Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Humbling Ten Years

We are about to hit a new marker here. The beginning of February will mark ten years that HusbandX and I have been a couple. This is especially remarkable as 2016 seems to have been the year for long-term relationships to fall apart. I don't have any facts or national statistics to back me up, just anecdotes, but I suspect that a number of factors have made 2016 especially hard, and many people have manifested that in either stress on their relationship or a realization that now is the time to end a relationship that doesn't make them happy.
Over this past year, we've seen over a dozen relationships (of 3+ years) fall apart among our friends and family. If I had to guess, I might even say it's more than 20 couples. In one year! Several more marriages and relationships are on the verge of falling apart, or going through a rocky patch. It's rough to witness. No matter if it ends up being a good thing in the end, it's always painful during the process.
When we saw the most recent public announcement of imminent divorce, I turned to HusbandX and said, "I wonder how many people are surprised that we're still going?" He laughed, mostly because we're quite certain that there are people out there who are surprised that we're still happily married. Two awkward misfits like us, how do we manage to make it work when so many (objectively) better people can't make their relationships work? (Don't worry, we're baffled by it too.)
I'm clearly not an expert in relationships. I don't want to tell anyone else to do with theirs, (well, except for the people sending in Postsecrets talking about knowingly, willfully marrying the wrong person--those are just sad; don't do it!) but I've had quite a bit of time to think about why our relationship is so long-lasting. Since I've been writing romance, I've also made a little study of what makes a relationship good. After all, I can't write effective romance if I don't know what makes a romance worth reading about!
I know that part of what has enabled our relationship is luck. We were just plain lucky to meet each other when and how we did, that we were each receptive to the other's feelings, that neither of us was in a different relationship when we met, and that we had the support of our families. (Don't discount that, ever. If your families aren't supportive because they don't like the other person's skin tone or gender or personality, you have a much harder road ahead of you than we did. I salute you for persevering.) But, not all of it is luck either. So here are the ways we've tested and strengthened our relationship.

We subjected ourselves to hardship

When I was younger, my best friend and I went on a road trip. The car broke down and we were stuck for two nights in this crappy little town in Oregon. Then we spent the next week (two weeks?) no more than two feet away from each other for almost every waking moment. Yet, we were still friends at the end of it! When we decided to move in together, that experience really helped. For one, we knew that we could go through less than ideal circumstances and still remain content with each other. We also knew each other and ourselves better after that experience, and we knew from it that we would be a good fit as roommates.
Years later, when HusbandX and I moved in together, I thought about that. We'd already traveled to and with each other, just short trips, so I was somewhat confident that we'd be able to live together. However, our first living situations were challenges in and of themselves. The first place we moved into was huge, but we had eight other roommates. There were personality conflicts and far too little privacy. That didn't last for more than a summer, but that was all right. HusbandX and I hadn't had any real conflicts with each other so we counted it a success.
Ice fog at about -55F.
I actually used an outhouse in weather like this.
After that, however, came an even bigger challenge. We didn't have much money, so we moved into a cabin without running water. It was the right price, but we were both a little nervous. We'd have to use an outhouse in the cold Alaskan winter, and we'd have to haul our own water. We'd have to do every single dish by hand. Even worse, we had to pay for heating oil and it was hideously expensive that year. $1200, and we weren't sure it would last a full six months! We made a pact not to turn on the heat until after it snowed and we did it without too much grumbling. (Turns out, in that respect I'm hardier than he is!) We even managed to figure out a system of getting the dishes washed without killing each other. (Seriously impressive.) We let the cold and the inefficient cabin bring us closer together, literally and figuratively. We even used trips to the outhouse in the cold as a source of jokes and banter that drew us closer together.
This was not the type of hardship we'd endure for the rest of our lives, and we knew that. But facing these challenges without falling apart was important. We still refer to those days, usually with a laugh. It was a hardship, but it's also a time we remember fondly. I knew then that if we could survive six months in that cabin and come out the other side still friends, still in love, we'd make it through anything. And we have! The early lessons on how to treat each other well despite tough circumstances has served us well.

