A couple writer friends suggested I go ahead and blog this smoofiness, so here you go, darlings!
This summer involves a milestone that, when I was much younger, I simply couldn’t fathom: my husband and I celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary.
For twenty years of marriage, and a couple years before that, I have shared life with a partner who looks at me like I am the awesomest thing ever. Who talks to me like I’m his favorite person in the world. Who prioritizes me above everyone else.
If I could go back thirty years and reassure my younger self, I would. I’d help her understand that what she wanted, needed, craved was not selfish or unreasonable, as she’d feared. All most of us want is to be loved as much as we love, to feel safe and secure and joyful with the one we love most. And that’s not only not impossible, it’s perfectly reasonable.
But for the first twenty-odd years of my life, it was like wanting the impossible.
My mom was involved with multiple crappy dudes: cheaters, liars, abusers, criminals. It seemed like everything around me, from what I saw on TV and movies, to just the ins and outs of my own family, combined to show me that a happy, loving marriage was some sort of unrealistic, selfish, old-fashioned, ridiculous pipe-dream. I needed to lower my expectations, compromise, and be prepared to work at it every single day, or else I’d never be happy. So by the time I was 18, I had stockpiles of information. I regularly tore those “Can this marriage be saved?” articles from my mom’s magazines, I bought used books by best-selling self-help authors. I listened to song lyrics, I watched couples on TV, I eavesdropped on adults’ conversations, trying to demystify it all, the answer to the biggest question I could imagine:
How could you stay happily married to one person?
There were many other questions, too, surrounding and informing this biggie. Did all men cheat? And most women? I thought cheating was inevitable. I thought fighting and yelling were normal. I believed that as long as he didn’t actually hit you, you weren’t in an abusive relationship. I berated myself for being too clingy or needy, when all I wanted was to be able to trust, to feel secure. I settled for abusive, manipulative behavior because that, to me, WAS secure. It was something I knew.
What I didn’t know was how to feel happy.
Of course, really understanding a truth that RuPaul has turned into a catchphrase was essential, and that’s the first place to start.
Before, I had been looking for love to make me feel worthy. Whole. To prove that I was loveable, worth love. It wasn’t until I accepted I was whole and worthy and loveable on my own that things changed. I started attracting a different kind of person (as friends and otherwise).
That was just the beginning.
My husband and I met through mutual friends, and he was apparently taken with me right away. I liked him, too, but it took me a little while to figure everything out. I’m not a love-at-first-sight person anyway, but I’d been burned badly before, and was cautious, wary, suspicious, (which is why I have a huge problem with the “they aren’t soulmates unless they want to fuck the second they meet” romance plots). There was no one wham-pow “OMG IT’S LOVE” lightning bolt, but rather, a slowly growing realization, discovering layers and layers of this person who just got more attractive and interesting and appealing the more I got to know him.
Every day got better and better with him. It’s still that way.
No, that’s not how it looks in most romance novels and rom coms or even in a lot of real life. If one buys into a lot of fictional tropes as essential to validating one’s real-life experience, it might be harder to recognize what happened slowly and gently and softly as “romance,” as “true love.” But wow, is it ever. Even if it’s not as supposedly-desirable and/or “exciting” as being grabbed and mauled by an Alpha Man you met three days ago who can’t stay away from you.
But falling in love with and being married to my husband has shown me that the love, trust and joy I used to think was “too much to ask for” was actually just the starting point. I just didn’t know it yet.
What else would I tell my younger self, if I could, about love-true-love?
When you’re in love, you know it without a doubt. But there’s no rush to get there.
This was something I waffled around about a few times when I was younger. Am I in love? How will I know? Has it happened yet? What about now? Do I love him? Like, on first dates or after a couple weeks, I would be beating myself up to know for sure what this was and what was going on. Weren’t you supposed to be able to tell, if this was going to be the real thing?! Is that what the flutters in my stomach meant? Love? Shouldn’t I JUST KNOW, like, right away?
