Yesterday, Matt had balloons and five pounds of chocolate covered strawberries delivered to the nurses in the ICU for nurses week. That is a very Matt thing to do. Matt is an excellent gift giver. He always has been. Coworkers made comments like “you have such a sweet husband!”

I do have a pretty great husband, but thinking about it reminded me of when I really had to stretch to appreciate him at all. In the beginning of our marriage, we let the differences between us stir up a fair amount of resentment, and each of the things that makes us opposites drove another wedge between us. Then, very slowly, I discovered the keys to a happy marriage.

They’re not earth-shattering secrets, these keys to a happy marriage. And they frankly apply to most relationships in life. So here they are—my keys to a happy marriage: accept the things you don’t love, celebrate the things you do, and meet your partner where they are. It’s actually as simple as that, but it can take a long time to accept them when you want someone to be a very different version of themselves.

People don’t change

I’ll give you a second to mull that over. People don’t change. At least not the way you think that they will. If you believe they will, or at least anytime soon, you are setting up yourself (not them) for disappointment, and potentially disaster. If you come to discover that you are “no longer in love” with your partner because they aren’t who you thought they were, or because you don’t want the same things out of life, and you want to turn things around, this is one of the first things you have to come to terms with. No one changes, fundamentally, from being nagged at or told that their way of doing things/thinking/being is wrong. Because attempting to force change breeds resentment, and it doesn’t change the person at their core. Even if they appear to change, all that resentment will burst out sometime later.

Now it may sound like I’m about to contradict myself. There is one thing that can get a person to change, but it takes years. It takes a long-haul effort. That thing is love. Loving someone for who they really are, flaws and all, accepting them for themselves, is the only way to change them. The thing is that most people are broken in some way. It’s those broken bits that influence their flaws. When you love someone for themselves and celebrate their strengths, over time, it starts to heal the broken bits and the person comes to love themselves more, and you more in return. Twenty years in, I am enjoying the enormous return on my accepting, unconditional love.

It took me YEARS to appreciate that my husband doesn’t cope with life in the same way that I do. I can actually remember the first time that I embraced it instead of resenting it. Embarrassingly, this moment was about seven years into our marriage. I had just had my second miscarriage. It came after our third child, and I had desperately wanted a fourth child. I was devastated. Matt showed very little emotion regarding the miscarriage. He took a very practical approach—miscarriage is common, something must have been wrong, and so on—and it enraged me. Moreover, I’m the kind of person who wants to talk about my emotions when I’m grieving and have someone understand the pain I am experiencing. I always want that person to be Matt, but he is just not that guy. Emotionally distant is about the nicest way that I can put it.

The thing with Matt is, it almost seems to pain him to deal with others’ emotions, and I used to misinterpret that as a lack of caring. It was the experience of the miscarriage that made me realize it isn’t that, it’s that damage from childhood experiences weighs heavily on how capable he is to deal with trauma.

Celebrating what you love

A little background info: I love Christmas. I especially love decorating the tree. I like to make it as festive as possible; real tree, lights, ornaments, tinsel, more lights, more decorations, as colorful as possible, the works. Matt does not love decorating for Christmas and is a bit of a Grinch when it comes to the whole affair. In those early years, if it were up to Matt we would’ve had a two foot pre-decorated tree sitting on an end table. Something about never being allowed to touch the tree as a kid had run deep with this guy. Every year, he would hang back while I engaged the kids in decorating for and preparing for Christmas.

The miscarriage happened right around Thanksgiving. When it came time to decorate for Christmas, more than once I climbed the attic stairs, more than once I started weeding through the boxes to get to the back where the Christmas decorations were, and more than once I got side-lined by the baby boxes that were stored closer to the entrance than the Christmas stuff. Each time, I would end up sitting on the attic floor, going through baby clothes and becoming increasingly bitter about the situation. Each time, I would end up coming down the attic stairs with nothing. Matt would ask where the Christmas stuff was, and I would simply reply that he was right and I had always made too much of a fuss over it all anyway. Jesus didn’t need me to have a fancily decorated tree, and neither did my kids.

