Thursday, March 29, 2012

Saving Money and Sanity

Many people decide to wait until they are financially stable to get married. As much as I don't consider myself a romantic, perhaps I listened to that old Alan Jackson song, "Livin' on Love," a few too many times, because I do enjoy the idea of the loving couple who makes the best of a small income. Though, finances being the stressor that it is, I do have a hard time conceptualizing the reality of a couple who struggles financially, yet maintains happiness within their relationship.

I've determined that a few factors may help to keep a low income from upsetting marital bliss. As always, I stress open respectful communication and equal responsibilities in all aspects of the relationship, including financial decision making. Also, I suggest living within your means. In light of school loans and home mortgages I define that as living such that you can pay off your debts and eat without racking up more debt for unnecessary items. Besides these two obvious points, I would make the third suggestion that you make sure that you take the time to have some fun. These days having fun often refers to having a night on the town, eating out, going to movies, traveling, etc., which means that having fun frequently requires disposable income (or at least appears to require it).

Owen is in grad school, I have two part time jobs, and money is tight. We don't mind it though. In order to get around the "I can't go to the movie theater as much as I used to" blues, we have found many fun free (or nearly free) options for entertainment. I get completely stir crazy if I have to stay inside of my apartment all day, so my biggest temptation for spending money revolves around what I do with myself when my primary purpose is leaving my apartment. Making the effort to enjoy ourselves outside of the apartment requires some creativity, but when we can find a free activity that we enjoy, it really reduces our stress levels.

We love going on walks. In warm weather, we walk around the park behind our apartment complex and in cold weather we walk around the mall. We don't really look at the merchandise, mostly we look at the architecture, colors, and people. That reminds me of another fun thing to do-- find a crowded area and just watch people. Or, walk around whatever free museums may be in your area. Here we have The Natural History Museum at the University of Iowa. It doesn't have very many interactive exhibits, but it has a gargantuan stuffed sloth, plastic people, and a room full of animal skeletons. I wouldn't call it up to date, but it's entertaining nonetheless.

Also, we love the public library. We'll go there to get out of the apartment and read or do homework. We don't have Netflix (largely because I'm afraid that if we did, I'd never do anything productive), and as movie rental places continue to decrease their selections, I find that the public library actually has an exciting array of movies to check out! I've had The Godfather on my list of movies to see forever, so finding it at the public library was exciting (and free).

Volunteering is also free. I find that when I'm volunteering, I stop thinking about myself and my tedious problems, and that feels good. Sometimes we just need to put life back into perspective to lower our financial stress levels.

Admittedly, two frivolous expense remain in our budget. First, Owen and I love coffee shops. It's not even about the coffee-- we just like sitting in them. If you go to coffee shops as frequently as we do, you save a lot of money by making a habit of ordering the cheapest item available--hot tea.

Secondly, Owen and I love wine. For our honeymoon, we went to Napa Valley and learned about the wine making process. In order to keep our wine budget reasonable, we've found what we believe to be the best of the cheapest bottles:
Sutter Home Moscato
Beringer White Zinfendel
Yellowtail Cabernet
You don't need an expensive wine to enjoy the flavor enhancing effect, just one that you like the taste of! Though, you should still probably avoid twist off caps.

Actually, all in all, we're having fun spending our young and poor years together. The lack of money forces us to be creative. We've had some delicious dinners with weird, end of the week, left over ingredient combinations. We're also learning that we don't need as much as we once thought we did. I'll let Alan Jackson end this one:
"It doesn't take much, when you get enough
Livin' on love."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Two Years Of Letting It All Out

Sometimes, like today, I worry that I've married a crazy person. I find over and over that the best way for me to address this concern is to tell Owen. This blatant honesty has marked our relationship from the beginning.

Yesterday marks Owen and my two year anniversary! Of what is hard to say. I like to think of March 19 as the day that we ruined our (former) friendship. Usually we celebrate it as the day of our first kiss. When we initially started out, both of us confirmed that we didn't necessarily think that we would stay together for longer than two weeks, but we agreed to give dating "a try."

