Sarah and I just celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary. Not exactly a major milestone or anything, but we’re three kids into this thing and still extremely happy (tired…but happy). We also find ourselves in a season where we seem to have a bunch of younger people in our lives getting married, engaged, or becoming Instagram-official…love is in the air, I guess. And because of that, I find myself talking to a lot of guys asking the same question: how do you have an awesome marriage? Again, I’m only 13 years into this thing, so I’m far from an expert, but I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. And since this whole Late to the Game thing is about more than just hunting (it’s about helping us all become better men through hunting and the outdoors), I figured we should talk about it.
So, whether you’re a bunch of years into your own marriage, or still looking for that perfect someone, here are three essentials that have carried Sarah and I through even the toughest seasons of our life together…
Laugh Every Day and NEVER Stop Having Fun Together
Full disclosure, the second thing that I noticed about my wife on the night we met was that she was funny…like, laugh out loud, comes out of nowhere funny! The first thing I noticed? Well, I’m a dude, so before she said a word I was well aware that she was friggin’ beautiful! Anyway, it may not always come across on here, but laughter is my addiction. I’m the guy that cracks jokes throughout every meeting I’ve ever attended…I just can’t help it! I feel like every moment – with very few exceptions – is a chance for humor. I’m sure if I really dug into my psyche I’d discover it’s a deeply flawed coping mechanism for some childhood trauma or whatever, but who wants to deal with that? I’ll just keep laughing my way through life and take everyone within earshot with me. Wait, what are we talking about…back to the marriage stuff.
I knew I wanted to marry a funny woman because I wanted the rest of my life to be filled with fun and laughter. We both make each other laugh every single day…it’s one of our goals! And more than that, we find ways to have fun together in both little moments and big excursions. The little moments? Butt-slaps every time we pass by. Intentionally scaring the other person by hiding around a corner and jumping out at them. Binge-watching low-brow and hilarious shows (any other Bob’s Burgers fans out there?) The Big Stuff? Well, that certainly gets harder to do in some seasons of life (like now…when we have 3 kids between the ages of 5 and 10), but we make it work. For our 10th anniversary, I convinced Sarah to go backpacking with me. She probably wouldn’t call it the greatest overnight date we’ve ever had, but we had fun…15 miles of rugged, sweaty fun. We also make sure at least once a year (preferably more) we ditch the kids and get away somewhere. Even a stay-cation for a couple nights where we can eat whatever we want and not clean up after ourselves is a great recharge.
We also try to make sure dates don’t fall into the dinner and a movie rut. In fact, since we don’t keep the type of schedule or budget that makes a standing weekly date night a reality, we hardly ever go see a movie on a date. What we want most in those kid-free moments is good food and uninterrupted conversation. [Full disclosure: we DID go see John Wick 3 on our official 13th Anniversary date, but that was because…well…it was John Wick 3 and my wife is amazing!!! Sorry, I felt like I had to get that off my chest so I didn’t feel like I was lying to you the whole time.] Typically, though, we’ll go on a hike, go to the shooting range, drive around and look at houses or land and just talk and dream about the future. We can find almost anything fun as long as we’re out together and in the right mindset. It doesn’t matter what you do, go do something fun together. If you both have very different ideas of what constitutes fun, alternate who gets to choose the fun activity, and the person who didn’t choose it has to go into it with an open mind and a good attitude. Listen, I hate home décor stores as much as the next guy, but if I go into it determined to have fun, I’m sure to find some stuff to make fun of and we’ll both end up having a good time. I’ve also found a great deal of joy when we go grocery shopping together sneaking random items into the cart and seeing if we can get all the way to checkout before she discovers them…she hates it, and that’s what makes it fun!
Find a way to agree on the BIG stuff
Okay, this is a better piece of advice before you get married (while you’re still figuring out if you two are compatible), but you can still get it worked out if you’re already there…it might just take a bit. When I say “big stuff,” I’m talking about three major areas that study after study show are the primary causes of marital discord and divorce: faith, finances, and family.
Wherever you stand on the subject of faith, don’t just blow past this paragraph. Because, if you and your significant other have opposing views on the matter, it is going to create problems. Here’s why: what you believe about God will affect everything else in your life. Your values, your decisions, how you spend your money, how you parent your kids…all of that will be affected by your underlying beliefs. I’m not saying that you’ll make a conscious decision that “because I believe X, I am going to parent like Y.” I’m saying that faith is a foundational issue, and it will creep into everything no matter where you stand on the matter.
