6 Things I Wish I’d Known About Marriage When I Was 26

joanna Ivan

Joanna Schroeder has learned a lot in more than a decade with her awesome husband. 




1. There’s no such thing as unconditional love for your spouse.

I just blew your mind, didn’t I? Here’s the thing: Your spouse isn’t your child. Your spouse is your partner, a fellow adult whom you chose to spend the rest of your life with. You are not guaranteed to love that person every single day (or month, or even year) and guess what? They don’t have to love you back.

My whole life, all I’d heard was, “You’re not going to always like your husband, but you’ll always love him.”

So when we came upon hard times I was worried that our marriage was over. After all, there wasn’t much love when we were acting so awful toward one another. And isn’t marriage about unconditional love?

“No way,” said our fantastic marriage therapist. “Who told you that? He’s not your child. You’re not guaranteed each other’s unconditional love.”

When I realized that unconditional love was not a requirement of marriage, a lightbulb went off. Maybe we can still be a happy couple, a happy family, even if there are rough times when the love isn’t flowing. For us, the love did flow again stronger than ever.

Bottom line: You have to earn each other’s love – even five years, ten years, forty years in. 


2. The first two years after having a baby can be the hardest of your entire relationship. Don’t let that become the model for the rest of your lives together.

Yes, a baby is one of the greatest joys in life for people who want to have a family that includes kids. But even if you’ve wanted to be parents your entire lives, things are going to be shaken up when that bundle arrives. You’ve probably had years to establish routines and ways of resolving conflict, and routines for how you connect. But that’s all going to get shot out of the water.

People tell you to be sure to put your marriage first – and I agree with that (obviously, as long as you’re also prioritizing the health and happiness of your children). But I want you to know that it can seriously suck having a new baby at times. You don’t sleep, your hormones may be messed up, you may be “touched out”, your entire frame of mind may change.

But do not – I repeat DO NOT – let this hard time become the model for the way you’ll see and treat your spouse the rest of your lives together. It’s tempting to let resentments build and to stop framing your partner as the person you fell madly in love with, but you need to fight that. Do the personal work to be forgiving. Watch your temper and practice building your patience.

I know, easier said than done. But that’s what therapists, elders, or religious leaders are for (or whomever you trust to guide you and give you perspective): Ask for help. Accept help. Get support. Do better and be better.

Bottom line: Don’t let hostility become the only way you know how to relate to one another.


3. Your relationship isn’t always going to be about sexual desire.

Sorry ladies and gents, but as much as you love sex, it’s not always going to be as plentiful as you think. Over the course of a lifetime, you’ll probably come up against times where you have mis-matched libidos.

I wish I had brilliant advice for these times, how to make someone want more or less sex, but I don’t.

A friend of ours who is a successful marriage and family therapist tells his clients, “Your sexual desire isn’t your partner’s problem.”

But a huge and growing sex issue is both of your problem.

You need to do what you can do to not let your sex life die off completely over a long period of time. You shouldn’t have sex when you don’t want to, instead, try everything you can to get yourself to where you have genuine desire: a sex therapist, a romance novel, sexy photos. I don’t know what your values system includes here, but don’t give up on yourself.

And if you’re the one who has more desire? You don’t get to be a jerk about it. Ever.

Bottom line: The best thing you can do is appreciate all the forms of desire you have for one another and really focus on those. You desire to hear their voice on the other end of the phone when you’re sad or when you have great news. You desire to snuggle up while you watch TV. You desire to make them happy by cooking for them or watching their favorite movie or whatever. You desire to make them laugh. You desire the feeling of their skin against yours in the middle of the night – sex or not.

Those things matter too. Those things build a life.


4. Doing a lot of nice things for your spouse every single day will create real joy in your marriage.

It’s not about presents or flowers or keeping the house clean or having sex.

Well, sometimes it is. But it’s also calling your spouse “sweetie” or whatever makes them smile. It’s about telling them the good things you feel when you feel them. Say, “I’m so happy to hear your voice right now” or buy them the cookie they like at the store and say, “I was so excited that they had these because I know you love them.”

