Walking by a beautiful garden, you admire how lovely it looks. How did it get that way?
Of course, the neighbors tended it carefully over the seasons — pruning, weeding, planting, fertilizing and watering.
As a result, they created a wonderful space for themselves and all who pass by to appreciate.
Much the same can be said about a successful marriage. Good relationships, friendships, partnerships and especially marriages require that we — like that dedicated gardener — give the time, mindful effort and hard work to make the magic happen.
Since we married decades ago, Michelle and I have made it a practice to invest time daily in growing our little corner of the marriage world.
Our marriage commitment has involved a number of shared activities that, like that gardener, add to the value of our lives together.
These have included time each morning reading devotional and inspirational literature, journaling and meditating together. At the end of the day, we take time to debrief, listening mindfully to each others’ experiences — the joys, sorrows, challenges and blessings, along with the hopes and dreams.
When I was younger, I used to notice that older couples in a restaurant often sat and ate together without a word. I thought this was sad, like they had run out of things to talk about or were bored with each other.
Maybe that was true, but as we have become an, ummm, older couple ourselves, I realize that sometimes just being together, sitting silently in each other’s presence, can be a deeply satisfying and loving experience.
In fact, it isn’t at all unusual for either of us to read the other’s thoughts, mystically it seems, knowing what the other is thinking or about to say before words are spoken.
Why bother talking when marital telepathy works just fine? Pick up the phone just before it rings or a text comes through from hubbie or wifey? Sure, standard stuff now.
If you were asked to list the key elements of a successful marriage, what would you choose? We came up with the following shortlist though many others could be included:
love; commitment; communication;trust; and mutual honor and respect.
Each of these is crucial. Love, of course, is the basis of why folks get together in the first place. Sometimes though, we have to admit, the feelings of romantic love can be overshadowed by the stressors of life with work, finances, health issues, kids, grandkids, other family members and so on.
At these times, commitment is essential. We made a decision. We aren’t going to bail out on this relationship because we don’t feel things are going all that great just now.
Instead, we decided in that commitment that we would work to improve the very thing — our marriage relationship — that has served us so well in all times.
This drives us to communicate openly and honestly, to trust that the other person has our best interests at heart and isn’t looking around for other options.
Mutual honor and respect comes from looking for the best in the marriage partner, noticing the gifts he or she brings to the relationship and life together.
None of us is perfect. So acknowledging the best in your partner helps bring that to the foreground, and it helps both to recognize strengths and to build on them.
In this context, some compromise and adjustment of our personal point of view often can contribute in a major way to marital harmony and bliss. We may notice that by focusing on the positive qualities of our partner and by expressing praise and gratitude for his or her strengths, those characteristics increase and flourish.
At the same time, by ignoring supposed weaknesses, we are sometimes surprised to see that they fade away.
And don’t ignore humor. We aren’t talking about the sarcastic, biting, spiteful kind or the kind that talk show comedians use making fun of marriage.
Rather, look for the light side of a conversation or disagreement. See the positivity and comedy in daily life. He who laughs, lasts. The same is true for her.
Medical science has long identified the benefits of strong relationships to health, happiness and longevity. Like gardeners, we must invest time and effort, along with willingness to make the garden of our relationship grow and be the best it can be.
What we pay attention to grows. Remember, too, hugs heal.
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB. Michelle Sierpina, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UTMB Health.