“The person you marry is the person you brush your teeth next to for the rest of your life”, right? I’ve heard this so many times I’m starting to think it’s in the vows somewhere – forsaking all others’ (offers of fluoride) or something. But, as much as I hate to break it to whatever future husband may exist out there, I’ve brushed my teeth next to a lot of people.
The point of the saying is, of course, that we should all keep in mind that marriage is a commitment to the day-in, day-out, mundane routine of life with another person. Most of the newlywed horror stories I’ve heard feature a clash on that level of experience – the laundry or the shopping or the toothpaste cap. Living together means sorting out a lot of little details and infuriating habits as two people reshape their lives to envelop each other.
But is marriage the only relationship in which we practise love on this level? I submit that I’ve learned as much about marriage from brushing my teeth next to my room-mates as I have from any sermon, class, or dating relationship. Here are a few of those lessons:
1. You can’t express too much appreciation. People need to know they’re not taken for granted. It’s easy to say “thanks for sweeping the floor”; make a habit of noticing such things.
2. That problem you’re not talking about will never, ever go away. I’ll do anything to avoid a conflict, including allow seething cauldrons of resentment to simmer between a room-mate and me. This never ends well. Neither party is going to change their behaviour unless both sides express their own feelings instead of assigning imaginary horrible motives and character flaws to one another.
3. Living together doesn’t mean you spend time together. It’s far too easy to get into your routines of coming and going, until one day you wake up and realise you haven’t had a real conversation in a month. Relationships continue to require intention after you merge your closets.
4. Don’t deprive each other of sleep or food. Respect her sleeping patterns, no matter how much you don’t understand morning people and need to watch Die Hard with the surround sound on at midnight. In fact, pay attention to physical needs all the time, especially when you are arguing. Sometimes, you can’t work it out without sleeping on it. Sometimes, a grilled-cheese sandwich fixes everything. Remember, hungry people are angry people.
5. All people do irrational things. Neither your room-mate nor your spouse will always behave in ways that are expected, normal, or proper for civilised adults. From minor tics (paper towels in the kitchen sink again?) to bigger issues (I really, really don’t know why you’re crying right now), moments of bafflement will ensue when you bear witness to so much of someone’s life. Be gracious.
6. ‘Clean’ means different things to different people. So do ‘soon’ and ‘inexpensive’ and ‘a small party’ (also ‘loud’, ‘public’, and ‘embarrassing’- or maybe that was just the one situation). When you live with someone, your relationship develops its own vocabulary – but not before weathering a lot of misunderstandings. Always try to clarify.
7. Sharing is hard. Even for grown-ups. Even with lots of practice. Years from now you’ll still walk into the kitchen and find yourself enraged that someone ate the last of the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Sharing space and time and money is harder – you have to keep realigning your priorities together. Don’t give up.
8. Every day is a new opportunity – for better or for worse. Every day, you make a new choice to build up or tear down, to believe the best of someone or to make them your enemy. Take every opportunity to say ‘I love you’, to do a favour, or to spend the extra time together. It takes intention, but sharing a home and a life with someone (friend or spouse) can create a bond like nothing else. Choose to treat that person like the gift they are.