On January 5th, 2002 I started down the journey of marriage. 16 years later, so much has changed, but one thing has not. I am still as happy today as I was on January 5th.
 
Getting married, staying married and having a happy marriage three very different things. For me, a successful marriage is a happy one. But happiness doesn’t just happen, it takes effort.
 
While I know I still have a lot to learn, I’ve discovered ten things to help create a happy marriage. A lot of these things may sound small, but remember that marriage is like an investment. Make small deposits over time and the payoff is enormous. Stop, or worse, keep making withdrawals and before long there won’t be anything left.

1. Laugh, a lot

I don’t know if laughter is the ‘best’ medicine, but it can cure a lot. Science has shown that laughter reduces anxiety, tension, stress and improves your mood. It’s hard to be happy when you’re angry or stressed out.
 
No matter what is going on a little laughter can change a situation in a heartbeat. Even if things are terrific, laughter has a way of bringing people together. This isn’t me saying this, this is science!
 
Making each other laugh might be as important as kissing each other good night. By the way, did you hear the one about…

2. Say I’m sorry, forgive and forget

“The first to apologize is the bravest. The first to forgive is the strongest. The first to forget is the happiest.” -Unknown
 
Being upset or angry eats away at any relationship. There is only one answer when it comes to this – say sorry, be sorry and forgive.
 
Grudges are like weeds. Once rooted they grow faster than the plants you want, and soon start to spread. One day they’ve spread so much that they choke the plants you really care about.
 
Don’t let weeds take hold in a marriage. Snuff them out early and often.

3. Be surprised

Expectations are imaginary, we conjure them up in our mind based on some fantasy. Then we project these onto others, especially our spouse. This is dangerous.
 
In business I’ve always heard that I should set expectations low and then exceed them. Given the choice, which we all have, it’s always best to surprise vs. disappoint.
 
I first learned this working as a greeter at TGI Fridays. People would come up and ask “how long for a table.” Whatever I thought to be true, I would give them that number + 10-15 minutes. If it was a 15 minute wait, I would tell them 25-30 minutes. When I called them at 15 minutes they were always happy and grateful.
 
Now imagine the opposite situation. If I were to tell them 15 minutes and call them at 30, they would sit down at their table angry and frustrated. The simple act of setting expectations low, leads to more happiness.
 
This process is the same in marriage. When you set high expectations for your spouse, it can lead to disappointment. Start with lower expectations and life will be full of happy surprises. This isn’t always easy, but it always works.

4. Be flexible

Life changes, people change and the world changes. Change is inevitable. There is no way to stop it. The best we can do is roll with what life brings.
 
Change can bring disappointments or it can bring joy. In either case, how we react is a choice. Do we dwell on what we can’t change or embrace life and move forward. One path leads to a happy marriage and the other leads to a black hole.

5. Talk and listen

We live in a world of constant distractions. Worse yet, our electronic leashes are teaching us to communicate through a screen.
 
In marriage nothing can beat sitting down face-to-face to have a conversation. That means listening to what the other person is saying and really trying to understand. It means sharing how you might be feeling. The goal is to understand the other person, not to win an argument.

6. Work as a team

“Love is a partnership of two unique people who bring out the very best in each other, and who know that even though they are wonderful as individuals, they are even better together.” -Barbara Cage
 
I know one thing for sure. I am better because of your mother. We each have our strengths and weaknesses, but together we are a powerful force. No matter what we face, when we work as a team, life is easier and happier.

7. Find new adventures

When you share new experiences with someone it helps deepen the relationship. I’m happy to say that I have countless moments like this from the last 20 years.
 
Early on in our relationship I remember renting a car to go off and find the Secret Beach in Kauai. To get there you needed to find a small road through some farmland. Once we tracked down the road we started heading towards the water. The problem was the road was covered with water.
 
There was no way of knowing how deep the water was, but we pressed on. At any moment it seemed like we would get stuck. After a very stressful drive, we pulled into a clearing. A short walk later and we found what we were searching for.
Secret Beach
 
Secret Beach felt like going back in time. It was an amazing sight. Even better, we were the only ones there. Neither of us will forget that adventure.
 
Of course not all adventures have to be this big. The little ones that happen every day can bring just as much happiness. In the words of Robert Brault, “Enjoy the little things in life… For one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.”

8. Don’t be “fresh”

Fresh, snarky, mean or short, they all mean the same thing. Whenever your Mom or I say something like this, the other will immediately say “that was fresh.”
 
By saying this funny little phrase, it allows us to address things immediately. It only takes a few seconds and it’s never confrontational. When I hear it, I know I crossed a line and I’m quick to apologize. After that it’s over.
 
The alternative is that these comments start to build, and one or both of us could get upset. Then we stew on it for an hour or a day. Saying “that was fresh” or even just “fresh” helps stop the negative spiral before it starts.

9. Change yourself

“Once we figured out that we could not change each other, we became free to celebrate ourselves as we are.” Dean Rutherford
 
It’s impossible to change someone else. The only way a person can change is if they want to change. In marriage, it’s easy to imagine all the ways your spouse could be different. Spend too much time thinking about this and you will miss all the great things they are.
 
Sometimes, that feeling for change is overwhelming. When it comes, I try to remind myself that if I want things to be different, the only person I should focus on is myself. After all, I’m the only person I can change.

10. Be committed

I said these words when we got married. “I, Chad, take you, Jamie, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love and honor you all the days of my life.”
 
This was a commitment. A commitment is not a feeling, it’s a choice. It doesn’t mean it will always be easy, but it will always be important.
 
Being committed means being proactive. I can’t sit by and hope things turn out the way I want them to. I need to play an active part in living up to this commitment, no matter what.

Summary

Marriage has brought me more happiness and joy than I could ever imagine. Like all things in life, I’ve learned that I get out what I put in. I also know I have more to learn. If I can remember the lessons above and get a little better each day our marriage will be happy and strong.
 
This post is part of a series of letters to my kids. My goal is to reflect on and capture as many life lessons as possible. Here is the current list I am working from.