Part One is here.
Continuing with all sorts of reflective stuff about long-term relationships that I wish I could’ve told my teenaged self, and stuff that I’ve learned after twenty years of being married to the best boy in the world….
You can make choices to not let certain things (that don’t matter) be an issue.
He leaves cupboard doors open. I don’t replace toilet paper rolls. We each think the other loads the dishwasher wrong and folds towels the wrong way. Sure, some of these things are peeves. When they become dangerous (like me stabbing myself on the cutlery that he’s loaded points-up, or him bonking into something I’ve hung because he’s considerably taller than me), we deal. But we don’t scream and yell and throw fits over things like adjusting a car seat, or hanging a towel with the tag showing, or putting the milk carton in the fridge with the handle to the back. Those things really just don’t matter overall. We’ve decided to not let them matter.
Certain things that seem like they do matter really don’t, either.
Some things are just human, and yet we sometimes act like it’s a sign everything is wrong. But really, it’s okay to wondering in passing if your life would be different if you weren’t married/were single, or even to find someone else attractive. It’s normal to have moments of doubt, to find something your partner does exasperating, or to even experience a period of depression. It’s normal and okay to want to be alone, or to go through a bit of a dry spell sexually because work is insane. If these moments happen more than the love and happiness does, then it’s an issue. If they are much more than just moments, then it’s an issue. But it’s completely normal and human to just want a weekend to yourself, or double-take that gorgeous stranger on the bus, or just not be blissed out all the time.
Prioritize each other.
Another key thing: your partner is not your second choice. Individuality is balanced with knowing that if the other person really needs you, you’re there. If you constantly feel like your partner is choosing their Coffee Mug Painting or competitive lawn chair folding group, or, even more, another person (romantic or not) over you, that is a real issue to deal with. If you usually want to be spending time with anyone or anything BUT your partner, that is a real issue to deal with.
Or, as someone once told me back when I was coming out of that awful, manipulative, abusive, too-long relationship: never make someone your priority if they only consider you an option.
Treat each other as valuable and important.
It amazes me how many times I’ve heard people talking about their spouses like they’re idiots, or complaining incessantly. I remember one friend of my mom’s who used to refer to men, including her husband, as “little boys in long pants,” and go on and on about all of the improvements she had to make on her husband to make him “presentable,” from insisting he change the way he dressed and cut his hair to redecorating his office at work. My brother and his friends used to sit around for hours complaining in minute detail about every cent their girlfriends/wives spent on ___ and ___ and ___. I’ve heard countless partners detail how their spouse would not be able to function if not for them to pick out their clothes, monitor their food, pay bills, and assorted other Responsible Adulting. Hi, this is the person you married, right? If they’re so hopeless and useless, then either maybe you should dump the manbaby or girlchild, or you need some serious therapy in your relationship.
But often, this kind of complaining is a kind of marital/family performance in certain circles. The guy has to maintain dudebro cred by complaining about how long the old lady takes getting ready and putting on her makeup. The woman’s gotta join in the conversation with workmates about all the articles of husbands’ clothing they want to burn. It’s like it makes a spouse sound more valuable if they present the idea that their partner is at a complete loss without them.
And after a while, it sounds less like a comedy routine, and more like… like… why are you even with this person? Where is your self-esteem? Are you ever happy together?! Are you two even functioning adults?!
I actually have a couple friends that I’ve had to distance myself from, or only spend time with individually, because they are a “yelling couple,” and all they do is insult each other and berate each other and pick on each other. When I’ve expressed concern about that dynamic, they both assure me that they say nice things to each other in private, or “know” the other person loves them, so it’s okay, and… all right, if that’s how they’re happy, great. But it is really uncomfortable to be around two people who are always bitching about each other at top volume and never seem to have anything good to say about each other.
That may be the dynamic that works for them, but not only is it ridiculously triggering for me to remember what it was like being with someone who berated me all the time, it also really sucks to be around, to see nothing but their seeming disdain for each other all the time. And it just sets up shitty precedents.
My husband and I genuinely treat each other like special, beloved, equal, adult, respected, important people. That is what we are to each other, after all. We tease a lot, but do not cruelly insult each other, even as a joke, and it is clear that the thing we tease about (his weird taste in candy, my penchant for earworm pop songs) are not put-downs or shaming. It is also okay to say to the other person “That hurt my feelings” if something does. We do not list the other’s failings, either in private or public; this is not Festivus, and we do not need an “airing of grievances.” We touch each other often, and lovingly, and spend time in the morning cuddling for a few minutes after the alarm goes off. We kiss, even if it’s not going to lead to sex. If we’ve been swamped with work and haven’t had a chance to really see each other in several days, we make a coffee date or a dinner date and have a conversation, check in with each other. We compliment each other sincerely. We talk to each other and listen to each other.
We each knows the other person matters, and matters most. That is crucial, and if that was missing, it’s likely our relationship would not be successful.
