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7 Rules for a “Happy Then” Marriage

by Mark Melloan

Last week, Nicole and I were discussing marriage in a small group with some other couples. It seemed like a good time to quote one of Dad's one-liners: "Hang in there like a hair in a biscuit." It got a laugh, then a discussion of whether marriage was the hair or the biscuit. We finally agreed that we're the hair, marriage is the biscuit, and even when it's hard, we need to hang in there.

Last night, with the same group of people, I looked at Nicole, and I kid you not: she had a little piece of biscuit in her hair! We'd eaten supper at her mom's house: roast beef, carrots, potatoes, and biscuits. And some of it had "hung" in my wife's beautiful brown hair. It was perfect. A perfect callback to last week's joke.

I know Nicole would've laughed harder than anyone in the room, but for some reason, I let it go. I picked the biscuit out of her hair and moved on. When we got home, I told her what happened, and we laughed together.

Married life is full of nuances, like the best way to word a suggestion, or when to poke fun and when not to. (We usually poke fun. The biscuit story was an exception.) But some things in married life, maybe the most important things, aren't nuanced at all.

My latest music video, “Happy Then,” shares some of the obvious ingredients in a successful marriage, things even a child can understand, which is great since an eight-year-old named Keagan is our spokesperson. These are the “Happy Then” Marriage Rules:

1. “Don't be a cheater.”

I'll make mistakes in my life. I'm human. But there's one thing I'll never do: cheat on my wife. I've decided to make this very simple: having identified cheating as one of the most effective ways to ruin my life and the lives of everyone I love most, I'm not going to do it.

I've promised. It's well-documented. First, there's our wedding: hundreds of my closest friends and family heard me vow not to. Second, there's this article. I even put it in a song: “never leave you to reach for another hand to hold.” I'm aware of the extreme hypocrisy it would take for me to go back on this now.

Of course, being faithful to Nicole isn't exactly my cross to bear. We were made for one another. I don't want anyone else. She's sweet, funny, off-the-charts brilliant, and sexy--things I really like. She's precious to me; I treasure her; I'm protective of her. Betraying Nicole wouldn't just break her heart--it would break mine.

2. “Be his champion.”

Nicole has prayed boldly for my dreams to come true. Sitting on the floor in a circle with our children, she asks God for “hits on Mark's album” and prays that millions of people would love my songs. It's overwhelming how much she supports and believes in me.

She encourages me to “put myself out there” and take risks. She produces and critiques, line by line, all of my lead vocals. She goes to business meetings with me. She sings on recordings with me. She's honest when I've created something good, and honest when “there's something missing.” She made me re-write this article twice!

As I type these words, I'm wearing the chain necklace she gave me. There's a key hanging on it engraved with one word: FAITH. My wife is the strongest, most persistently faithful person I know, and she's my champion.

3. “Be her best friend.”

In 2009, I subscribed to MLB.tv and watched maybe a hundred baseball games. Nicole watched some with me, but we soon found ourselves in a bad pattern: I'd go downstairs each night to watch a couple of hours of baseball. She'd stay in our bedroom and read or watch sitcoms. After West Coast games or extra innings, I might find her asleep alone.

These days, I don't have a man cave or an MLB.tv subscription. Instead of unplugging alone, we relax together. We talk. We watch documentaries and old comedies. These days, I can't name every pitcher in the Yankee bullpen, but I can talk about my wife in great detail.

Giving up nightly baseball was a small sacrifice. Prioritizing our marriage over my personal ambitions was harder.

Conventional wisdom says successful musicians play lots of gigs. Concerts help you win fans, attract press, sell merchandise, and connect with radio stations. But early in our marriage, I realized something: to sacrifice a Friday night with my wife, a gig would really need to be worth it. And it rarely was.

Since releasing the new album, I've only made a handful of live appearances. Instead, we've promoted the album online and through music videos.

As for touring, I did rent a 15-passenger van this summer and spend two weeks driving Nicole, the kids, and my mother-in-law around Maine and Canada. I didn't even take my guitar, but I don't regret a minute of this adventure with my best friend.

4. “Quit keeping score. Give, then give more.”

Our twins, John and Lucy, were born when Jack was two. With three kids in diapers, keeping score was a way of life. There's no telling how many times we said, “I got the last one.”

But “I got the last one” is a dangerous game, and no one wins. So I remind myself daily: Quit keeping score; give, then give more. Those words rehabilitate my selfish heart.

I practice on the little things. Do the dishes. Drive the kids. Run the errand. Fix the broken thing. Cooperate with the plan. Be interrupted. Be inconvenienced in a million different ways. It's a small price to pay. And it keeps me mentally and spiritually fit for those moments when greater sacrifice is required.

5. “The D-word: Don't joke about it. Don't think it. Don't speak it.”

My parents taught me as a child that “Divorce is not an option.” It made sense. It sounded tough in a good way. I admired the courage and resolve the words contained. I also felt safe in the knowledge that our family would not be broken. I can picture our kids' pleased faces when Nicole and I have given them the same assurance.

I have to admit, I was scared to include the D-word segment in the music video. I didn't want to seem judgmental. I have those same concerns even now. Some of the most wonderful human beings I know have endured divorce. Some of my closest and most respected friends have endured broken homes. Jesus himself said there were circumstances justifying it.

But for me and Nicole, we've chosen to take the position of total relentlessness in marriage, and we prefer to avoid the D-word altogether. We're hanging in there like a hair in a biscuit.

6. “The best way to put me first is to put me third.”

In “Happy Then,” the young marriage therapist also turns out to be the couple's daughter. In her final words of wisdom, she tells them, “I give you permission to put each other in front of me. In fact, the best way to put me first is to put me third.”

Our children know they come third. We've told them. We don't worry about them feeling jealous or less loved. We've explained that the better we love each other, the better we can love them. But I'm not sure they really care about the logic of it. Our kids seem to accept their position on the organizational chart instinctively.

So we pray with them. They know Jesus is the king. We kiss in front of them too. They know Mama's the queen. And they may say, “Ooh, gross,” when we kiss, but they're always smiling when they say it. Maybe because it's embarrassing. Or maybe because when Mama and Daddy kiss, their young hearts sense some love and stability in a big scary world. And maybe because third place isn't so bad; a kid could do worse than feeling like a prince or princess.

7. Remember: “Soon we'll be old and gray.”

Cecil and Fronda Davis were Nicole's great-grandparents. Their life together had its share of loss and disappointment, but after a few minutes with “2-Dad,” you knew there was more than enough comedy to offset the hard times. He was five feet tall, a father of six, a WWII vet, a hard-working CPA, a Worldwide Wrestling Federation fan, an erratic driver, a singer of funny little songs we still sing with our kids, and a master of the one-liner: “Hold onto your hair if you've got any!” But more importantly, he was a husband who loved his wife relentlessly for over seventy years.

One of the last times I saw him, he was sitting in a chair by his wife's casket in the funeral home. He'd spent the last ten years in a similar position, sitting by her bed in the nursing home, slowly losing his best friend to Alzheimer's. In between jokes, he looked me in the eye, choked back tears and said, “Marriage. It's hard, but there's nothing like it.” He was telling me to love his great-granddaughter the way he loved Fronda. And I'm determined to do it.

Like the song says, “Soon we'll be old and gray / and we don't wanna say / Why weren't we happy then?”

Nicole and I are trying to live by those words. We're true to one another, we try not to keep score, and we don't say the D-word. She is my champion and the queen of my life, and I'm her best friend.

Not so far from now, when we're old and gray, we'll look back and remember how happy we were.

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Mark Melloan singer-songwriter
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