First, no, you don’t “just know” right away. (I’ve also known plenty of couples that describe that whole “There were fireworks and orchestra crescendos and I JUST KNEW the second I met them that this was THE ONE!” experience, and yet they still didn’t last, or got divorced, or just had a shitty relationship. Turns out that crap doesn’t always mean anything.)
You have to get to know someone for anything like “real love” to develop. It’s organic, not instantaneous.
The cliche is true: if you have to ask if you’re in love with someone, you’re not in love with someone. But love is something that grows. Enjoy being smitten with someone, and, after a couple of months of spending real time together, it should be pretty clear if you’re in love or not.
PS: It’s okay if you’re not. But that’s another story.
It has to be mutual.
Real, true, in-love love is not one-sided, but a shared experience. It’s more than sharing feelings of love and attraction, though.
If things are going to succeed, a couple usually has to have some sort of shared approach to love, shared values, a shared outlook re: a relationship and the future. If Partner A believes monogamy is immoral and impossible and Partner B wants a traditional marriage, that is not mutual, and won’t work without one partner compromising something that probably shouldn’t be compromised. If Partner A wants to have children with long-term partner and raise them together in a vibrant urban environment, and Partner B wants to live off the grid together and has no desire to raise children, then those are two drastically different views of a relationship. If Partner A believes that love involves a lot of kissing and fucking and physical intimacy and Partner B believes that sex is less important than day-to-day interactions involving fixing dinner together or talking over the latest events (all that “love language” stuff), then those are two differing views of a relationship.
But that doesn’t mean one partner has to or should give up ___ for another. You can compromise on stuff like how to organize the dishes in the kitchen cupboards, or where to go on a week-long vacation. You cannot compromise on your essential values or needs.
Especially, you don’t have to do something you are opposed to or afraid of or grossed out by or just plain DO NOT WANT TO DO (open relationship, sex acts, BDSM, monogamy, having/not having children) as “compromise” to be in a relationship, either. I mean it. DO NOT COMPROMISE ON THINGS LIKE THAT. It will not keep this person with you or make them love you, and will only make you miserable… or worse. It is better to be alone than to be in a relationship with those kinds of dynamics. I swear. I know too well.
What you want out of a relationship matters and is valid. You need a partner who shares that with you. Don’t hack up your values or what you want like Cinderella’s stepsisters hacked up their feet in order to cram bloody stumps into a glass slipper that didn’t fool anyone, anyway.
When people say a relationship takes work, it doesn’t mean “work” in the way you think it means.
I talked myself into staying in crappy relationship situations before because “a relationship takes work” and “it’s not perfect all the time.” But I didn’t understand the nuances of “work” at the time. In fact, if you feel like a relationship is constantly hard work, especially from the beginning, or all of the time, that’s not healthy.
“Work” means things like awareness and consideration. You have to be aware of how your actions affect your partner. You have to consider them when you make a decision. Sometimes when you want different things, you have to figure out together how to handle it. And yeah, that can sometimes take a lot of effort (and compromise) to sort through.
My husband and I are extremely good at working together, after a lot of practice. Sometimes we’ll trade off things: for example, we move a lot, so if I picked the last place we lived (city/home), he picks the next one. We know what’s important to the other, too, and use that for decisions: when we go places, he loves to wander around flaneur-style, with no particular destination. I have to have a destination in mind, and get anxious if I don’t know where food/a bathroom is going to be at some point. So we’ll wander together for a bit, and then I’ll settle in at a cafe to write and watch people for a few hours while he meanders, and then we meet up again for lunch or dinner.
But sometimes the issues are big and complicated, and take a lot of sorting out: we won’t accept a position at a school or a new job unless the city/place/community also has options for the other, be it social, work-wise, or in terms of interests. Sometimes it means one of us goes to ___ for six months to see. Sometimes it means we agree to ___ for a year, and revisit and reassess at the end of that time. Sometimes it means we live separately for a bit, and visit every few weeks (and we build this into work offers, too. “My wife is at school in ___/My husband has a job at ___, so will this include options for travel expenses?”). It all just involves a lot of problem-solving, considering weird options, and trying shit out.
