In Sickness and in Health, Attitude Is Everything

Partners in law and in life, Nicole and Callan Bryan, dish on 17 years of marriage, the difficult times they’ve weathered together, and little things they do daily to ensure that the love lasts.

They met in the New Hanover County District Attorney office. It was the summer of their first year of law school and Nicole says she knew right away that Callan would make a great husband and father. They were married in a candlelight ceremony in Huntersville on February 5, 2000.

Today the two—17 years and three children later, Cal (12), Lily (11), and Will (8), —practice law together at Vandiver & Bryan in Davidson, where they focus mostly on estate and tax planning and business law. Here they dish on a few helpful tips for making a loving marriage last.

Don’t underestimate long conversations

Long conversations tell you a lot about your partner at the early—and even the later stages. Talking on the phone, says Nicole, “That’s how we really fell in love with each other.” She learned during those long chats that Callan, like her, didn’t define success in conventional ways. From day one, she says, the two would talk about their visions for what a “successful” life would be. “That’s how I knew we would work,” she says. Faith, politics, how to raise children, and balancing the demands of a marriage, career, and eventually, parenting—they talked about it all. And from those conversations, which often included detailed hypotheticals—Nicole says she knew that Callan would be a great partner. “Taking the time to really listen, and knowing that you each grow and change,” she says, “with that expectation, you create a safe space for shared dreams and future.”

Intentional communication adds interest

Every night Nicole says her family plays a game. By sharing a “rose, bud, and thorn,” it opens up much more meaningful dialogue than the cursory ask: “How was your day?” Here’s how it works: They each share a moment from the day that made each of them happy or that surprised them, the “rose;” something that was difficult, a “thorn;” and the thing they’re most looking forward to, or “bud.” Nicole encourages couples to do something similar. “You could do it at breakfast or just once a week,” she says. “It’s a good way to understand each other’s hearts and dreams and stay connected.” She says even the kids get excited about it and they continue to surprise each other about what’s important based on what each person shares. They’ve also studied each other’s love languages, referencing the Gary Chapman book, so they know how each receives love. Quality time is big for the whole family, Nicole says. “For Callan, it’s acts of service—of kindness,” she says. “So, when I make his favorite tea in the morning, he receives love that way.” Nicole is more of a words woman. “I love how Callan introduces me to people—even to people we already know,” she says. “He always compliments me and it encourages me. Just last week we were at a town board meeting, and I walked up to Callan, who was talking to someone whom I know but hadn’t seen in a while. He said, ‘You know my beautiful wife, Nicole, right? You know, the brain-trust of our operation? The talented one?’ It makes me blush but I must admit that I appreciate his encouragement.” They both work to build each other up, especially in front of their children. “And we talk about as a family how words should be kind, necessary, and true. We live by this rule in our house.”

Embrace difficult times and focus on some good every day

“Practice gratefulness,” Nicole says. “Attitude is so big for us. And having gone through everything we’ve gone through—finding the blessing in every day [is key], no matter what.” The difficult times started in 2012, when Nicole was diagnosed with oral cancer. At that time, the doctors said they’d need to remove half of her tongue. For three months, she lived in a hotel so undergo radiation and chemotherapy in Chapel Hill. “I had a feeding tube for about a year, because of severe pain—I couldn’t eat, but now that I look back I just think, I am so blessed. There is just so much beauty and strength having gone through difficulty,” Nicole says. “I think in our culture we have these expectations that you go to school, you do well, and you’re not going to have financial difficulties, or difficulties in the marriage.” For the Bryans, it was cancer. Maybe it’s another challenge for another couple, but Nicole maintains without those challenges, “We would have missed something or lost something. There’s a deeper commitment now.”

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