There is a sub-genre to this “Treat each other as valuable” thing that some will likely dispute, but it absolutely works for us, and from what I’ve observed in other couples, it makes a difference in how you view your partner, and that is:
Don’t be all gross and sloppy and ill-mannered with each other.
I don’t mean that in a “repress everything” way. (I know one woman–the “little boys in long pants” one, in fact–who spent the first years of her first marriage driving to nearby stores whenever she had to go to the bathroom, because she didn’t want her husband to know she went to the bathroom.) When you spend daily life with someone, you’re going to have to get used to farting and morning breath, you’re going to see each other through food poisoning, the flu, or even long-term illnesses, you’re going to have to play “Can you tell me what that bump is?” or “Sorry, I just clogged the toilet, so don’t go in there.” Hell, just the other night, my husband spent an hour tediously but carefully digging a splinter I couldn’t reach out of my big toe.
But it doesn’t have to be all grossness and mundane icky things all the time, if you don’t want it to be. Based on everything around me, from TV to others’ IRL relationships, I assumed that with marriage, the niceties were gone. (My family is also uncomfortably gross/lacking in boundaries, so it was a years-long fight to just be able to pee in private without someone barging in. So there was no freedom from repression for me in “At last, I can acknowledge that women have bodily functions!” because farting contests and gross-out humor were constant things at home.) Whether there was a television laugh track or it was just a visit to my aunt and uncle’s house, being a married couple meant all of the courtesies and behaviors of dating were blissfully discarded in favor of “real life.” One was fake, the other was real, and there were no other options. The wife wears period-stained underwear all the time and the husband does penis puppet show comedy as foreplay.
That’s just what marriage was, and if you didn’t accept it, you were ridiculous, uptight, and unrealistic.
But no, you don’t have to become like two guys in a buddy comedy, or a pair of bratty siblings, with no-holds-barred belching and “Come look at this turd I just made!” even after decades of marriage. Clean up the toilet when you mess it up with pee spots or menstrual blood. Close the bathroom door. Pick your nose or your zits out of sight of the other person. There are some intimacies that can remain private. I don’t want to see my husband shitting on the toilet every morning any more than he wants to see me waxing my facial hair. We don’t need to discuss his nose hair or my period poo or the colors of things that we sneeze or cough up.
(NOTE: Unless that’s really what both of you are truly happy and comfortable with, and there are plenty of people for whom this works. Again, YMMV. But what I’m saying is, if ___ isn’t appealing to you, you don’t have to accept it as inevitable. You CAN draw a line at popping each other’s butt-pimples.)
Admittedly, it is much easier to still be all hot for the person you’re with when you don’t see them on the toilet every day, and they take care of their own dirty underwear and nail clippings.
We’re beat over the head with truisms about love, from billboards to song lyrics. It’s often a plot point in narratives. We’re told that real love means certain things (sometimes summed up in a snappy catch-phrase or quote or meme): “Happily ever after,” “unconditional love,” “The One!” “IT’S MEANT TO BE!” “No matter what you do to me, I’ll never leave you.” “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” “To me, you are perfect.” “You complete me.” “You’ve bewitched me, body and soul.”
We watch couples in fiction and IRL unravel because they think love means being like ___ and they can’t square their own relationship and experiences with that.
Screw all the cute quotes and things that sound really deep but actually are bullshit! Or bullshit for you. Focus on the real things, the things that matter, things that make you both happy and secure and excited and content. Don’t get hung up on some other “love story” and frame your relationship around what it looks like. (And if you’re not happy and secure and excited, if you’re mostly hurt and scared and miserable, then all of the rhetoric about “But… soulmate! The One! They said ___ that one time! I saw us having kids and grandkids together!” will not make it all better.)
There is no one right way to be married.
I’ve seen a lot of people, usually women (but yes, plenty of men, too) settle. Or make decisions based on what they think people are “supposed” to do. You’re supposed to get married when you’re ___, or after you ___, or before you ___. You’re supposed to have kids. You’re not supposed to travel until you’re older. You’re supposed to buy a house, and stay in that house for your whole lives, and then have all the kids and grandkids and great-grandkids visit you there. You’re supposed to retire to Arizona or Florida. You’re supposed to take one vacation a year to a resort, or on a cruise, or to visit X place. You’re supposed to talk a lot about your sex life. You’re not supposed to talk about your sex life at all. You’re supposed to have get-togethers with your other couple-friends. You’re supposed to spend holidays with family.
The right way to be married is where you both are happy and getting your needs met from each other and the relationship.
For us, that’s meant we do a lot of things that people have questioned as “wrong” or “weird” or just not what “regular” married couples do. We’ve spent Christmases alone, just the two of us, in strange cities or having a restaurant dinner. We have cats instead of kids. He took my name when we got married, too. As long as work or health stuff isn’t an issue, we still have enjoyable sex a lot (but don’t discuss the details with others). We don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day because we both think it’s stupid and superfluous. We don’t exchange physical birthday or Christmas gifts. We read out loud to each other. We have gatherings with lots of different people, not just couples. We usually don’t fly to destinations together for a variety of reasons, and when we do, we don’t sit next to each other. We don’t have weekly “date night.”
