After spending the last three decades with my husband, I’ve learned marriage isn’t what I thought it would be. In some ways it is harder. In myriad ways, it exceeds my expectations. And like a fine wine, it really does get better with age. Take heed, newlyweds!

Together we raised four kids, three of them sons. As I watch them grow into men, I hope we’ve provided them with the insight, patience and fortitude needed to create a successful marriage some day. And if I were to give them advice about marriage (not that I’d ever think of giving them advice) here’s what I might say:

In many ways, we live in a “What can you do for me?” society. This doesn’t work for marriage or relationships in general. John F. Kennedy once famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” When looking for a future life partner, replace the word country with marriage: Ask not what marriage can do for you, ask what you can do for the marriage.

By being together, how can you make each other better than when you were alone?

Dating, at its outset, is a lot about first impressions and appearances. Marriage is about lasting impressions and loving someone from the inside out. Look for someone whose interior is as beautiful as their exterior. Likewise, be willing to offer the same.

Be a person who compliments freely and criticizes rarely. Studies show that you need to give at least five compliments for every one criticism to have a positive relationship. Everyone needs to hear good things about who they are or what they do, especially from their spouse.

Speak highly of your chosen one. It speaks highly of you.

Sometimes it’s best to bite your tongue. Not literally, but you don’t have to say everything that comes to mind. If in doubt, don’t say it. You can always voice your opinion at a later time if needed.

Laugh together.

Always be honest, but never brutally honest.

Talk about your day. Every day. Share mostly the good, but also the bad.

Be consistently kind to one another so that you both know you can count on kindness at home. Teach your children this tenet as well.

Little things mean a lot. Your dad brings me a cup of coffee each morning. This small gesture provides positivity to the start of our day and has come to mean the world to me. Find something small and make it big.

Stick out the hard times – and there will be hard times. Even if both you and your spouse are perfect as individuals, no marriage is. And although this one sounds hard (because it is) there is an upside. The hard times make you stronger and you will be glad for them in the end. (Or at least glad you got through them.)

Don’t seek the perfect spouse; seek to be the perfect spouse. The goal is unattainable, but it puts your perspective in the right place: on your significant other and not you. You don’t get married so another person can make you happy. It’s vice versa. Basically, that means loving unselfishly, which isn’t easy to do. But the things in life that are the most meaningful and worthwhile aren’t ever easy.

That’s part of what makes them so valuable – and worth doing.

Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Don’t miss a slice; follow the Slices of Life page on Facebook.

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