We show our appreciation

We really don't do dates. Every once in a while, sure. But most of the time if we're going to get out (and away from the kiddo) we're going to do stuff with friends, like our weekly bike ride. Instead of having a dedicated date night, we show our love and appreciation for each other in much smaller but more frequent ways. We make each other tea or coffee and almost always put it in cheesy, flirty mugs my parents have. (One says 'I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles'. I mean really cheesy.) When HusbandX gets up with the kiddo on weekends (it happens occasionally) he makes pancakes with her and they bring some up so I can have breakfast in bed.
How could I not marry this?
We make sure to thank each other frequently. These small acts of kindness toward one's spouse or partner frequently, in my observations, fall by the wayside as people get more comfortable with each other, so it's been a conscious effort to continue doing so. We also make our thanks more genuine by making them specific. "Thank you for taking care of X chore earlier." "Thank you for making dinner tonight."
We're not perfect, there have been plenty of times when we get snippy with each other or just flat out ignore the nice things we do for each other. We can even be downright mean and cruel to one another. These nice things fall by the wayside, especially when we get busy. Then we have a conversation, generally with one side expressing feelings of under-appreciation and the other pointing out the ways that appreciation has been shown but ignored. Then we both redouble our efforts to both show appreciation and to acknowledge it. Because acknowledging it is just as important. It's nice to know that when you've done something the other person knows what you did for them. It's not selfishness, it's human nature.

We purposely do stuff together, even the things we don't do together

We're not super compatible in that we do everything together. We have many of the same interests, such as cooking and biking, but we have plenty of things we do separately too. HusbandX got into weight lifting when I was pregnant and discovered that he loves it, so he's kept it up. Me, I don't like doing any particular exercise regimen because I get bored with it. But HusbandX's gym has occasional "bring a friend for free" days and sometimes I'll even go with him.
We have our hobby agreement, where we trade hobbies. He reads a book from a list I gave him, so that we can talk about it, and I play a video game from a list he gave me. (I still need to finish playing Portal....) Most of the time, though, we do our own hobbies. We just do them in the same room. When I laugh at something in my current book I can tell him, and he'll tell me about silly things that happen in his games or with the friends he talks to while he plays them. It's togetherness for introverts.

We prioritize sex

Eww, TMI! I know! But this one is so crucial. When I was in Russia my brother said, "I don't want any details, but it occurred to me that it must be kind of tough for you guys to have, uh, alone time at Mom and Dad's. I mean, you have a kid so that already makes it tougher." Yeah, it does. But this is an aspect of our relationship that's critical to our happiness with each other. I've had a few friends mention that things get rough between them and their partners when they don't have sex often enough.
The hotel room we booked for the first stop on our
honeymoon was less conducive to honeymooning
than one would expect.
A while I ago I found an app to track my period (since I am NOT one of those lucky women who's super stable and can name the day it's going to start every single month) and realized that it can track other things as well, like migraines So I started tracking how often we have sex. I can now say with certainty about what our monthly average is, and that if we drop below a certain number we're almost certain to have a huge fight. If we drop below a certain average across a couple of weeks, we'll be grumpy and snappish with each other. I've told HusbandX about my informal research and he, too, has started noticing some of the same things. It's become something we now think of first when we're getting irritated with the other person. Have we made enough time for this recently, and could that be the cause of the irritation?
Every couple's numbers are going to be different, which is why personal tracking of such a thing (if you're interested in that) can be beneficial. You never know what you'll discover about your relationship with a little data.

