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Today, Wendy and I celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary. It sometimes feels like we were still babies when we got married, and I certainly lacked both the mature understanding of relationships and the sensitivity to others that I have today. We teach wedding couples their First Dance choreography, as they prepare for married life. We often get asked what the secret is to keeping a marriage strong for so many years.

I have never believed that there’s a single “secret” to a long, healthy marriage. In my view, marriage is the result of two people who both put 100% effort into the relationship. Keeping it strong involves a great many marginal gains that add up.

If I were to pick one thing that stands out above all others, I would say it’s a philosophy of “don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” What I see too often is one partner starting to notice the flaws in the other, and this becomes a source of focus. I’ve heard people complain about things like their partner not putting socks in the right place, or how they hang their towel (or not) after a shower. Those things swell and become larger than life, eventually becoming so big that they take over all other aspects of the marriage. Before long, nothing the partner does is right. How ridiculous is that: to give up a lifelong relationship over what amounts to non-issues. Nobody is perfect, and no two people will be so perfectly compatible that everything they do will always be in perfect sync with their partner! As individuals, we have our own habits and characteristics and these might remain over our lifetime, no matter how much we may try to change them.

But we should never try to change our partners. We should accept them and those differences even if they occasionally conflict with the way we would like things to be.

Some years ago, I helped a client put together a fun video for his wife’s 50th birthday. She had a habit of losing her car keys. It was such a common occurrence he joked that buying a key cutting business might be cheaper than all the keys he had replaced. But he was not annoyed or frustrated about it. In his eyes this was just one of the fun things that made her special. So for the video, based on the Beatle’s song “Baby Won’t You Drive my Car,” we interviewed the owner of the local key cutting shop, interviewed friends who’ve had to drive her home from places where she was stranded, and included lots of fun ways to illustrate the unexpected joys of losing your keys.

Stress and Joys of Dance

Dancing can be both a great blessing to a relationship and a challenge. On the one hand, you are connected to the person you love, with the goal of moving in harmony to music. When it works, it is absolutely fantastic. There is something magical about dancing with my life partner that can’t be matched with anyone else, no matter how good they are. The challenge comes when things go wrong, and especially when the couple is competitive.

Wendy and I are both type A personalities, able to focus strongly on a goal and do whatever it takes to get there. That characteristic empowered us to become 7-time Senior BC champions in Latin, though we never made it higher than third in Canada. I would pick Wendy up after work from her workplace. We would eat and go to the studio for several hours of practice, then hit the gym, often approaching midnight, before heading home.

There is something magical about dancing with my life partner that can’t be matched with anyone else, no matter how good they are.

Practice sessions could get quite stressful. A married person knows how to push the buttons of their partner. Even if you didn’t directly talk about the frustration you felt, it was easy to just annoy your partner by using those sensitivities. We would never shout at each other, but, driven by the need for perfection, we could be quite critical and that was never constructive.

It’s no wonder that so many competitive dance couples change partners with surprising regularity. Fortunately, we were balanced enough that we would recognize times when practice became unproductive. Our relationship was more important than winning, so when this happened we were able to call it a day and abandon the practice. We would then find a way to rebuild our connection to each other, perhaps by having an impromptu date before heading home.

Tips for Improving Your Relationship

What are some things you can do to make sure that dance remains a positive, enjoyable activity that strengthens your relationship? Here are some suggestions.

For ladies, I have found that a primary source of frustration is being led poorly. Naturally, ladies want their leads delivered on time and with confidence. This doesn’t come easily for men. They have to learn step patterns, their footwork, the musicality, and the leads. It’s a lot to take in! Generally men will break these things down by focusing on one aspect at a time. They might just work on where to place their feet, which means they will be late with the leads. Or they might be so focused on the musical counts that alignments and direction go out the window and before long they are dancing in the wrong direction down the floor. It really doesn’t help to criticize the leading even when it is annoying. Instead, allow them to work through their mental process. After all, isn’t it better for them to keep working on it than to quit dancing altogether because of criticism?

For men, it’s important to read between the lines. Ladies often avoid being direct with their messaging. They will come at things from an angle, a kind of compromise, to avoid confrontation. So what they say is likely not the actual problem, but only related to the real issue. Be open to the communication process. Listen to what they are saying. Probe for more information. Stop and ask yourself where the issue really lies and try to deal with that.

Also for men, accept that 90% of the problems in dance are your fault. It may be a difficult thing to deal with, but it goes with your responsibility as the leader. You are responsible for the choreography, for the musicality, and for clarity in your lead. That’s a lot on your shoulders, but it’s part of dancing. Accept it and don’t get prickly when it seems that you are being blamed for everything. Chances are everything really is your fault! Even as a teacher I’ve learned to put my ego aside and accept that my leads may not be as perfect as I would like to think they are. I don’t get offended if my students make suggestions or share something that they feel isn’t working. Listening makes both of us better.

We have some couples in our group classes who make those times a weekly chance to learn a skill together in which they move as one. They laugh through the mistakes and you can tell it’s a highlight of the week even if things aren’t perfect. That brings joy to our hearts, because it lies at the heart of what partner dancing represents.

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George Pytlik

Author George Pytlik

Before turning pro, George achieved impressive results as an amateur competitor, holding the Senior (30+) Latin championship in BC, Canada for 7 consecutive years with his wife Wendy. The couple twice achieved a top-3 Canadian ranking in Senior Latin as well as a 3rd place Canadian ranking in 30+ Ten Dance. Today, George and Wendy are professional teachers with a vision of growing a strong dance community in Delta near Vancouver, BC.

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