This sounds hokey, I know. I grew up in a stoic Dutch Reformed town and I’m a bit locked down in the warm-fuzzy emotions department, so saying, “I’m so happy you’re home, I love you,” wasn’t the easiest thing for me to learn to do. It felt raw and weird. But I decided that if I felt a happy, warm feeling, there was nothing wrong with saying it. I can’t tell you how happy it makes my husband.

Bottom line: Lots of little moments of happiness make a happy marriage. So step up and do a little nice thing almost every time it comes to mind. It’s worth it, I promise.


5. Never, ever, be the person who isn’t willing to do the work or fix a problem in your marriage.

Caveat: I don’t mean that any individual should be the one doing all the work. In fact, just the opposite.

Here’s the scary truth – no matter how much one partner may want to work on fixing the problems in a marriage, no matter how much therapy that one person goes to or how much they change, a marriage with cracks and breaks (are there any other kinds??) will not survive without both of you diving in, head first.

I have seen my friends’ and family’s marriages succeed through hard times, and I’ve seen them fail. Some had to end. Most of the time the ones that had to end were the ones where one person was trying so hard, while the other person was not. The partners who don’t do the hard work sometimes simply choose not to, but often times it’s much more complicated than that. Maybe they weren’t raised to ask for help. Maybe they aren’t really invested in the marriage. Either way, they just give up.

More scary truth – you’ll need to be patient and let the flailing partner catch up sometimes. Give them time to get there on their own. Sometimes you’ll be doing more work, and sometimes they will be, but over the long run it’s gotta be pretty equal.

Bottom line: You don’t want to look back and wonder if you pulled your weight. After all, a canoe can’t move forward if you’re only paddling on one side.


6. Don’t ever fight about who is doing more work: the at-home parent or the at-work parent.

Nope, don’t do it.

Being a parent is a ton of work. It doesn’t matter if you’re the at-home parent or if you’re a parent who leaves the house to work. You’re probably working your ass off in ways your partner can’t see. Assume the same of him or her, too.

A marriage therapist once told my husband and me, “Don’t even start the discussion. You’re both working hard. It’s not a contest. Nobody will ever win this one.”

And we still don’t fight about it.

You can negotiate chores, you can express resentments over feeling like you’re the only one doing something (if you have a productive solution for the problem). But don’t question how hard your partner is working.

Bottom line: Appreciate your partner for the hard work they do, even when you aren’t seeing it with your own eyes. Tell them thank you. 

Also read: 5 Things I Had to Learn In Order to Love My Nice Guy

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Photos courtesy of the author

About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and editor with a special focus in issues facing raising boys and gender in the media. Her work has appeared on Redbook, Yahoo!, xoJane, MariaShriver.com, TIME.com, and more. She and her husband are outdoor sports enthusiasts raising very active sons. She is currently co-editing a book of essays for boys and young men with author and advocate Jeff Perera. Follow her shenanigans on Twitter.


  1. hi… im kim… and i always prayed to god to please put a good guy in my life because all i ever had was men who beat me and treated me like crap… so on new years last year i finally met the man of my dreams… sweet carrying loving man.. who is always nice to me .. but now im the mean one that dont understand why? he wil leave me if i keep this up.. i love him so much but why cant i be nice? what do i do .. im so happy when he comes home from work but dont show it… i think in my head all the time how sweet and sexy he is but wont say it… i want to hug and love on him but wont do it… i have a big problem showing him my emotions… 🙁 🙁 please help me befor i lose the man of my life… and i pray to god now the same .. please help me be nice …

  2. The point here isn’t that you can’t love someone unconditionally. It’s that if you assume you are entitled to unconditional positive regard, that if you are loved no matter what and therefore don’t have to bother trying, you are going to destroy your relationship through attrition and disregard. Nobody can keep up actively loving another indefinitely without any kind of positive feedback. Everyone has their limits. A marriage is a Partnership and that requires that both parties be present and actively doing their part. Yes, there will be times when one carries the other, and vice versa. But over all, if both people aren’t actively loving one another, the refusing party is actively destroying the marriage.