We're frugal

This seems like kind of a weird one to put on the list, and originally I was going to say that we're on the same page about money. After all, finances are one of the biggest things that people fight about, so if you're on the same page with your partner then you should be fine. But, if you're both spendthrifts and constantly in debt because of it then you're not going to be really happy either, as you'll have that hanging over your heads. So, being good with money is one way that we've fostered our relationship.
As with anything else we're not always on the same page. But we are often enough, and we check in with each other frequently enough, that it's okay. It might seem silly to others that I text him, "Hey, can I buy a book?" (The answer is pretty much always yes, because he doesn't get texts from me like that very often. Go libraries!) We check in with each other for almost every purchase (aside from groceries) and warn each other if we're going to be spending out of our norm. We're not really asking permission, but a heads-up is really nice. The last time I texted about buying a book, I didn't get a response so I bought the book anyway. He got the text when I reached home and said, "Yes, you can buy the book," knowing perfectly well that I already had.
Some couples don't want to check in with each other that much and set up monthly spending allowances for each party. However you want to do it is fine, the important part is that it's a system decided on together and that it's one both people can agree to. The point is to avoid future arguments about money, not to cause recurring ones.
This also helps because we both know that we have our long-term goals in mind. Neither of us buys that much because we have some really big goals for this coming year. Being on the same page for the large financial goals is absolutely critical for any couple. We know where we stand, so the few minor purchases we make aren't going to throw us off our big plans. The fact that we both know that helps prevent us from getting annoyed when either of us spends a little bit.

We agreed on the big things before ever getting married

The fact that we got married wasn't done in the heat of the moment, at the height of our love. And the very fact that we're married is because we carefully vetted each other beforehand. In fact, I considered dating to be more like a job interview than anything else. 
The big issues are going to be different for everyone, but for the most part you want to agree on things like having kids. I've seen a few posts on places such as Reddit like, "My wife wants kids and I don't. We never really had this convo before we got married, so this is a bit of a surprise to me." WHY WOULDN'T YOU TALK ABOUT THAT BEFORE GETTING MARRIED? I don't mean that everyone needs to agree on every aspect of parenting--or any other big topic--before getting married, but it seems like much more of a big deal if one party wants kids and the other doesn't, as opposed to wanting two kids vs. three. It's kind of a big deal and something you should talk about with a prospective partner. No matter how much in love with them you are, you need to figure out what your deal breakers are and stick to them.
Our party animal.
I've told HusbandX several times that if he hadn't wanted kids at all then I wouldn't have married him. He was surprised, but that was one of my deal breakers. Another one was pets, which seems funny but it's actually a big deal for a lot of people. If you have three cats you adore and a potential partner who hates cats, are you really compatible for the long term? I was so nervous for HusbandX to meet my dog because he "doesn't like small dogs". He loves her, though, so no worries there. If he'd hated my dog, we'd have had some serious problems. I suspect that if I'd hated cats, it would also have caused problems.
There are others, but I won't get into every single one of them. They'll be different for every person and couple, but it's important to recognize what they are. Some things can be negotiated as life goes on, but the big things should be agreed on from the start.

We recognize the cycles of a relationship

We're not going to constantly be doe-eyed with little cartoon hearts popping up all around us. There will be times when we have to work harder at being attractive for or attracted to our partner. Conversely, there will be times when it feels like being married is the easiest thing in the world. We take advantage of those times and work hard at consciously choosing each other when we're in a low point. This is the nature of the beast, to have ups and downs. It's easy to compare us after ten years to the way we were in the first year and think that things are just not as good as they were. But, we're more comfortable with each other than we were, and in many ways our relationship is better. It's easy to lose sight of that, though, when we're not getting the same hormonal highs from each other that we did in the beginning.

Of course, all of this is predicated on trust and honesty. None of this is going to salvage a toxic or downright abusive relationship, and if you can't trust your partner then you need to get away from them immediately. But with one glaring exception, pretty much all of the relationships I've seen or heard of crumbling this year are between two good people who really like each other and just, for whatever reason, can't make it work.
I don't know why or how I was so lucky to meet HusbandX. Not that I always feel lucky. Sometimes I think that my life would have been so much easier if I'd married someone who isn't as strong-willed as I am, someone I could manipulate or dominate, someone who would let me have my way. It's clearly the best way! I suspect HusbandX has had similar thoughts about me too, and for some people that probably is the right choice. But for me, if I hadn't married someone with as much personality as I have then I wouldn't have been able to respect him. Being equals isn't always easy because there are plenty of times when we clash, but that's okay because trust and respect underlie everything else. It helps us to keep functioning as a team even when things are tough.
I look forward to the next ten years with HusbandX, and trust that they'll be even better than the last ten have been. That's saying something, because he still brings joy to my life every single day and I wouldn't be the person I am without him.

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