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    Wednesday, September 06, 2006

    Teresa Presents "A Romance Writer's Guide to a Happy Marriage"

    I know what you're expecting. A lot of suggestions that contain the words "moon", "june" and "croon" along with instructions for sprinkling fresh rose petals on your sheets and taking long walks on a moonlit beach. But having been married 22 years now (Yes, I live in Kentucky. I COULD have married when I was 12 just like I COULD have written my first book when I was 5.), I'd like to give you some more practical advice. Whether you've been married 3 years, 33 years, or have just spotted the guy you think you'd like to marry sitting in front of you in your freshman English class, I hope you can put these tips to good use.

    1) Lower your expectations and accept responsibility for your own happiness. This may very well be the key to happiness in ALL things in your life. How many times have we wailed, "He/My Job/My cat just doesn't make me happy!" Well, guess what? It's not anyone else's responsibility to make you happy. You're not perfect and neither is he. But if you can learn to embrace his flaws and teach him to find yours endearing ("She snores like a freight train. Isn't that adorable?"), then happiness will be within your grasp.

    2) When you first get married, try to put a 100 miles and at least one river between you and both of your families. This isn't always possible but if it is, it will give you a chance to establish your identity as a couple and a "family" without well-meaning interference from either set of in-laws. It also helps you learn to depend on each other instead of running home to mom and dad whenever you have an emotional or physical need to fulfill.

    3) Practice the 3 C's--caring, commitment, compromise. Without these 3 qualities, it's difficult to have any sort of successful relationship. My husband and I learned a lesson about commitment the very first year of our marriage. (You'll never have worse or stupider fights than your first year of marriage! We once threw our Precious Moments wedding cake topper into the garbage can to "symbolize the destruction of our marriage".) We were having one of those utterly ridiculous fights when one of us tossed out the dreaded "D" word. It scared us both so badly that we vowed to never again speak of divorce, no matter how bitter the disagreement. If you know you're committed to working through every problem that arises, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Of course there are special dispensations for infidelity, abuse or other transgressions of trust.)

    4) Never stop dating. Ah, this is where the rose petals and moonlit walks on the beach come in! I know it can be hectic if you're both working and there are small children and not a lot of money, but a simple Friday night movie or dinner date (even if it's 5 for $5 night at Arby's!) can help to remind you of why you fell in love in the first place. There's nothing more painful than two people with empty nest syndrome who suddenly realize they've become strangers over the past 20 years.

    5) Make your kids the spokes of your marriage, not the hub. If you think of your marriage as a giant wheel, picture you and your husband at the center of the wheel with the kids revolving around you. There's no greater gift you can give your children than two parents who love and respect each other.

    6) Never stop laughing either with each other...or at each other. This is why it's so important to marry a man with a sense of humor. Marriage can be great fun, especially when you're married to your best friend. I still giggle when I remember how my husband forgot to reverse the blade on his beard trimmer and accidentally shaved off half of his eyebrow. (It wasn't the mishap that was so funny, but his reaction--"Don't look at me! I'm hideous!" You'd have thought he was the Elephant Man!)

    7) Ask for help when you need it. This is a tough one for men. It's usually a lot harder for them to commit to seeing a counselor without coercion or threats. (Don't be ashamed to use either!) The common mantra is "it takes two to improve a relationship" but the truth is that we each have tremendous personal power to effect change so don't be afraid to seek help for yourself if he goes all caveman on you.

    8) Be aware that you can still get "crushes" after you get married. There should be a red flag next to this tip. The trick is to recognize the difference between "infatuation" and "abiding love". My heart still lights up every time my husband walks into a room but it's very easy to believe that once the initial "sparkle" of your first attraction deepens to a glimmer that you've "fallen out of love" or "grown apart", which can make you prey to the attentions of that cute guy in your office. If this were true, we'd all have to change mates every 6 months just to keep the adolescent thrill alive. If you find yourself experiencing a "crush" that seems irresistible, then be ruthless about removing yourself from the situation, even if that means changing jobs. I can promise you that 6 months down the road (about the time you'd start noticing your crush's back hair and his annoying tendency of talking through his nose), you'll be glad you did!

    9) Never take each other for granted. One of the fundamental tenets of cognitive therapy is that "feeling follows action", also known as "fake it 'til you make it". My husband never goes off to work without a little note tucked in his lunch that says, "I love you" or "You're my hero" or "You're my forever love." Not a day goes by that he doesn't send me an e-mail that simply says, "I love you" or "I missed you". Sometimes we tend to treat strangers with more kindness and courtesy than we treat those who share our homes and our lives.

    10) And along those same lines, Recognize and cultivate romance in the small things. I'll never forget an Ann Landers letter I once read. A woman was writing to tell Ann her husband was never "overly affectionate". He didn't reach out for spontaneous hugs or hold her hand in public or say "I love you" with any regularity. But he made sure her car had regular tune-ups and every single week without fail, he brought her a bag of her favorite candy. It wasn't until after 35 years of marriage and his death that she realized that every time he handed her that bag of candy, he was saying, "I love you." I thought of this at the Star Trek convention a couple of weeks ago when I was sitting in a cold, drafty convention hall and my husband showed up with two things--my sweater and a bag of dark chocolate M&M's. I just smiled up at him and said, "I love you, too."