone calls, in which misunderstandings erupted, questions were pondered and major life decisions were made. And to this day, we still reference these principles whenever such occasions arise. While they aren’t really “design principles,” in a similar fashion to the guiding criteria I like to encourage all startups and companies to come up, these mantras gave us a common and quotable frame of reference when it came to facing decisions, questions and misunderstandings together.
For all of my friends who are soon-to-be-married and for those who are wondering if they’ll ever find the perfect person, I hope these guiding principles might help you as much as they’ve helped us.
It’s about commitment, not compatibility.
It’s not about finding the perfect person, it’s about being perfectly committed.
When do you know someone is The One? We stumbled upon the answer to this question when we realized that it’s about commiting to love and stick with someone, even if the day after you marry that person, they’re hit by a car and become a parapalegic. Most people probably wouldn’t be so ignoble as to break off a marriage in the event of such a tragedy, but many are willing to do so because interests have diverged or they’re no longer “compatible.” But because we were in our 20s, we knew that we had no idea who or where the other person might be in 10 years, and that compatibility would thus be a shaky foundation. Instead, we decided that when we could say, “I love you” and mean “I will love you all my life, come what may” then we’d be ready for marriage. (We decided not to say, “I love you” until it could mean that.) That said, Seth ultimately realized he could never make such a promise as an imperfect human being… and on September 2003, he added, “I love you, and by the grace of God, I’ll love you all my life.” (And thus I ran to my parents’ room and told them, “Guess what? Seth and I are getting married!”)
Assume the best.
Love means interpreting things in the favor of the one loved. It means giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, even when they don’t deserve it.
Misinterpretations are the root of all relationship evils, and no principle has been more critical to our marriage success than this one. If Seth is feeling quiet and not reacting to something I’m telling him, I could interpret his silence as anger or indifference… or I could assume the best and give him the benefit of the doubt. If Seth says, “Maybe we should go running today,” I could interpret it as implying that I’m fat… or I could pause and ask, “Does he really mean that? And even if it he did, can I give him the benefit of the doubt out of love?” While neither of us follow this guideline perfectly, taking a moment to pause and assume the best before erupting into a cloud of bitterness has steered us clear of many storms. I’ve seen marriages get to a point where everything a person says is seen through a lens of suspicion, to the point where one person can’t say, “Would you like a cookie?” without the other person feeling offended. If we could all take a moment to assume the best and let grace cover even truly malicious intent, so much offense could be avoided.
Speak your unspoken rules.
Interpreting things in the favor of the other person can get you far; acknowledging and appreciating the intent behind key differences can get you even farther.
Even though Seth and I come from the same part of the country, we quickly realized that we each grew up with a very different set of unspoken rules. For example, in my family, it’s acceptable to say something like, “Hey Sam, while you’re up, could you get me a glass of water?” While my sister might be annoyed because she has to go all the way upstairs and get it, she’ll probably do it, because she knows that someone else would do the same for her. In Seth’s family, on the other hand, not imposing on other people is highly valued, and such a request could easily be misinterpreted as rude (and would likely generate a response of, “You have legs, get it yourself”). Our natural inclination is to assume that our rules are the “right” rules and to interpret the others’ behavior as rude or even malicious. But as we’ve taken the time to make these rules explicit (even writing them down together at one point), we’ve come to appreciate where the other person is coming from and realize that not all rules are moral matters.
Ten years ago, when we were contemplating marriage, people liked to warn us about how marriage is a lot harder than you think. Today, people often ask how we could not only live in a 460-square foot apartment for six years but spend every day at work together, too. I’d like to think that these guiding principles have been a large part of it—that we were fortunate to recognize these things early on and remind ourselves of them regularly. But I also know that Seth was on to something back in September 2003 when he first said, “I love you.” That committing to love a person for life, giving them the benefit of the doubt even when they don’t deserve it and laying down your rules and rights takes more than I could ever promise in my own strength.
Thus, on this June 20, 2013, I can only say back to Seth, “I love you. By the grace of God, I love you, and I will love you all my life.”