Aug. 22, 2013 at 2:36 PM ET
Last week was my 10th wedding anniversary. Ten years and a few pounds ago, my husband and I stood before our loved ones and promised to love, honor, cherish and protect. I had no idea we’d go on to become parents to a daughter and a son, buy and sell three homes, move to another country—and struggle with every single one of those vows. But even though our marriage is not perfect, I would do it again in a second.
Looking back on the last decade, I’ve learned so much about how to keep a relationship going and how easily it can be undermined. I don’t practice all of the below all the time or even most of the time (my husband is nodding in agreement), yet I believe it’s all worth striving for, even if you never quite get there.
1. Be on each other’s side no matter what. There’s no way someone you share a bathroom with isn’t going to get on your last nerve sometimes, but resist the urge to throw each other under the bus in front of other people. In order for real trust to grow, you need to know there’s someone in the world who always has your back, even at your most annoying or neurotic. This us-against-the-world mentality doesn’t mean you can never tell your spouse you think he’s wrong, but you can make sure you always do it in private, and always with kindness and the benefit of the doubt.
2. Forget the ledger. I have a terrible habit of keeping track of who’s doing more around the house (of course, me) and who’s owed a break from the little people (again, me. See? I’m terrible). Yet keeping mental track of the parenting ledger is a fool’s errand. First of all, in the big messy tally of life, can you ever really get to equal? We tell our kids all the time that things aren’t always equal and it’s true. Also, the martyr mindset taints every interaction with your spouse and can keep you from noticing the stuff he is doing, which is probably more than you think.
3. Marriage can make you feel like a bad person. If you’re like me, before you got married (and before you had kids, for that matter), you thought you pretty much had it all together. But having someone stuck with you means you can’t always be on your best behavior, and you will be astounded at your own pettiness and impatience. It’s grueling work, marriage, but it also forces you to evolve as a person in ways you’ve never been challenged to before. It might feel bad to be so acutely aware of your shortcomings, but you’re a better person for working on them.
4. Treat your husband like your child. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying use baby talk or give him time-outs, even if he leaves his coffee cup on the dresser every.single.day. What I mean is that we all want the good things we do to be noticed, and that’s why positive reinforcement works. Don’t you find your kids cooperate so much better when you catch them doing something right rather than nagging them for something they did wrong? When someone believes in the best version of you, you up your game.
5. Boring is okay. My husband and I used to go out all the time, travel to amazing places and socialize with a wide circle of interesting people. Now we pass out on the sofa at 9 p.m. It’s important to dabble outside your comfort zone, for your own as well as your partner’s happiness, but there’s something to be said for comforting routines and low drama. We'll have time to shake things up once the kids are older, but for now, raising kids provides plenty of ups and downs.
6. Don’t let your husband become something on your to-do list. I never quite understand people who say they put their spouse before their kids. I’m not offended, just baffled. How exactly do you put more focus on your spouse when butts need to be wiped, scary dreams cuddled away and healthy meals prepared? When you have so much to do, it’s easy to let even the formerly fun stuff become another chore. Nookie with hubs? Check! Ask about his day? Check! But you must fight tooth and nail to keep that from happening. Take a deep breath, clear your mind, and think of each other as a respite from all the Stuff That Needs Doing.
7. Laugh at yourself. I find that laughter is the balm that can unstick most conflicts. Being vulnerable enough to laugh at yourself leads to a special kind of intimacy. After all, who can be mad at a guy who just learned what twerking is and is trying it out on you while you load the dishwasher?
8. Don’t take things out on each other. Last year we moved to my husband’s hometown of Toronto. It’s been a long, tough year of adjustment, big expenses and red tape, and I find myself angry sometimes. Guess who I sometimes want to blame, despite the fact that this was a completely mutual decision? One day I actually convinced myself he was a jerk for being Canadian. But fortunately, I realize (now) that my anger at the world or anger at myself should not land on his doorstep. It’s up to me to work it out, not him.
9. Turn off the TV. When I’ve had a long, exhausting day, and my mind is going 90 mph, the fastest way to zen is checking out with the boob tube. Sure, my husband and I love us some Abu Nazir, but remember: after the kids go to bed is prime time for long-form adult conversation, not just trading details about who needs to go where when. It’s okay to zone out in front of the TV every now and then, but don’t waste the opportunity to just sit and talk sometimes.
10. Keep working at it (especially if you have kids). The gifts you get from having children are as profound as the ones you gain from marriage. But are kids compatible with your relationship? To be honest, I’m not sure. I can tell you I love parts of my husband I didn’t even know existed pre-kids, like when my daughter buries her head in his shoulder or my son kisses him right on the lips. But kids do a number on your energy and steal the majority of your time, which means sometimes your partner is left with the dregs.
You have to work hard on your marriage to survive kids, staying interested enough in each other to click when it’s just the two of you again. If you can find a way to hang on to being both a spouse and a parent, without totally sucking at either, well, I call that a success.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.