I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is that has made my marriage successful for the long run. In this modern age, in Western society, we ask a lot of our spouses (or partners, whatever level of commitment we’re at). We ask them to be best friend, lover, confidante, cheerleader, safety net, and also to split the chores. It’s a lot. And while my partner* and I aren’t all those things for each other, we play each of those roles at certain points in our relationship. Yes, he’s my best friend, but I also don’t have deep discussions about having a menstrual cycle and all the lessons that has taught me with him (that’s for my gal pals). He is sometimes my confidante, but not always; some things I hold inside myself for a while to process first. But we do well together, and I think there are some reasons why.
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We really want to stay together. There are a lot of skills that are necessary for a successful long-term partnership, but a lot of those can be learned if you don’t have them. What you have to have is the desire to stay together and the willingness to (be humble and) learn and do new things when needed. We have talked about getting divorced three times (over communication, values, and affairs), but when we came to the question, “Do I want you out of my life?” the answer was always “no” (and pretty clearly so). So we did whatever work was necessary to stay together.
I think the big thing to keep in mind here is that sometimes we feel like, “Jesus, this is hard work,” or “Fuck, I am so sick of you,” but that doesn’t mean we want to leave. And when someone does want to leave, I think we definitely owe it to the relationship to tell the absolute fucking truth about why it’s not working or what we want that we’re not getting to see if the other partner is willing to learn or change.
We do the work. I heard “When Doves Cry” by Prince today and the part where he sings:
Maybe I’m just too demanding/
Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold/
Maybe I’m just like my mother, she’s never satisfied/
Why do we scream at each other?
is so relatable for some of the work you have to do in long-term relationships. There were years when my husband would say something in a particular tone of voice and I would have this instant, visceral reaction and lash out at him. Turns out, his tone of voice was a direct emotional hit on something my mother used to do to me. I had to go to therapy to untangle that so our relationship could be easier. I had healing work to do from old wounds. The same is true for him. Long-term relationship is a path of development and healing. (If it isn’t, then LTR is a path of routine and numbness simply for the sake of safety. Some people dig that kind of routine, but I think it’s boring af. Who wants to be the same, do the same damn things for 40 years straight?) Sometimes that work is from places outside our relationship, and sometimes it is our individual stuff we have to work on. But, again, doing the work keeps what we have working as well as possible.
We support each other’s dreams and goals. My husband is a cyclist. Three years ago, he rode 10,000 miles on his bike in one year. The next year it was 11,000. And this past year (2017), he rode 12,000 miles on his bike. How did he do that? With our support. He wanted to reach those goals, so we helped him. (He also managed to destroy a pair of handlebars with his acidic sweat.) My husband has been 110% supportive of my work as a health educator for mid-life women. He sees opportunities to share my work in places I don’t even see them; and he’s proud to talk about my work. He supports my goals and dreams.
Will he do 13k miles this year? No. He’s learning to race.
We communicate until we understand each other. After twenty-two years together we have really grown in our ability to communicate well and also to understand each other. But we still have fights. The other day we were talking about something and I said, “We have always been different than other couples, and I need us to keep being different.” And a few minutes later, he was telling me what heard me say, and it was, “We aren’t being different.” To which I was kind of stunned, because I was thinking, “that’s pretty much the opposite of what I said!!!!!” But we went back and talked until I knew that he understood what I was saying in the same way that I did. (To be fair, earlier in the same convo, I said to him, “Okay, what I think you are saying, is….” and he replied, “Yes, after two years, you get it.” We are both guilty of misunderstanding, but we both want desperately to be understood. And don’t we all want that in love?)
We also meta communicate, which means we talk about how we talk to each other. It’s not just “Let’s talk about why you hate doing the laundry so much,” it’s also “Let’s talk about why I don’t want you to call me a bitch when we talk about why you hate doing the laundry.” (He doesn’t do that. He would never.) Sometimes it’s what you say and sometimes it’s how you say it, and both are fair game for fixing issues.
We share about our growth as individuals. I think a lot of couples get worried when one partner grows and the other doesn’t. And this is a reasonable fear. So, one person shuts down because they are afraid the other partner is growing away from them and the other pretends not to notice until it’s too late and they either don’t like each other any more or they become ‘roommates’ or ‘players on a team’ together. My husband has had tremendous professional growth over the last 17 years and I have had tremendous personal growth in that same time. We’ve also had two kids and weathered some scary shit. It makes us see the world differently, but as long as we keep talking about how we’re changing, we have a much better chance of staying together.
We have fun and make great memories. We both love to go to concerts. We go together and we go alone. We love to travel and get the fuck out of small-minded Rhode Island. We travel to Quebec, England, and this year, France. We love to go out for quick dates (our kids are older). We love super quick make-out sessions in the laundry room and on walks around the neighborhood. One of my beloved’s favorite pictures of me is when we went blackberry picking years ago. We watch TV shows together and we laugh about crude jokes we would never tell other people. We make these memories and we relive them when times are tough- or just when we’re laying on the bed together, chillin’. (Which we also love to do.)
We try our best not to do the bad stuff. We don’t manipulate each other. We don’t gaslight each other. We don’t yell unless we’re expressing the intensity of our feelings. We don’t hold each other hostage emotionally (which is coercing by saying one partner must prove their love by doing xyz). We don’t lie. A few girlfriends before me (in college), my husband dated a manipulative woman. “If you don’t do all the housework, I can’t finish school, and I’m working hard for us.” She engaged in gaslighting– which is when your partner says things like, “no, that didn’t happen,” or “no, it happened like this…” (which is blatantly untrue), when they deny your experience or perception, or invalidate your feelings, among other things. These are hurtful, immature, and psychologically damaging tactics and they aren’t part of successful long-term relationships. We keep away from them.
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I’m sure these aren’t all the things that have helped us stay together long-term but they are a good list to start with. Check back, I’m sure the list will get updated, knowing how my brain works. But these are the things that came to mind first, and they are the things that I go back to when I look at why and how we were successful. Now, that doesn’t mean these will be successful for everyone, but I think it’s important to at least talk about whether these measures are important in your own relationships.
Okay, my brain hurts. I love you all and hope you’re well. New moon soon!
Joanna :: xoxo
* I find that I’m much more secure in sharing about my husband and our relationship now. In years past, I was deeply afraid that my desires would hurt him, would hurt or kill our partnership. But now that he knows everything, everything, I’m not as worried. I think I’m starting to spitball about relationships here so that I can look back, see what insights I have, see if they are applicable to others, see if they’re ready for my other website and work there. (It only took me three years to share this post over there…) You’ll probably be seeing more of this here because he’s the person I’ve learned all the good and bad stuff with.