One day I came home from a day of errands and was blown away. In my absence, Matt had taken everything down from the attic, decorated the inside and outside of the house, bought Christmas cards and addressed all the envelopes to our family and friends, gone out and bought a real tree, and put all the lights on it. The only thing he didn’t do was put the Christmas ornaments on the tree. He did put the box of ornaments right next to the tree. He said he knew it was my favorite part and I still had to do, it but he would help. Matt didn’t know how to be there for me emotionally in a talking and crying kind of way, but he actually did me one better. He picked up the pieces for me when I was letting something I really love slip. What I would have remembered as the worst Christmas’ became instead one of my favorites. It showed me the depth of Matt’s love for me. I thought he just didn’t care how bad I was hurting, but he just couldn’t show me in the way that I first expected.

Coming as you are

Matt can’t always show me the love I want to be shown, but he does always show me the love I need. That’s where that meeting the person where they are thing I was talking about earlier comes into play. When Matt isn’t able to be there for me in the way that I would want, I have to remind myself that Matt and I don’t have the same life experiences and even if it is not always perfect, Matt loves me more than he loves anyone else in the whole world. That has to be enough, and it should be. Matt probably feels the same way about how I show him love—it is not how he would do it, but it’s the best I’ve got. Sometimes people get so focused on their own needs that they forget that their partner probably is doing the same thing.

A couple of years ago, Matt and I had relinquished the children to his parents for the night in order to have a date night. I had worked 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. the night before and had barely gotten any sleep during the day since I had to take care of the kids. I had been working like crazy at my job and at home, getting our house ready to move 350 miles away. I was really looking forward to the date night. I thought for sure Matt had noticed how hard I was working and he would plan a great night out for us that would be something I love. I was thinking of an expensive restaurant, maybe a stand-up comedy show, live music, etc. When he got home, I was getting all dolled up in the bathroom. He didn’t come back into the bedroom to get ready, so I ventured out to the living room to see what was up. He was lying on the couch, relaxing, in his casual work clothes. He asked why I was getting all dressed up when he had planned a casual, relaxing evening; going out to a casual restaurant and then going to see a movie or something low-key. I responded that I thought we would be going to a fancy restaurant and doing something out on the town since I love getting dressed up, and we rarely have a night without the kids. He pointed out that he had been working all day, and he was exhausted and just wanted to have a low-maintenance evening. He then threw in that we would have to stop somewhere first because he was meeting up with someone to sell one of his collectibles. An argument ensued and steely, angry silence filled the car on the drive to the meeting place.

I was sitting there in the passenger seat, absolutely fuming about how selfish and self-centered he was. How dare he not plan a night that I would have chosen! How dare he only care about himself and what kind of night he wanted! How dare he plan to meet up with someone, even for a few minutes, on a night that we were supposed to be out just the two of us! How could I be married to someone who only thinks about himself when planning a night out for us! Occasionally, I would steal a glance at his seething face, and it would fuel my irritation. The gall he had!

All of a sudden, the hypocrisy of it all hit me in the face like a ton of bricks. While I was sitting there thinking all that about him, he was probably thinking all the same about me—my accusations toward him could just as easily be leveled at me. We were both so wrapped up in what we individually wanted, neither one of us thought about the other. I was so riled up that he hadn't considered my needs, but I hadn’t considered his either. The realization made me snort out loud with the briefest of laughs. Matt looked at me like I had lost my mind, and I launched into a review of my recent revelation. His face softened as he also saw the amusement in it, and the entire situation was defused.

Matt explained that the reason we had to stop was so that he could sell something in order to have the money to take me out that night. He pointed out that with all the expenses of moving, we didn’t have the extra money to go out, but he didn’t want to tell me that the night was cancelled, so he planned to sell one of his things in order to have the money to go out. After the stop, we decided on a place together for dinner. It was a casual atmosphere that he would like, but had live music that I would like. In the end, it was a fabulous night.

The bonus is that the lesson from that night applies to most of our marriage. It’s the lesson I keep on learning, and the benefits I reap are greater every time. When my husband and I step outside of ourselves and spend time thinking about the needs of the other, the benefit to both of us is endless. Despite how simple it sounds, it is not. When we feel drawn in different directions, the real goal is to go out on the limb toward the other when I’m not sure the other will step out in return—and it’s that precise step of daring that draws us closer together.

Right now, I am typing this in the pitch black listening to music with my earbuds while Matt sleeps next to me. Before he fell asleep, he had absentmindedly laid his hand on my upper back. It is still there, just gently resting on my skin. In this moment, I’m reminded of how clear one thing is. If we had given up when it was clear that we weren’t “working out,” I would’ve missed out on the truest and purest happiness love has to offer.