Over the years, I’ve been told that it’s “weird” that I don’t pick out and shop for his clothes for him. He’s been told that it’s “weird” that he doesn’t buy me jewelry trinkets for our anniversary. Articles insist that our sex life must be lame or boring because we’ve never done it in public and feel silly with full-on roleplay. Sometimes we go to shows or concerts without the other. I had one cousin freak out on me because my husband regularly goes to the movies by himself, and why wasn’t I concerned about that? I was supposed to go with him! He might meet someone else there, because going to movies is what a couple is supposed to do together! He’s had concerned co-workers or shop salespeople take him aside on minor holidays after he responds “Nothing” to their “What did you get your wife for Easter/Valentine’s Day/Pet Parent Appreciation Day” because, despite the fact that he and I have a relationship established on decades of communication and I have clearly expressed my opinion on gifts before, they “just know” that I “don’t really mean it,” and he needs to bring me home a cutesy teddy bear (ugh) or Pandora bracelet (no) or perfume (nope) because that is what wives want their husbands to do.
Oh, and I’m probably supposed to surprise him with a threesome (with another woman, natch) for his birthday to spice things up and because that’s what every man totally wants, too.
Fuck all of that. Are you both truly happy and fulfilled in your sexless/open/child-free/poly/Freyja-centered/traditional/transatlantic/nontraditional marriage? That is what matters.
So why have we lasted this long?
I’ve been getting this question more and more as we crept up on our twentieth. And really, some of it is just dumb luck. We’ve had health scares, but no long-term life-threatening illnesses or accidents to deal with. We’ve had good financial times and mostly cautious financial times, and even had our life savings stolen ten years ago, but we’ve never dealt with long term poverty as a couple.
We genuinely like each other. We treat each other like we like each other. We are the same people in public and in private with each other; there’s no “he treats me totally different when we’re with friends or family” shit. I don’t have to act like someone else to get him to like me. There’s no artifice or game playing or power struggles.
We share a similar set of values and outlook on the world. We both identify openly as feminists and progressive. We’ve marched together to support marriage equality and Black Lives Matter. We value education, travel, experience, equality, awareness. We are always willing to question things and make improvements. We are both planners and very analytical. We are both agnostic (although I was Christian when we met, but we both had a similar stance on church/organized religion). That’s not to say we don’t have plenty of differences: he trusts the system to work (although he is aware that this is in part because he’s a white male)… I am a pessimist and a worrier… we were both raised in very different households… and yet here we are, figuring out balances of all that.
We don’t have kids. I know this is another YMMV issue, but it’s made a huge difference for us in a number of ways: First, we never had kids because we thought we were supposed to, or because we felt something was missing/lacking, or out of family pressure (and the pressure was EXTREME, believe me!). Second, we have the time and money to do things that are more important to us: education for me, extensive travel for him. Third, we have not had to complicate our relationship or our selves with negotiating the identities of “parents.” Again, I’m not saying you can’t have a happy, lasting marriage with kids. But I know we’ve had more energies for other things — a kind of privilege, for sure — because we didn’t. And, especially, it made a difference because we gave it real consideration instead of just doing it because “that’s what you do!” Having kids is brutal stress and a shit-ton of responsibility, and that has a huge impact on people’s relationships.
We respect each other as individuals, and equally help the other be the person we most want to be. Equally and mutually, we support each other’s careers, we encourage each other’s hobbies.
We are a team. When a family issue pops up, when the world is too much, when the cats are acting up, when we plan a meal or a holiday or a vacation, no matter what, he and I are a team. This is how we define our marriage and our relationship. This has helped us through my bouts of depression and anxiety, financial woes, problems with his brother or my mother, deaths, illness, whatever. This has helped us deal with a family member who seeks to get at one of us by approaching the other. When things start to crash, we know that we can count on the other person. That is invaluable. That is the point.
We still have a lot of good sex. Again, YMMV, and there are many real reasons why a couple may function better in a sexless relationship, or not have sex a lot. But for us, it is an intimacy. It feels good. It’s connection and comfort and fun and loving. We still try new things. We are comfortable enough to ask for ___ or try ___ or refuse ___. If we notice that during stressful times, it’s been a few weeks, we make it a point to really connect with each other, because that makes everything else feel better. We know that if I’ve had no interest in sex for a little while, it’s one of the signs my depression is getting out of hand and needs to be dealt with. We know that if he’s had no interest in sex for a little while, it’s a sign that he’s been working too much and that needs to be dealt with. (This doesn’t mean he doesn’t experience emotion-related things and I don’t have extreme workloads, but this is usually the first place those things manifest for both of us.) But especially, even after all this time, with changing bodies and overfamiliarity, we make sure that things are still exciting, that we still feel desirable and wanted.
And now, we’re excited to see what our next twenty years together is going to bring.