For the longest time, when I was growing up as a child, I had always wanted to get married and start my own family. As a self-professed romantic, I have always wanted it so badly and each time I watched romantic movies or read romance novels, my heart would simply ache for my “One True Love”, whoever that was. Throughout my teenage years, my closest gal pals would tolerate my boy-craziness, often shaking their heads in dismay at my quick crushes.
Fast forward to when my courtship days with my then-boyfriend (now, beloved husband) began, I remember I kept on looking out for similarities. The more alike we were in values, dreams, food and lifestyle choices, the easier it was going to be, wasn’t it? So I took my chances and married my fiance, rather confident about the calculated decision-making process I thought I had rationalised. Boy, was I in for a real shock of my life! Put together two individuals from totally different upbringings; no matter how similar you thought you were, when you journey down the road of marriage and do life together, one can’t help but bring out the best and sometimes, even the worst in one another. As I like to describe it, “the monster that I never knew was in me, was awoken”!
I remember, in the first year of my marriage (and occasionally throughout the subsequent years), thinking to myself, “Who on earth did I marry?” I thought I knew my husband well but little did I know, that your eyes can only open wider and wider, as you progress in marriage, over time.
Time, in and of itself, isn’t always a teacher. Somehow, there is a tendency for your patience to wear thinner as you age. But it doesn’t have to be so.
The good news is, while you may struggle to navigate through the differences, when you start your own family, it is possible to start afresh, albeit not necessarily on a clean slate. Don’t fall into the trap of, “We’ve always done it this way….so that makes it right! Our way is better than yours….” It isn’t helpful to take a superior-condescending stance, as it will only set you up for more arguments and even resentment-building. I have had to learn this the hard way but I am glad my husband and I choose to always work on building our marriage, rather than tear it down. So look for common ground and start from there, carefully navigating through the distinct differences.
Here are some tips to co-design and co-create the family culture that you both aspire to lead. These are a few areas you can talk about with your partner and practice at different stages of your life together.
1. Areas to talk about with your partner in general
- Household division of responsibilities
- Explicit (not implied!) expectations
- Financial goals
- Habits and budgeting
- Lifestyle preferences: what can be changed, adopted, maintained as you go along.
Important tip: Never assume, no matter who long you’ve known each other. Always ask, state clearly, and seek to clarify!
2. Before you have kids
A helpful couple conversation to have usually allows for: mutual respect, safe space for sharing, does not put another person down, and allows for more listening than speaking.
- Talk about your joys and pains growing up
- Who were your role models? What made them healthy examples of family life? Conversely, who were the ones you avoided like a plague, and why?
- Any significant events, that changed you, or deeply impacted you? Why?
- How to maintain boundaries with your in-laws and various relatives, where necessary. What does “two become one” really look like in merging your lives going forward?
- Knowing when to reach out for help, when things get too overwhelming. This could be the culture that you want to start together, if your families were not doing that in the past. Doing this, when it was necessary to do so, before kids come along, can really strengthen the marriage and prepare it for changing seasons ahead of you.
3. As the kids arrive in your lives and are growing up
- Continue to have conversations about each other’s likes and dislikes. Reminisce about family of origin’s culture, patterns, or even your own upbringing, but try not to use that as the only yardstick for what is the “best way”. What is best is what works, for your present family, remember that.
- Make having openness a culture in your family; it allows for questioning in a safe space, and develops mutual respect for one another and beyond the four walls.
- As you get to know your child’s character, strive for consistency in enforcement but at the same time, also allow room for flexibility, taking into account that each child’s needs may differ from one another. Be gracious when mistakes are made or when one is sometimes too weary to be consistent. Stand in for one another, if you can.
- Take stock of how things are going at particular seasons, is someone going through a particularly more challenging time, how can the family adapt to accommodate helping that person out more?
- Affirm each other’s efforts to make changes and celebrate every victory – small and big – that is won. Never criticise or be mean. Most of us grow best through nurturing, not through negative approaches and shame.
- Learn to always choose kindness, over rightness. Teach it and model it for one another.
- Create an atmosphere of gratitude – it will teach children to honour and respect their elders, learn from history, and also being thankful for the present.
- Delight in each other, instead of always comparing to what others are doing. This is what will make each family so very beautifully different in their own way.
How we become WE
Before you said “I do”, I hope you talked things through,
What are your pet peeves, what gives you relief,
What would make your ears cringe, and what keeps you going.
If you’ve not yet had this conversation, dear one, fret not – you still can,
Start today, taking that first leap of faith to share,
Open your heart to listen well and make it a daily affair.
Remember the days when you were a child, and the things that brought the onslaught of chuckles and giggles,
Bring that innocence into your life partnership, learn to laugh more at yourself at the sillies,
Making sure not to major on the minors, but to always magnify the love and minimise the crazies.
When you start to have little ones of your own, work together and not against,
Draw near to reconnect, reevaluate and forgive,
Stand firm to hold hands, and often praying, when it’s hard to achieve.
Treasure that life is beautiful when we make it so,
Together, letting go of childhood wounds and hurts from past,
Healing together and growing together, working in trust.
He grew up messy, she grew up neat,
She grew up scatterbrained, he grew up meticulously on beat,
But now lives are merged, what strengths can you bring to form a new fleet?
Oh, money troubles! He’s a spender, she’s a saver, or it’s simply vice versa,
Well, no one wins, if the arguments persist on whose family did what,
What matters is working things through, sussing out the unhelpful,
Setting new norms, new ground rules and committing to following them through.
Can we try harder, can we hope even stronger?
Can we put disappointments aside, leaning in tighter towards the other?
Can we celebrate new milestones, start fresh traditions together?
Can we sing a new tune, dance a new groove, create beauty forever?
Let’s choose to make this life, based on love, joy, hope and peace,
Raising not mere babies, but future men and women of priceless virtue,
Whose voices we encourage, and passions we help spark,
Whose journey we empower and enliven by being there all the way.
I see you. You see me. We see each other.
We acknowledge each other’s uniqueness – the good, the bad and the ugly.
And we are still here. We show up. And we are here to stay.
That’s what family means, our very own tribe, every precious day.
~Originally composed by Serena In.