Maybe we should be saying “a relationship takes effort” instead of “work”? But even that doesn’t fix all of the connotations. The thing is, you should feel like you’re working or making an effort TOGETHER, not against each other, to find what meets both partners’ needs and makes you both happy. Because…
Healthy couples are individuals, not two halves of a whole.
This is one of the cornerstone elements to our relationship, and one of the major differences I notice between (generally) happy couples versus couples who seem to struggle: the misconception that you have to share everything, or that (especially, thanks to sexism) that the female half of a heterosexual couple has to be into and participate in everything the male half does. Otherwise, she’s not “supportive.”
Think about how many of those awful dating profiles demand that a woman must be ready to watch sports or do X activity with him… but there isn’t the same gender expectation for men. Even the women in my family are like this, insisting that girlfriends/wives needed to go to ___ and do ___ to support their men. If Bill likes to go hunting and fishing, why don’t you do that with him? It doesn’t matter that you find it unappealing and even questionable, you shouldn’t be so judgmental and uncompromising, and you might even like it! If Pete likes NASCAR, you need to watch with him, and go to events with him, and share that with him because it’s what HE likes. My grandma would insist that I needed to take up golf — something I could ill afford, anyway — because my boyfriend at the time golfed. I finally asked her why she didn’t then insist that my boyfriend needed to attend ballet classes with me in order to support my hobbies and interests, even if he didn’t really want to, because it was something I loved and he might end up liking it, right?
My husband and I have a lot in common and share many interests, but there are a few things each of us has that the other is never going to get into as much. He loves street art, good beer, spicy foods, Pink Floyd, and European football. I love coffeehouses, hotel teas, elaborate French cooking and Jewish delis, disco, and character-based narratives. Often, we’ll share these things with each other, but first and foremost, these are our own things, part of who we are as individual people. He doesn’t insist I have to accompany him on all of his rambles, or trek all over a neighborhood looking for murals and graffiti. Instead, he’ll spend days or weeks wandering a city, and then have an evening where he shows me pictures of the street art he’s found, or he’ll take me to a particular piece he loves and thinks I’ll find interesting, and then we’ll go have a coffee or tea nearby. I don’t insist he read every book I’m reading, or watch a random show I get all-consumed by because of its character development. But I’ll watch Mad Men or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend obsessively, and, because I really think he’ll like it, we’ll watch it together (and he makes amazing popcorn, btw), and we gab about the episodes after. I’ll take a writing-research trip, he’ll take a long weekend to a random city, and we’ll come back and tell the other, or take the other there and show them the awesome things we’ve found. He’ll find a local brewery that also has specialty-of-the-house authentic German schnitzel, and take me there. I’ll find a tea or chocolate place that does a super-spicy option, and take him. But he’s never going to be happy sitting for five hours at a Parisian cafe writing fiction, and I’m not going to be happy down at the local watching the footie with a couple pints. It’s okay to do those things on our own.
You don’t have to spend every second together… even if you really love to be together. It’s actually essential to maintain your own activities and interests. Don’t share every single thing. Do things on your own. Have hobbies and interests and pastimes that are just for you. Take a vacation solo or with other friends sometimes. Not only do you maintain your individuality and think of yourself as something more than one-half of a couple, but… then you have really cool and interesting things to talk about with your partner after, too.
It’s okay to go to bed angry at each other.
As long as both of you are clear on where you’re going to pick up things, that is. But sometimes, you need a breather in the middle of an argument or stressful discussion. It’s okay to say “I love you and we’ll talk more tomorrow, but I am exhausted and need to sleep on this.”
Speaking of “I’m exhausted,” we’ll take a break and continue with Part Two soon.