The successful marriages I have observed have a shared characteristic: the spouses “bow” to each other out of respect. By bow, I mean that they submit to the authority of the other. This is not authority as we think of it with children, where you tell them what to do and they do it. This is authority that comes from mutual respect of the highest order, the authority that is earned and freely given to the bearer. When my husband asks me to stay home on a Friday evening instead of going out with my girlfriend, I choose to say yes, knowing that he’s asking so that the two of us can spend some much-needed time together. When I ask my husband to fix the light in the kitchen, he does so not because his nagging wife bugged him so much, but because it will make my domestic duties easier.

I see many marriages that lack this mutual respect, which I have also heard called self-sacrificing love (referring to the mutual respect, not the marriages lacking it). There is joy in this self-giving. You give of yourself for the other, and they do the same for you. It’s a win-win, but to realize the benefits, you have to sacrifice yourself. However, after a while, it’s not a sacrifice at all. It’s joyful to do something small and know you are making the most important person in your life happy. This is precisely why I get up early to make my husband his morning coffee and write him a little note. It’s not a big thing, but it makes his day better by some degree. He has told me on a couple of occasions that there are mornings where that makes the difference between whether he is able to smile at all or not. In the same spirit, he will sometimes do something small for me, take me to lunch or send me a little email through the day, and it lifts my heart in a way that few things can. This foundation we have built, of giving up little things and doing extra little things, prepares us for the rocky disagreements, the sticky disputes, the thorny encounters. They’re not so rocky, sticky, or thorny, because we have the groundwork of mutual respect.

I wonder sometimes if people intend to be so rude to their spouse, even when their spouse is not around. I think of my husband as my first defender, and I try to be that for him too – the first one to compliment him, the first one to cheer for him, the first one to think highly of him. We can find criticism easily enough; there’s always someone who has a suggestion for our improvement. I’m not saying a spouse couldn’t offer this, but it has to be in a context of love.

And that brings me to love, which I have found to be a verb – as in an action – more than a noun – as in a feeling. Love is why I try so hard not to say bad things about my husband or to tease him in barbed ways. Love is why I stay up to talk with him on late nights. Love is why he starts my car for me. Love is why he goes to social events periodically where he knows he will be forgotten and I will be “working.” Love is our decision to put the other first.