I remember Owen setting down his guidelines, "Don't always tells me about your problems; I won't be your therapist," and me setting mine, "I don't want to see you every day, and I want to keep my friends to myself." Our rules weren't exactly nice, but they were honest.

Though our honesty started out in harsher terms, it ultimately allowed us to forgo any "I'm afraid that I like him more that he likes me" type games and cut straight to the chase. The first time that I used the "L" word with Owen, it went something like this, "In that moment, I loved you. Though, at other moments, I'm not even sure that I like you."

When we exchanged solid statements of, "I love you," we immediately defined what it meant to us. We decided that it meant commitment, though we still weren't sure how long that commitment would be. Also, we determined that it meant we were ready to be emotionally open with each other, i.e. Owen wanted to hear about every up and down of my life, and I wanted him to join in on my friendships.

At the beginning of our senior year of college I told Owen, "Our relationship is going well, if it continues to go well, then we need to have a plan that will keep us together after graduation." By confronting the post-graduation problem head on, and early, we never faced the struggles that many of our other friends faced as graduation loomed ahead. Even couples that had been together three times as long as us had trouble addressing the, "What's next?" issue.

For a few couples that we knew in college, two years marked the end of their relationships. Given this, I was a little bit worried about making the commitment to get married before we even reached the time stamp when these couples faced such turbulence.

Perhaps people start to think harder about their relationships at the two year mark because it seems like a pretty serious amount of time to spend with someone. "Speak now or forever hold your peace" feels like it occurs with a time stamp more so than with a ceremony. People don't want to realize too late that they've spent too many years in relationships that aren't actually growing, so they feel the need to break them off before they get to that point.

For some reason, Owen and I didn't struggle with fear of commitment. I think this was partly because we never played games with each other's emotions, and each of us always had a clear indication of where the other stood. When neither of us were very committed, we both knew so, and when both of us were very committed, we also knew. Now that we sit at this two year mark, I don't have to wonder if Owen is committed, I know that he is, and we can unabashedly continue to build our lives together.

Though, I know that some people just have a more difficult time expressing their feelings, even with people they love. Some couples hit that commit-or-break-up point, fail to communicate their emotions, and end up throwing away good relationships.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Joining the Family

I love looking at the candid photographs pinned to the walls at Owen's grandparents' house. As a child, he had big blue eyes and long dark eyelashes, and he's usually wearing a silly smile in the pictures. Owen is always an interesting topic of discussion for me and my in-laws; he's the greatest thing that we have in common. Sometimes I'm not sure if I know him better or if they do. They tell me stories that highlight aspects of his personality, interests, and habits that I've never taken notice of, yet they seem unaware of how he has grown during his time in college.  

In an earlier post I discussed how we can grow in our friendships by responding receptively to changes. With family, however, the relationship shifts are more drastic and more personal, and emotions run high. Recently a good friend highlighted these changes when he asked Owen, "At what point did the most important woman in your life switch from being your mother to Summer?"

Families are like small countries: they have governing structures, particular cultures and traditions, and unique world views. Interacting with your spouse's family can feel like being a foreigner, wrought with exciting new experiences, communication errors and frustration. Unlike interacting with individual friends, family relationships weave complex webs of interactions over decades of working through the trials of life.

Though you and your partner can work through and combine your different experiences as you create your own family unit, your childhood families miss out on most of the groundwork that goes into the fusion. You may see your relationship as striking a healthy balance between two different worlds, but your family may see the changes taking place in your life as an insult to how they approach life. Consider a couple where one person comes from a family of vegans, and the other from a family of hunters. The couple decides to take a middle ground and only eat dairies and fish. The hunting family fears that their child, her new spouse, and new family judge them for killing and eating their own meat. The vegan family fears that their child has compromised his values.