  3. Sylvia Thompson says:

    Actually, LOVE is unconditional or it isn’t actually LOVE. What people confuse is, LOVE is unconditional but PARTNERSHIP (MARRIAGE) is not!!

  4. Not married, but in a long term relationship. I agree with another poster who mentioned that you get labeled as the asshole for wanting more sex than your partner is giving and no matter what you do, it’s never ‘right.’ One time in (sort of) in six months is not working for me, but when I try to address it, it’s usually just kinda dropped. Like I just need to be more patient. I’m at the point that I don’t even try to bring it up anymore, and recognize that same feeling as being the asshole if I want to leave, because you know you can’t have any other partners either. It’s not fair to the ‘higher libido’ person to have to walk on egg shells around this topic while the other partner gets to sit in complacence and do literally nothing to try to improve things.

  5. Lisa Marie says:

    The thing that I wished I had known about marriage when I was 26 — or in my case, 28 — is that sometimes relationships run their course and need to end. It’s no one’s fault; it simply is what it is. It’s ridiculous to expect, given our long life spans, that one partner or the other won’t change in some very fundamental ways over the decades. Some couples really do grow apart, and there’s nothing that can bring them back together again, no matter how hard you try. It I met my ex-husband now, my perception of him would be completely different than it was when i was 28. I would have found him attractive, but I would have known that we didn’t share the same lifestyle or long-term goals. There’s a reason that marriages are voidable contracts: it’s against public policy to force people to remain in highly unhappy or dysfunctional relationships. Couples who stay happily married till death do they part are the exception, not the rule.

    • No! The cases of which you spoke of should be exceptions, NOT THE ONES WHO STAY HAPPILY MARRIED TILL DEATH. I am sure and I know seeing my parents how much they fight despite growing apart.

      Yes i agree, some relationships run their courses but its utter bs to say that they should change and break in our long life span. You did a darn good job in destroying the entire concept. Do a favor and never speak of this to the younger generations. You will simply be teaching them your passive attitude towards marriage.

      Again, some marriage fail WHICH IS WHY they are voidable contracts but NOT ALL! All marriage are not done with the intent of ending or breaking the CONTRACTS. Wow I’m actually terming marriage as a contract. Just Wow!

  6. I agree marriages are 50 /50 but I find it hard when my husband won’t communicate what’s going on in his head and I also agree about the sex side but what do you do when you only have sex once a year but you are like best friends and I know that he loves me. I think from the moment he saw me giving birth it changed his view of me and we haven’t been the same since and our eldest is ten and I had to virtually seduce him into submission to get pregnant with our second one who is now eight. He says he don’t know what’s the problem,just that he don’t fancy having sex much !!!! So I now believe this is how it’s gonna be for the remainder of our lives.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Denise, I think you need to reach out to a sex therapist. Honestly.

      Sex problems don’t just get better on their own, unless they’re quite short-lived or because of a specific medical cause like the first years after a child is born or while you’re nursing.

      Reach out for help. You can’t live your life wanting sex and not getting enough, at least not without coming to some sort of agreement that will satisfy both of you.

  7. 2. The first two years after having a baby can be the hardest of your entire relationship.

    Yes. And just then most couple figure it would be a great idea to have another…

  8. I really love this post. It’s so easy to, when you’re younger, buy into the fantasy of what marriage will be. And then, the reality is, it’s what you wrote about, it’s not sex every day, I love you always, kids, kids, they don’t impact things at all. I think the most important thing we can do is keep talking about the myth. Debunking it. Everyone has something, and working on it together can bring you closer. I talk about the realities all the time, of marriage, pregnancy, and parenthood. Doesn’t mean don’t do it, just go in with eyes open. Seventeen years later, two kids, and several Imago workshops, different visits to counselors when needed, I can’t imagine a different life.

