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What we can learn from our parents' marriages

Maybe your mom and dad have a blissful bond, or maybe they divorced after years of silent struggle. The way they expressed their love for each other — or didn’t — throughout your childhood served as your first model for what marriage looks like. And good or bad, their marriage left an indelible impression, leading you to decide what behaviors and gestures you wanted to replicate in your own relationship.

“If your parents were happily married, you saw how two different people can somehow manage to live a life together,” says Scott Haltzman, M.D., author of "The Secrets of Happy Families." But if you grew up wondering why your parents couldn’t be happy together, that doesn’t mean you are doomed to a failed relationship.

“Many couples promise themselves that they’ll avoid all the mistakes their parents made, which can lead to dogged commitment,” Haltzman says. Here, nine couples open up about both the hard and the happy marital lessons their parents taught them.

“Marriage takes a lot of work”
Alisa: Two years ago, I was miserable in my marriage. Mark and I were first-time parents, and motherhood completely overwhelmed me.

Everything seemed to fall on me while Mark’s life really didn’t change. Meanwhile, I felt alone, depressed, and incredibly resentful. When it got to the point where I found myself lusting after other men and even daydreaming about Mark dying, I remembered what I’d seen in my own parent’s marriage: When I was 11, my mom and dad hit a rough spot, and my mother moved into the basement. But they never stopped going to counseling and talking through their issues. When things with Mark got bad, I remembered their perseverance. My parents taught me that marriage is hard work. I realized then that if my marriage was going to survive, Mark and I had to put in a lot more effort.

Mark: Looking back, I can see how my parents’ marriage affected the way I dealt with parenthood. My mom and dad focused all of their energy on their four kids. Growing up, we always did things as a family, and while I have lots of good memories, it was important for me to do things differently than they had. When I became a father, I still wanted to have my own life — to continue to keep up relationships with my friends. So I did these things regularly without realizing that Alisa felt saddled with the brunt of parenthood.

Alisa: I started reading lots of self-help books about improving marriage, and Mark and I began doing exercises on forgiveness and communication. I also started blogging (projecthappilyeverafter.com), and Mark would read every entry, no matter how brutally honest it was. It was my way of saying how I felt, just like my parents had done through their therapy sessions. It was important for me that Mark truly “got” me.

Mark: I was all for whatever it would take to get us in a better place. Unlike my mom and dad’s relationship, where the kids trumped everything else, I wanted our marriage to come first. We started talking about how we could better balance different parts of our lives. Today, we’re a much stronger couple. Alisa tells me that I’m a better listener and more sensitive to her feelings. We’re both happier — as people and as parents.

“Your parents’ marriage isn’t your marriage”
Lizz: I had been married for about a year and a half by the time my parents’ divorce was final. One parallel I noticed between their relationship and mine was our style of arguing:

If communication got hot between my parents, my dad would shut down, not wanting to argue. It drove my mom nuts because there was never any resolution. I would do the exact same thing to Matt. Also, seeing my mom and dad unhappy for so many years and expecting that one day they’d split, I expected that’s what would happen to me too. I wasn’t 100 percent real with Matt about my relationship fears, because I wanted to protect a part of myself for “when” we got divorced.

Matt: I’d get angry because I could tell that Lizz wasn’t totally letting her guard down with me, and we’d end up in an argument, then she’d go silent. Nothing would ever get resolved. Same thing happened with my parents: They always had trouble communicating with each other. Sometimes they wouldn’t speak to each other at all. That made for a lot of tension and repressed anger in our house growing up. I didn’t want the silent treatment to be a part of my marriage.

Lizz: During my mom and dad’s divorce, I realized just how much I was mirroring their relationship. I saw that just because Matt yelled or got angry, it didn’t mean we were headed for divorce. When I finally understood that, it got easier to identify those moments when I’d start to tune out in the heat of an argument, so I could stop myself. I finally felt that I could be totally honest with Matt. I could finally say, “I want to hear you out, but I need you to lower your voice,” without feeling like he was going to leave me as a result.

Matt: And when I felt that Lizz was finally listening to me, it made it much easier to stay cool and calm and put my feelings into words that were less heated and combative. We both knew that we wanted our marriage to be different from our parents. Getting over that communication hurdle set us on a path to make those changes.

“Speak intimately to each other”
My parents used to talk to each other late at night when I was a kid. These nightly conversations made me appreciate how important it is to be able to talk to your spouse. One of my favorite “talking times” with Phil is on Sunday morning. We cuddle on the couch and spend two to three hours just chatting and doing “whatever” under a quilt! —Carol O’Dell, 47

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“Speak kindly of each other”
My mom always told me that my father was smart, hardworking, and a quick learner. Her example of talking about my dad in a good light carried over in my marriage. Carol and I have always complimented each other in front of our three daughters. We don’t try to make our marriage look perfect, but we don’t berate each other either. —Phillip O’Dell, 51

“Show your children your love”
My parents always hugged and kissed each other in front of me. This showed me how crazy they were about each other, and it taught me how important it is for children to see what strong, positive, physical love looks like. Now our daughters watch Mark chase me around to catch me for a kiss. —Kari Lawry, 41