We can't make our families accept the changes that come with marriage, but we can respond to their emotions with love. I believe that the most effective way to create positive relationships with family is through appreciation. Your in-laws must have done something right if they've raised the person you love! Actively seek out those traits that you love about your partner in his or her family, seek to understand how they've worked to give their child life. Do not allow yourself to become bogged down with the natural frustrations that come of joining new families.

I have a friend, let's call her Laura, who experienced turmoil with her family in high school, at which time she complained extensively about all of their flaws. In loyalty to Laura, Anna hated Laura's family, and also complained extensively of their flaws. Yet, Laura never stopped loving her family, and as time continued, many of the problems she had experienced with her family healed. Now, Laura feels uncomfortable talking about her family with Anna, because Anna has neglected to acknowledge the deeper connections that Laura has with her family and continues to complain about them.

Many others make this same mistake with their partners' families, or even use familial turmoil as an excuse to get away from their in-laws. Though our partners' families probably do frustrate them (and us) on some level, no matter how deep the conflicts reach,  our partners love their families! So rather than encouraging the frustrations, encourage them to appreciate and love the good aspects of their families.

Though I strongly encourage working pedantically through even the tiniest issues with your partner, when it comes to this bigger, messier giant that is family, I suggest you approach them with an air of acceptance and always seek to give them the benefit of the doubt. They can't understand your relationship as clearly as you can, but you can't understand their familial histories as clearly as they can.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Infatuation and Disillusionment

We all know the pattern. For some reason, we as humans have a way of becoming obsessively delighted with other people for a short time and then developing an equally unreasonable animosity for them. At some point in our lives, most of us will associate some type of unrealistic expectations with romantic partners, friends, family members, heros, politicians, teachers, movie stars, religious figures, or whoever. And then, something happens that makes us see the truth: no one can be everything that we want them to be. For some reason, we end up blaming the other person for being less than we expected.

This doesn't mean that enjoying another person always has to lead to disillusionment. Consider the following description of a couple I know. This couple spends approximately 20 hours per day in each other's company. When they are apart, they call each other to check in, or to tell each other interesting tidbits from their days. They flirt with each other. They seem to always have each other on their minds. This sounds like infatuation, right? Well, this couple, otherwise known as my parents, has been married for twenty-six years. They just like each other, a lot.

Infatuation has nothing to do with how much time you spend with someone, or how much you like someone, it has to do with your perception of reality regarding that person. My parents are well aware of each others flaws and abilities. They don't expect or want anything more of each other than who they are.

To experience disillusionment, you first have to have a false illusion. I would imagine that within the first decade or longer of any relationship, false illusions remain present in some form. The important thing for relationships is that your false illusions are not present within the foundational areas of your relationship. For example, I am currently under the impression that Owen will produce amazing works within the field of psychology. Perhaps, one day, I will become disillusioned to this, but if I do, our relationship will not be shaken because my love for him has little to do with how well he preforms in the field of psychology. However, if someday, I become disillusioned of my perception of Owen's love for me, we are going to have some serious problems.

Sometimes it feels like we need to practice clairvoyance in order to know if a relationship is going to last or not. Yet, if we're honest with ourselves, we do have some awareness of the realities behind our illusions. Though admitting it feels impossible, most of us know when our partners aren't as perfect as we hope them to be.  Thinking back to my relationship with Tom, I knew from the beginning that if our relationship ended, he would be the one ending it. That's not a good sign! With Owen, I don't feel that. I don't feel like he's going to stop loving me. If you have some sneaking suspicion that your partner doesn't love you enough, don't allow yourself to create an illusion that the love is there, but address the issue with your partner! Talk about it, and get down to the reality of the situation.
(Note: If you're afraid that your partner doesn't love you enough, don't just run away without making sure... sometimes we're all a little crazy when it comes to emotional things like this. Do give your partner a chance to show otherwise.)