This is why spouses who try to “agree to disagree” – where she skips off to church every Sunday while he stays home watching NFL pre-game commentary – they always run into seemingly unrelated problems. So, if you find yourself married and on opposite sides of the faith-fence (that’s hard to say), it’s time to start some open, loving, judgment-free dialogue about the issue. Maybe you guys have decided you just can’t talk about it because it always turns into a fight (I get that…Sarah and I have had topics on the “do not discuss” list before). But, this one needs to be talked about – search for common ground, reach some compromises, you give a little…she gives a little. I’m not saying you’ll get up from the table totally on the same page, but at least some of the tension will have been dealt with and you can have some practical steps to take moving forward.
Okay, moving on…finances. This is probably the leading cause of marriage fights in America, and this is one that messed Sarah and me up for a long time. Early in our marriage, we made a lot of stupid decisions. They were usually made together (we weren’t just out shopping our brains out without telling each other), but we buried ourselves under a bunch of debt. Like most in this situation, we just didn’t have a plan. If money was in the account, of course we could go out to dinner. If we came up short at the end of the month, that’s what credit cards are for, right? Listen, I don’t need to Dave Ramsey you or anything right now (that’s right, I just used his name as a verb), but I will say that getting on the same page and having a plan has revolutionized our marriage in this area. We still have tough discussions sometimes, and there is still some tension when unexpected expenses arise or I’ve made too many afternoon runs to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee (it’s 500 yards from my office…I’m not made of stone!) But we sit down every month to plan out the month’s budget, then we agree to stick to it and re-evaluate at least once a week to make sure we’re on track. When I have major hunting purchases I want to make (which is all the time), we talk those out and work together to plan for where the money will come from. (have I mentioned my wife is amazing?) If you and your spouse find yourselves fighting about money all the time, seriously check out Dave Ramsey…it’ll change your life!
Finally…family. By that, I mostly mean how you’re going to parent your kids, but I had to say “family” to keep my 3 F-word thing going (I wanted to make it 4 F-words, but my wife said I couldn’t talk about that on the internet). Parenting is hard enough without also adding post-bed-time fights about how one spouse is trying to raise anarchists or the other one let them have cereal for dinner. This could probably be a whole post on its own, so in the interest of brevity, here are a couple principles we live by.
1) Always back your partner’s play in front of the kids. You know when you’re sitting at dinner and your wife decides that the way your child is sitting in his chair is absolutely a hill worth dying on that night, and so the two of them get into it? You’re thinking, “oh no, not this…it’s fine…do we really need to make this a thing tonight?” You can think that…but don’t say it! This is the time to step in and die on that hill with your wife. Back her play, engage in the situation, and get your kid sitting like a human being in the chair. LATER, after the kids are nowhere near you, gently have the conversation that you didn’t necessarily agree with how the situation was handled. This allows you to work through it and come to some sort of consensus about how you’ll handle it the next time your kid is sitting like an orangutan at the dinner table (you know, tomorrow), but it shows a united front to the children. Parenting is war…we can’t show weakness in front of the enemy!
2) Learn when to balance and when to defer. There is a delicate dance that takes place as two people parent children together where you can each help balance the other one out, but you also need to be sensitive to the pain-points of the other. For example, my wife (like most wives) is naturally predisposed to be way over-protective. She can’t help it – it’s how she’s wired. This is great because it keeps our kids from playing on the freeway or throwing fireballs at each other. However, if left unbalanced, it will keep our kids from taking calculated risks and growing up strong and resilient. It’s my job to balance out her over-protection by letting the kids ride their bikes to the park around the corner or walk a few hundred yards out in the desert just to explore. It’s her job to balance me out when I say, “sure buddy, I bet you could jump that janky old ramp somebody left there on your bike. The trick is to ride as fast as you can!” (If that example seems oddly specific, it’s because she happened to not be there to balance me out on that one, and it resulted in a broken arm).