  9. Unconditional love from a child is not something to be expected, either. As the parent, you’re the one giving that to your child.

    Also, WRT #6, if you’re going to compete, compete to do more. Race to unload the dishwasher. It changes the whole spirit of the competition.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Totally. Yes, I agree, kids’ love is not guaranteed. Particularly as they grow older. They are SO vulnerable to us, they need our love so much. But we can lose the trust they have in us, too.

  10. Tom Brechlin says:

    Before I address #3, the times that I had my bags packed have nothing to do with sex.

    #3 …. And maybe this is where my wife and I have managed to build the most. As a married couple, “sex” wasn’t sex. Sure, we enjoyed the end result 😉 😉 but it’s the “making love” aspect that bonds us. “Sex” to me is primitive and in general boring. “Making Love” means you put your heart and soul out there for your spouse. And “Making Love” has little to nothing to do with intercourse. One can make love to ones spouse without it.

    IMO, too much emphasis is placed on sex, it’s over rated.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Yeah, that’s sort of what I’m trying to get across here – that there IS intimacy that can be built that isn’t necessarily intercourse. I think the emphasis on the intercourse gets in the way of emotional intimacy that does, often, eventually lead to sex.

      When the pressure is off and each partner is TRULY enjoying intimate conversations, kisses, snuggles, etc, then the sex often happens too. But it’s not just pretending to enjoy it and hoping that sex is the result that does it. You need both partners to TRULY enjoy the other stuff.

    • Love your comment, Tom!

  11. Tom Brechlin says:

    I can’t imagine what my wife could ever do that I would fall out of love with her. Even infidelity, it would obviously put a strain on our relationship and could potentially cause a break up, but my love for her is deep. Just as my love for my kids, no matter what they may or may not do will never cause me to stop loving them.

    Through the almost 40 years marriage, it was “love” that kept us together and kept us going. And believe me that there were times that I had my bags packed but I never left. I couldn’t simply because I love my wife.

    But then there are some who will debate being “IN” love verses simply loving someone. Maybe that’s a topic for another discussion.

  12. Douglas Presler says:

    So,is it being a jerk to point out to a spouse with low sexual desire that they are not owed unconditional love? This being GMP, I suspect it is seen that way, at least if the complaining spouse is the husband.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      If you withhold love because someone has low desire, I think you can answer that question for yourself.

      If you really can’t love someone who doesn’t want as much sex as you, then the person you are with deserves someone better.

      • That may be so, and that would be the usual knee-jerk reaction to any such related issue.

        But what if we put it this way:
        I am not withholding love and/or affection because of “low desire” or mismatched libidos.
        I am withdrawing because my partner is constantly deflecting or ignoring any concern or issues I may have about the status of our relationship. That I am just taken for granted to always be there for help and support without being seen or listened to in return…

        • Joanna Schroeder says:

          I guess what I always wonder is this:

          If you’ve been doing this for years and years and you HONESTLY aren’t being listened to about your needs (i.e. he or she is doing NOTHING to try to help raise their desire, truly nothing), then you probably need to get a new relationship.

          Your partner deserves to feel love and desire from inside his or herself, too. If you’re not getting what you need – which is effort and intimacy – then yes, leave.

          That’s just not what I see most of the time. What I see most of the time is one partner acting like an asshole because they feel like the other is “holding out” from sex and the higher libido person feels entitled to more sex.

          The least attractive thing EVER??

          A person who is acting like an asshole because s/he isn’t getting enough sex.

          Who wants to have sex with that person!? It’s a vicious cycle and it’s no way to fix a relationship.

          Get over it or get out.

          If you don’t want to leave the person, then find a new way to solve the problem so you aren’t pressuring your partner.

          • What I see most of the time is a higher libido person feeling entitled to an honest discussion and a mutual effort about what, if anything, can be done about the statu of th relationship. A discussion and an effort that the other person just don’t seem to care about.

            • Sorry about the double-posting, I thought something disappeared in cyberspace but I guess it just got stuck in transtion.

