5 marriage lessons I learned from my dad, still madly in love with my mom

From finance to fun date ideas, these little suggestions can make a big difference in any marriage.

John and Mary Jo Thayer. Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Thayer

Forty-two years since winking at each other in Algebra II, my parents still act like high school sweethearts. They skip in the street, go on movie dates, talk for hours on end—and laugh together late into the evening. It wasn’t until I was married that I fully realized the weight of the lessons I witnessed in both of my parents. From my mom, I’ve gained immense wisdom about life in general, and the unique and privileged role of being a wife.

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Through my dad’s profound and demonstrative example, which resonates with me because of shared personality traits, I’ve learned a lot about marriage and about life. I’ve always admired and aimed to emulate my dad’s endless energy, optimism, and intellect. He lights up normal conversation with his charismatic storytelling and innovative thinking.

John and Mary Jo Thayer. Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Thayer

When we’re together, we’re often found sharing laughter or a riveting conversation, playing a game or working on a project—adding in flares of fun to whatever we’re doing.

At our wedding reception, my dad and I put a spin on the traditional father-daughter dance. He created a blend of our favorite classic songs and we hopped and danced and snapped. We sprinkled in special moves with special meaning. That’s the nature of our relationship: loads of fun with a deep connection and an ability to talk about the important things in life.

Even though my marriage is still young, I’ve found myself using many of my dad’s life and relationship approaches:

1. Practice positive reactions

Over the course of a few years—fully invested in marriage and life with four kids—my dad suffered a broken arm, a broken back, and eventually a broken wrist, the end result of which left him partially paralyzed in his left arm and hand.

Rather than complaining, my dad shares how his illness and injury brought positive circumstances into his life—like how disability and unemployment eventually led him to a deeply fulfilling job. My dad looks beyond the low points to see the tremendous gifts born out of life’s challenges.

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The University of Pennsylvania, founders of positive psychology, discovered that happy, flourishing couples emphasize the positive in life. When marital stressors arise, like job loss or illness, couples who respond with positive fortitude fare much better.

When my grandfather died while my husband and I were traveling in Asia, I struggled to be far away during such a difficult and emotional time. My dad helped me see the positives of the situation, like how we could offer a Mass in my grandpa’s honor in a faraway country like Myanmar—something my grandpa would have thought to be insanely cool.

While I wasn’t physically present during the funeral, my husband and I were able to celebrate my grandfather’s life and connect with family through phone calls, texts, and hugs upon returning home. We learned through my dad’s positive perspective and example that something difficult can have a beautiful outcome if we choose to see it that way.

2. Have regular financial conversations

Growing up I heard stories about how my dad only ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for years—to reduce spending and build savings for the future. I also remember my parents regularly talking about charitable giving, spending choices, and retirement savings. They discussed spending and saving in advance to avoid financial disagreements.

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Marriage commitment and healthy communications are maintained when couples have set guidelines and boundaries for their financial decisions,” found a North Carolina State University study. My parents keep an up-to-date financial game plan and strengthen their communication at the same time.

Recalling these regular discussions my dad led, my husband and I—let’s be honest: mostly my husband—maintain a budget spreadsheet. We attempt to talk finances without needing to reach for the wine. When we do talk through it, we notice the following weeks are smoother and that stress has a harder time sneaking its way in.

3. Support your spouse in their endeavors

My husband’s interest in teaching has led us to live abroad. On certain days, our unknown future can jostle my emotions like a rickety merry-go-round.

When my mom homeschooled us four kids and managed nearly everything around the house, my dad worked a demanding full-time job with a long commute. Amidst this hectic period, my dad supported my mom when she was invited for a public speaking circuit. He remained her biggest cheerleader, encouraging her to pursue every opportunity.

Thinking about my dad’s example of supporting my mom’s ambitions helps me return to firmly standing by my husband’s dreams—even if it means living in a different country or not knowing our next step.

Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, shares, “Supportive actions often spell the difference between success and failure.” He urges couples to encourage and support their spouse’s endeavors—big or small.

4. Choose integrity—even when it’s not convenient

James Craig, Ph.D., a marriage therapist in Indiana, finds that, “The ultimate threat to marriages today is not the external stressors, but what’s going on internally.” He continues, “People are more focused on making themselves happy, rather than in doing what is right.” I’ve seen my dad often choose the path of rightness and integrity.

When my mom’s mother was dying of cancer, my dad moved his young family closer to her. Even though it resulted in a nearly three-hour roundtrip commute for my dad, he set aside his convenience to put my mom, my grandma, and others first.

It hasn’t taken me long to realize that putting my husband first and doing what is right in a marriage is harder than it looks.

When my husband and I disagree, it takes mental and emotional power to show patience and understanding. It requires stepping outside of my own desires and spinning thoughts in order to do what is right. Based on my performance thus far, I imagine any decent coach would tell me I need more practice.

5. Commit to fun dates

Sometimes my husband and I get in ruts of working or planning for the future—and we forget to have fun.

I remember when us kids were younger, my dad prioritized time with my mom—because he knew continually dating her would keep the romance aflame. To this day, he intentionally carves out time to date my mom and have fun together—whether it’s dinner, a movie or walk around town.

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My husband and I have realized that even after a simple outing, like a free community event or bike ride, we feel refreshed and reconnected as a couple.

I’m forever thankful for the tremendous lessons I’ve learned from my father’s character and example, and continue to strive toward a healthy, long-lasting marriage like my parents’. Employing simple secrets from couples we admire can go a long way in helping to strengthen our own marriages.

Jenna Jonaitis
Jenna Jonaitis

Jenna is a freelance writer from Michigan currently living in Madrid with her husband. When she’s not reading or writing alongside a cup of tea, she’s visiting with great company, staying active, and attempting to learn Spanish.

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