Those are the balancing types of discussions. When it comes to deferring to your spouse, I mean to lean into whichever one of you is clearly most passionate about a particular issue. So, if you’re debating whether you should allow your kid to try out for a team, or you’re discussing possibly switching schools – if one person is relatively indifferent and one has some very clear convictions about it, we defer to the one who cares more. If you both have strong opinions that are opposing, that’s a separate issue and will take longer discussions. But, I have found that sometimes when your spouse has very strong feelings about something, there can be a knee-jerk reaction that feels like you’re supposed to balance in this situation. But, when I force myself to pause and consider if I actually have a strong opinion that opposes hers, often the answer is “no” and I could see merits to both sides of the decision. That’s when I just defer to her more passionate conviction…and she does the same for me when the roles are reversed. It’s a subtle nuance, but it took several stupid and unnecessary arguments about something one of us didn’t really care about for us to figure this out.
Keep Yourself Healthy
As much as a healthy marriage is built on each partner trying to meet the needs of the other, one of the best things you can do is make sure you keep yourself in a healthy place. Obviously, physical health can be a part of this as it dramatically impacts our mental and emotional well-being, but I’m talking about so much more than just hitting the gym. What do you need as an individual to maintain your mental and emotional health? And just as importantly: does your spouse know that about you?
I’ve written about this before, but that’s why hunting and the outdoors is such a huge part of my life. It’s not just the thrill of the hunt or the quality meat – it’s the fuel for my soul that I find out there in the field. Sarah knows and sees this – she knows I come back from a hunt (successful or not) a better man. I’m calmer, I’m refreshed, and I am a better person to be around. It’s why she fully supports my endeavors and is willing to be a “hunting widow” a few times a year…because she and the kids get a better husband and father out of the deal. If you are a hunter who always seems to butt heads with your wife about your hunting endeavors – like she just doesn’t get it or doesn’t see the good it does for you – have her get in touch with Sarah…seriously, she’ll back me on this one! Of course, that only works if you do, in fact, come back a better man. If you stagger in, dump your gear in the living room, and crash in a recliner, it might be a tougher sell. (But seriously, put your gear away within 48 hours…I’ve been told nothing pisses a wife off more than a pile of hunting gear sitting in the living room for days on end after you’ve already been gone for a week. A little tip from me to you.)
As for Sarah, I know she needs kid-free time, she needs to not be solely responsible for all housework, and she needs time to talk to and hang out with her parents. So, I do everything in my power to make every opportunity she has for those things possible. “Want to go to my parents’ this weekend?” Yup! “Can I go to my friend’s house and chat while you put the kids to bed and clean the kitchen?” Absolutely! She hates asking for things and won’t just up and do what she needs for herself on her own, so whenever the opportunity shows up, I push her in that direction.
The beauty in the system is that as we both do the things that refill us and make us healthier – even though they involve us being apart for a time – we come back together a better couple. We have more emotional reserves on tap to give to the other one, and we are just generally happier. This is something that can be hard to regiment or be extremely consistent with, but as soon as either of us starts exhibiting signs of not being in the healthiest place, we stop and find a way for that person to get a little recharge. Don’t neglect your own mental health for the sake of trying to meet all your spouse’s needs – it’s kind of the same principle as when the airline tells you to put on your own oxygen mask first so that you can then help your children – it sounds selfish, but it’s really best for everyone.
Don’t Give Up
As I said before, I’m only 13 years into this thing, so I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I also feel like I have a slightly unfair advantage because I really did convince an amazing woman to marry me, so most of the time I don’t feel like it takes all that much work for us to get along and be really happy together. At the same time, every marriage has its bumps and pitfalls, and we have been through some seriously dark times…some our own fault…some just the crap life can throw at you. But, these are a few things that have helped us stay married, stay happy, and work through the tough stuff. Hopefully there’s at least one little nugget in there that helps someone, whether you’re struggling in your marriage or still working on choosing your mate.
I’ll close with one of my favorite proverbs from the Bible. “He who finds a wife finds what is good, and receives favor from the Lord.” (Proverbs 18:22) Husbands, we have been entrusted with the most amazing and undeserved blessing in our wives. No matter how rocky things may get, let’s never forget that she is worth the fight – worth the work of fixing it – and let’s do what it takes to make the relationship thrive!
As part of our commitment to have fun together, we actually hunt as a couple when time and babysitters permit. Check out the video below to see how it goes when a husband and wife head out into the field together…