              Oh well, sorry about that, and sorry for the rant. Merry holidays to y’all.

          • What I see most of the time is one partner working their asses off, trying in earnest to “please” their partner’s ever-increasing demands for the “right” sort of intimacy, and at the same time trying to uphold a conversation about their own needs that always fall flat to the ground or is met with a devastating silence from the “entitled” partner.
            And I always wonder why one person is totally entitled to expect unconditional love, effort and intimacy from their partner, while another is just being an asshole about it, simply for having a higher libido or a different “love language?
            Funny how that works, huh?

            I didn’t need to get a new relationship. I needed to get out of the one I was in. Because just as Douglas said, there were expectations of “unconditional” love without effort and intimacy. And that’s what I did, so you didn’t need to lecture me about it.

            But you’re absolutely right. More people should make an effort to get out of relationships where they don’t get their needs met. But there should be an easier way without being economically or socially punished for it, like, being presumed to be an asshole.

            I tried, for several years, to have a discussion about it, without pressure. Her only response was that I should try harder and ask more often. NOT ONCE did she acknowledge that it did (or should) in any way affect her or our relationship. And NOT ONCE did she suggest that there were anything that she or we together could do to improve the situation. And that, Joanna, THAT is the least attractive thing ever!

          • But then again, that’s the usual chorus about being a guy in a relationship, you’re always presumed to be wrong one way or the other.

            If you up and leave because you don’t get your needs met, you are an asshole for leaving (and mostly an over-sexualized one at that).
            But if you try in earnest to make things work, you’re just an asshole for trying too hard…

            • FlyingKal
              You surprise me!
              What kind friends you surround yourself with?
              People that see anyone that initiate divorce or choose to break up are seen as ass holes?

              I left my husband and NOBODY has ever blamed me,,even if he was and is a decent man. And I have never heard others talk about divorced persons as assholes . Never!
              We respect that adults know what they are doing and that it takes a long process before you finally leave a committed relationship.
              The cost is high,emotionally ,economically and otherwise. We all know the person that take this decision has a reason. It can be that the person share this reason with friends and family ,but often it is private matter and others respect it.

              If your friends and family see you as an asshole because you take care of yourself and choose to live with dignity,self respect and integrity…..well then they do not treat you with dignity and respect.
              Maybe it is time for you to divorce them as well? I would do that.

            • Silke,
              You are also, to the best of my knowledge, not a man.

              It’s not my friends ad family I’m referring to.

          • I think you are missing one major point, in fact it is THE major point. Desire for your SO is THE single most important of the “little things” you refer to. If your SO has no sexual desire for you, then the reality is everything else is small potatoes. I could give a rats behind if my wife does all the little things you mention, hell I can buy them. What I want is for her to desire me. I don’t think you really understand what it feels like to not be desired by the person you’ve committed your life to. Sounds to me like you have a lot of relationships and you swap out SOs whenever the mood hits you. I don’t think you get it.

  13. Wonderful post! In my childhood I have heard a lot of talking about point 6. I won’t repeat that mistake and try to contribute as much as possible.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Thanks Andrew.

      I think finding the balance of how much to contribute is important – but appreciation from both sides is what matters most. Doing kind things for one another is an act of love rather than an obligation, and when you are able to see it that way, I think that’s when you know you’ve got something good.

  14. Point #1 is complete crap. It’s the reason why half all marriages end in divorce, if you think that you will solve problems by earning love, then you are wrong. If both people make the choice to love each unconditionally, you will have a stronger marriage.

    • My take on #1 has to do with the therapist’s comment.

      He said, “You’re not guaranteed unconditional love”. He’s right. We can’t expect a lifetime of love from our romantic partners without a little effort to actually BE loveable. We should not expect loving feelings if we are not consistently willing to help create them.

      The notion of “unconditional love” is never a substitute for ACTUAL loving thoughts, words, and actions being given consistently from both partners.