Perhaps the most rewarding result of giving up illusions is that it allows you to get to know your partner better. As illusions start to fall, rather than blaming the other person for being less than you expected, get to know who he truly is! When you delight in who a person is, rather than who you want him to be, he has the opportunity to truly surprise you and help you understand the world around you better. We can't learn and improve if we only interact with ourselves. Interacting with an illusion that you project onto someone else isn't that much different from just interacting with yourself. When you allow people to bring their own selves forward, your relationships can be fuller and more interesting.

We shouldn't expect more of anyone than who that person actually is, but we should expect, especially in intimate relationships, the fullness of who that person is. Encourage your partner to be his or her best possible self by delighting in the truth of who he or she is.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Perfect, Wonderful, Happy Relationship

Can we create our own happiness? Optimists may tell you that it's all about your worldview, but someone who has experienced depression will tell you happiness is not always within our control. As always, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I often think of a phrase from the movie Elizabethtown, "If it wasn't this, it would be something else." This phrase implies two things: first that we will always have something in our lives to make us unhappy, and second that if we want to experience happiness we have to experience it within the presence of these things.

Most of us hope to find happiness within marriage, and marriage, like life, has both happy and unhappy moments, sometimes within and sometimes outside of our control. We can ignore the bad in order to enjoy the good, or we can acknowledge the bad and either live with it or attempt to fix it. I vote for the latter. Ignoring the bad requires placing an image of happiness at a higher priority than your partner.

A couple of my friends went on a date that has become an infamous example of favoring image over a partner's feelings. The woman asked the man to go to a theatre performance and dinner with her in the twin cities. He felt like he needed a night in and wanted to take it easy by watching a football game with his brother. She continued to talk about how fun her date idea was and eventually convinced him to come with her. They did have fun in the cities, and the evening seemed perfect. At the end of the date, she said, “See, wasn’t that fun?” and he had to answer, “Yes,” because it was fun.  Nonetheless, the man felt off about the evening, and couldn’t quite say why.

Almost a year later, when the man told me this story, he still felt off about that night, and ended up concluding that he felt manipulated into her idea of happiness. While this woman idolized the idea of the date, she neglected to listen to him and what he wanted and needed. He served as the male stand in for her perfect date, which was unrelated to anything that he had wanted to do that night.

When you disagree with your partner, there are definitely healthier ways of working it out than ignoring his/her wishes. Being attentive to your partner’s needs, acknowledging his/her desires, and working out a compromise that suits both of you is always the best route. Imagine the above scenario if the couple had compromised: the woman acknowledges her partner's desire to stay home and suggests that they make dinner reservations for a different night. The man agrees and invites the woman to join him for the football game.

 Though, I’d be the delusional one if I said that disagreements always go down that way. Sometimes you just need to fight it out. Most likely, you and your partner have separate brains in separate bodies, so you will desire different things and have different ways of communicating your desires. Maybe the above couple should have argued: the woman expresses anger at the man for wanting to spend more time with his brother than with her. The man expresses anger that they always have to do what she wants to do. They express honest frustration with each other.
Arguing may have allowed this couple the chance to address and let go of their underlying issues. If you act like you and your partner always agree, always have perfect dates, and never need to address relationship issues, you're probably in denial, which is a much more serious issue than the occasional argument. 

Owen and I have a joke between us: "You're awful; I love you." It started because he had done something, probably money related, that was opposed to my worldview, and I told him how wrong I thought he was. Seeing his crestfallen face made me feel bad, and I added, "I love you!" Owen often annoys me. I often become too short tempered with Owen. Sometimes, when we try to go on a nice date, we end up arguing the whole time. Many times, when we're sitting in our messy, dinky apartment, we enjoy each other's company too much to care about how imperfect our surroundings are.

Owen and I do create happiness in our relationship, but it's not impenetrable to the bad. We acknowledge the sickness, the stress, the frustration, etc. and we find ways to be happy anyways.

As Shakespeare puts it in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "The course of true love never did run smooth."