“Show your children your independence”
My dad was into hunting, and my mom had her own hobbies too. I learned the importance of having interests different from your spouse’s. Kari and I do a lot together, but like my father, I love to hunt. Kari won’t go anywhere she can’t wear strappy sandals, but that’s okay because we respect each other’s alone time. —Mark Lawry, 41

“Keep playing”
My mom and dad always joked around. My dad loved my mom, and she loved his sense of humor. Each time she left our house, he’d say, “Now get out and don’t come back!” We’d all laugh until it hurt. This taught me that playfulness is a vital part of marriage. I consider myself lucky to be with a man who always makes me laugh. —Audrey McClelland, 30

“Keep laughing”
My parents have been together for decades, and the laughter has never stopped. Their silliness showed me that nothing can be taken too seriously in a family. Audrey and I are the same way. We laugh at the same things, especially the chaos created by our four boys. There are nonstop wrestling matches and, of course, constant giggling. —Matthew McClelland, 34

Audrey and Matthew have been married for seven years. Audrey’s parents have been married for 32 years; Matthew’s have been married for 36 years.

Carol and Phillip have been married for 29 years. Carol’s parents had been married for 52 years when her dad died; Phillip’s divorced after 13 years of marriage.

Kari and Mark have been married for nine years. Kari’s parents have been married for 43 years; Mark’s have been married for 45 years.

Marriage Lessons

“Share sweet nicknames”
Even when my parents were upset with each other, they would always use some term of endearment, like honey or babe. It really rubbed off on me. Now, even when Andrew and I argue, I say something like, “Babe, you’re really starting to annoy me!” —Kristan Allen, 24

“Share the work and the fun”
My parents have run a family bed-and-breakfast for years. Watching them, I learned that it’s important to work together and feed off each other’s strengths, whether it’s working a business, maintaining a house, or even raising kids. In our marriage, Kristan and I share in the joy of home repairs. We also study tae kwon do together—and we’re both working hard for our black belts. —Andrew Allen, 31

Kristan and Andrew have been married for one year. Kristan’s parents have been married for 26 years, Andrew’s for 39 years.

“Take a team approach”
Before they divorced, my mom and stepdad rarely spent time together, and they didn’t have a united front. As a kid, I knew that every time my dad told me no, I could go to my mom for a yes. So in our marriage, John and I hang out a lot together. We even go to bed at the same time so we can spend more time with each other. We always decide on things together. —Tricia Goyer, 37

“Take one for the team”
Right now, my mom works outside the house and my dad stays home. Seeing how they reversed their jobs taught me to be okay with working around the house. Now, Tricia and I have flexible roles. We do whatever needs to be done — whether it’s professional work or housework — because no matter what the job is, we both benefit. —John Goyer, 41

Tricia and John have been married for 19 years. Tricia’s mom and stepdad divorced after 13 years of marriage; John’s parents have been married for 45 years.

“Put your marriage before your kids”
My parents always told me to put your marriage first and not let your children become the only priority. They said that the best gift you can give your kids is a happy relationship. Over the years, John and I have always made sure to stay close. When our daughter left for college last year, John and I were okay being alone. We’re still happy together. —Loree Wagner, 49

“Put your wife on a pedestal”
My dad always took care of my mom and did “gentlemanly” things for her. Even though Loree is very independent, I think she likes it when I open the door for her or send her flowers. Chivalrous gestures, no matter how old-school they seem, still have a place in a marriage. —John Schoonover, 49

Loree and John have been married for 26 years. Loree’s parents have been married for 50 years; John’s had been married for 51 years when his dad died.

“Treat your partner as a friend”
Joyce: Since I never knew my dad growing up, I learned from my mom that you don’t get strength from a marriage or a man. She was my single source and example of self-sufficiency and independence, and as I got older, being strong and self-reliant became a way of survival for me — even after I got married. After 10 years of marriage, I still have a difficult time letting go and relying on Uchenna.

Uchenna: Joyce and I share similar stories. Because my parents divorced when I was young, I didn’t have a textbook example of what a marriage is supposed to look like; I didn’t learn much about being in a committed relationship. Looking back, I see that my communication and conflict-resolution skills suffered a great deal from my lack of example. When you’re married and have a disagreement with your partner, you can’t just pick up your stuff and leave. You can’t walk out on your marriage without having tried everything to make it work. What I had to learn on my own is that communication is a big part of keeping our relationship solid.

Joyce: Both of us are still learning how a marriage works! I’m slowly starting to learn to lean on Uchenna more, but it’s difficult. It helps for me to think about all the times he has been there for me and had my best interests at heart. One example happened a few years ago, when we were on the show "The Amazing Race." If we hadn’t depended on each other, we wouldn’t have won the race. (Yes, we won!) Uchenna was there for me completely — and I needed him to be. Whenever I get into my I-don’t-need-a-man mode, I remind myself of that positive experience, how we worked so hard together and ultimately succeeded as a team.

Uchenna: Marriage is a lifelong process. While Joyce and I don’t profess to “have it down” by any stretch of the imagination, we’re both committed to pushing through the difficulties and being the best spouse and friend to each other that we possibly can be. That’s the one thing about marriage that we’ve both figured out.

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