      Long term feelings of mutual love and connection ARE earned (created), just as ongoing feelings of resentment and contempt are.

      • Joanna Schroeder says:


      • While I agree with the notion that you can’t be guarunteed unconditional love, I don’t agree with the statement that you have to earn one another’s love. That implies that someone should only love you if you’re “doing enough” to earn it. That’s not how love works. Someone might be doing everything they can for their partner and the partner doesn’t love them any more for it. Love ultimately is a choice. Maybe not at first when you fall in love and things are new, but that feeling faded with time. Once the newness and excitement has warn off, and the differences and hard times have shown themselves, love becomes a decision to a degree. You are responsible for deciding to commit and show that person with actions you love them. You have to decide to show your partner kindness and do those things for them that make them feel loved. And both partners have to be taking equal part in taking responsibility over their actions in demonstrating love actively. But earning it? You can’t earn love. One can only decide to love, and I think it’s very dangerous to put it on the other person that it’s solely up to them to have to “earn it.”

        • Joanna Schroeder says:

          I actually think you and I are saying the same thing, really.

          Saying that you earn people’s love isn’t the same as saying that you can always earn someone’s love or that everyone will love you if you just ask for it.

          What I”m saying is that you DO need to act like someone who wants to be loved. You can’t be an asshole all the time and think that the person who married you is going to love you anyway because of, you know, “unconditional” love. There are conditions. The conditions being, don’t be an asshole.

          • I think you’re getting confused with loving and accepting specific circumstances, qualities, etc. Yes, you can love someone who’s being an asshole , it just means you might not want to live or be with them and if you chose to leave, it’s possible to love them from afar. It’s simply your skewed definition of love that you’re projecting. Also, love is not an object, it’s not a thing that we “give” to each other. If that were true then what happens when a partner leaves or two people break up? They take their love with them? lol Like their belongings? We ARE love and if you were grounded in total acceptance and acknowledgment of yourself , love would simply emanate from you and you wouldn’t need anyone to be different than they were. You would “love them” because it’s what you are.

        • I think Steve & Joanna both describe it well.

          Another way to frame it is “co-creating love”. All parties need to jointly contribute to the creation of love in the relationship.

          Or think of love like a ball of concrete and that ball needs to stay moist and pliable. To doparticipation required 🙂 that all parties need to pass the ball back and forth; they need to send & receive love continually. If you stop sending or receiving, the ball and the love, can harden. Active

      • Personally I think you need to dig a little deeper. Maybe “love” is not “love” UNLESS it’s unconditional . Maybe you’re holding on to some idea because it serves you thinking that love comes with certain conditions or you’re not willing to practice selflessness .

  15. Joanna,
    Your comments about unconditional love for your spouse, don’t give up hope. I can tell you with absolute certainty. that it does exist. The only question is how long before it happens.

  16. Joanna,

    Loved your post. Just read it to my wife! Thanks for some valuable insights!

  17. Thank you Joanna
    This is good!
    My compliments 🙂

    I will spread this. So many times I have wondered why I never got any advice about marriage before I married.
    It was total silent and the whole family and all friends young and old obviously thought I was taboo to talk about issues like this,.

  18. Wow, Joanna!

    My absolute favorite ones were 5,1,4,2,6 and 3.

    So perfectly said.

    Off to share this now.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Thanks Steve!!

      Thanks Winifred. So glad you guys liked it. And Steve, your comment cracked me up!

    • Hi, i must say , the interesting thing is my husband and i have started to enter into a routine on how work is split between us but my mother in law tries to interfere. If not for her, we are doing great. I have decided to break the silence on her meddling behing my back and have stopped seeing her. What is your advice on meddling in laws who give minimal or almost zero help to us but instead add to the stress and i have two toddlers, a one year old and a two year old

  19. Great post. Especially love point #5. People get so hung up on the 50-50 notion that they let a marriage fall apart when what was needed is a leader to get the marriage out of the morass.

    Perfectly said: sometimes “you’ll need to be patient and let the flailing partner catch up…”


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