Let’s throw away anxiety, let’s quite forget propriety,
Respectable society, the rector and his piety,
And contemplate l’amour in all its infinite variety,
My dear, let’s talk about love
It’s February and there’s spring in the air. That means this past Sunday there were long lines of men standing outside the See’s candy store, roadside stands full of red hearts and teddy bears, and women with a particular gleam in their eye and a knowing smile. February is also the month that Karin and I celebrate our anniversary, so it’s the love month for us, too. This upcoming one is #39 – poor 39, such a lonely number, being right under the shadow of 40 and neither even nor prime. It’s still a pretty good number as longevity goes, so it seems appropriate to discuss the question I often get: What’s the secret to such a long relationship?
Oddly enough, I feel both expert and novice in this. I can speak with superior knowledge about how to make it last, and I have the statistically significant number of years to prove it. Having been in only one relationship, though, I don’t really have a clue about what attracts people to each other in the first place, so I can’t offer any advice on that. (Sorry, I won the multi-billion dollar lottery on that one.) I only know how to get your hooks in good and tight once you got ’em.
So here is my left-brained analytics, my “five point plan,” to achieve this right-brained result. Or as they say on the Internet, Create Permanent Relationships with these Five Simple Tricks…
- Enjoy each others company. Twenty or thirty years in, you still have to find them fascinating to discuss things with – politics, sports, fly-fishing – whatever brought you together in the first place. You have to want to spend time together, even when you’re not at a concert, with children, or in that church group where you first met. This doesn’t mean you have to want to spend all your time together by any means – it’s extremely important to have separate interests. But then if something interesting happens when they’re not around, your first thought should be, “I can’t wait to tell…” If someone asks, “Who are your closest friends?” and your spouse is not on the list, that’s a sign.
2. Similar Values, Complementary Personalities. Which is more accurate – “birds of a feather flock together” or “opposites attract”? I think the real answer is both. You can’t be Siamese twins. The other person has to be different in order to be interesting, so you can’t like all the same music or food or people or experiences. This is tricky because the relationship has to balance the appropriate amount of (to use the ol’ corporate lingo) “constructive tension” without leading to discord. You’re not going to like all the same everything, so you have to find points of agreement but points of disagreement that don’t matter are okay.
My wife likes groove lounge music, which sounds to me like a drum machine stuck on an endless loop. She then plays that same CD in the car about a hundred times before moving on to something different. She also has excellent taste in what she does choose and is much better at finding great new songs than me. So the first time I hear that CD, it’s always awesome — the fifth time not so much. To be fair to her, I like to poke around the radio stations until I find that one song I like, so driving with me involves experiencing a smorgasbord of half-sung lines, equally if not more annoying. Meanwhile, I can’t persuade her to watch more than five minutes of opera, no matter how entertaining I make it sound (ref:last week’s blog). Some of the nastiest squabbles we’ve ever had– I mean, raised voices and stony silence — were about how to categorize music in order to file it. (Are Bonnie Raitt – the Foo Fighters – and Pink Floyd all really just “rock”? Is Kenny G “jazz” if Charlie Parker is “jazz”? Should anyone even own any Kenny G? etc.)
At the same time, you have to have similar values. You can disagree all you want on how to file your music, but you have to agree on fundamentally how to spend money, whether you want children, where you might want to live, and how often you should see your family. It can also take several years to hash out the logistics of exactly where you agree on these important topics, but you probably need to start at a positions relatively close to each other.
3. Experience adversity well. I have always said the best way to know if you are meant to be together is to go on a canoe trip together. Early in our relationship, Karin and I decided to go rafting. The very first time the raft flipped over. It was funny…. much later on in the day. We learned we are both good copers in a crisis, and we learned how to use Ziploc bags for our stuff better. The third time, the raft developed a slow leak, and we kept having to get out and drag it through the shallows, especially the last mile or so. It was annoying then – hilarious now. But not a relationship breaker. It might be really good to see how your couples’ romantic holiday weekend to that special B&B goes if you get stuck in a three hour traffic jam.
4. Your needs and their needs should be equally first priority. You should never sacrifice your career or lifelong dream for the relationship. You should never sacrifice the relationship for a career or lifelong dream. Even if it’s hard because it keep you apart, maybe for long periods of time, you can survive it. If you’re in it for the long haul, though, you’ll find a way to be together.
5. Stay Honest as you Change. This is the one that seems to take out the long term relationships. I’ve known several which ended after 15, 20, 25 years which always seems surprising. The fact is that people change during the relationship. You’re not the same person; your spouse changes and you change from your experiences. You need to talk about it and acknowledge it and discuss how your relationship needs to adjust. Even if you decide that you’ve grown apart, it’s better to get it out into the open and resolve it than let it fester until actions are taken that make it more painful. And you shouldn’t suffer abuse from anybody; that should almost go without saying, but sometimes the change is dramatic and not for the better. Even if the change is gentler, but you grow apart, that can happen. Twenty years is still a good ride. But you have to talk it out. I heard the perfect saying for this the other day. “Some things need to be talked about or they find a way to talk about themselves.”
In a way, these are all variations on the same thing. You and your partner have to roll with it – the lost luggage in your romantic weekend, the job offer in the other city, the disagreement about whether to eat Indian or Italian cuisine, the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving, or the abandoned desire to go to rock concerts ‘cause you just can’t stay up that late anymore. Things change; stuff happens; life goes on. If you fundamentally believe in yourselves as a couple, then you’re always going to think – how do WE get through this because it’s in your mind, it’s always a WE.
Also, when in doubt, just eat cake. That always works.