How To Keep Your Relationship Thriving After 21 Years
Tomorrow is our Anniversary. We’ve been married for 21 years. As you may know if you’ve been around here for awhile, we got engaged after dating for exactly 29 days. We married the year after and the rest, as they say, is history.
21 years, two kids and a WHOLE lot of crazy shit later, our relationship is still thriving. In fact, it’s more solid and sacred than ever. We’re in it for the long haul and although every day isn’t perfect, we seem to have this whole marriage/committed relationship thing figured out.
There’s a whole lot of relationship advice out there already, and I don’t claim to be an expert (like not even a little), but I can share what’s worked for us and maybe it’ll work for you too.
(Editor’s note: Although I wrote this post, Sean read and approved every word. Cause like I said, we kind of have this whole thing figured out pretty well.)
Here are a few lessons we’ve learned after 21 years:
- This may seem obvious but it’s an essential first step. Pick the right person! Neither of us was going around specifically looking to get hitched. Far from it. But, when you know, you know. That doesn’t mean it has to be the whole ‘our eyes met across a crowded room’ scenario either. Even though it happened at record speed, that wasn’t how it was for us. It was only after a few meaningful conversations (and when he showed up to make me dinner with his own blender and an entire bulb of garlic) that I was certain. I was certain because he made me feel good about myself just as I was, he was honest and real and engaging, I realized we shared the same values, and he never expected anything in return for being a decent human being. And there was the added bonus... he was hot. When you’re contemplating if he or she is ‘the one’ or at least in the running, ask yourself, “Does this person make me feel good about myself? Do they accept me as I am? Do I want to tell them the truth? Do I sense that they are showing me their authentic self, or does it feel like we’re ‘playing roles’ right from the start?" If there is even a hint of uncertainty about any of that, that is a HUGE red flag. Don't be so desperate to be in a relationship that you ignore your gut feelings. If you’re compromising your core values and allowing yourself to be disrespected right from the start, the relationship is doomed to failure or misery. Guaranteed.
- Get your head out of the clouds. Marriage/long term commitment isn’t a fairy-tale! If you’re one of those people who’s been imagining your ‘perfect partner’ or wedding day forever, I’ve got to be honest here... I’m a little worried for you. That’s not to say that everyone who has long term fantasies of meeting prince or princess charming and riding off into the sunset to live a life of bliss, will fail at marriage/long term commitment. However, I think if you have your heart and mind set on a certain ‘perfect’ ideal of what marriage/partnership looks like, you run the risk of being sadly disappointed when real life turns out to look a whole lot different from your fantasy. Because without a doubt, it will.
- Things will not always be equal and that’s o.k. Listen, there are times in life when one person needs to carry more than their fair share of the load. People get sick, work gets crazy, accidents happen, jobs are lost or quit, kids are born, stress gets the better of you... whatever! The point is, sometimes you will have to be the one to pick up the slack, suck it up and get on with it, while you let the other person deal with whatever it is they need to work through. Rest assured that at some point, it will be their turn to do the same for you. If you can’t fathom that kind of reciprocation in your current relationship... go back to step one.
- Learn to ask yourself this question early and often in your relationship, “Would I rather be right or happy?” Sometimes it can’t be both. In this house, we can all argue like wall street lawyers. Sean and I agree on most things, but sometimes, because we’re individuals, we don’t. We’re both passionate and stubborn as they come and admittedly, we both think we’re right most of the time. (Wonder where the kids get it from?). After many disagreements that turned into ridiculous, and on occasion even nasty arguments (yep, it happens), we both came to realize that being right was SO not worth it most of the time. You are never ALWAYS going to see eye to eye and that’s o.k. If there is nothing major riding on you being right (and let’s be honest, there rarely is unless one of you is consistently, completely unreasonable, in which case go back to step one), then just agree to disagree and move on. These days in our house, happy wins over right, about 99% of the time.
- Keep communicating. No matter what! Just to be clear, I mean with each other. I don’t mean incessantly complaining about your spouse to your BFF or the folks at work, but never being willing to have a conversation about how you’re feeling with them. This is HUGE people! To maintain a happy, healthy relationship, you have to talk about shit, and in order to do that, you have to be willing to be vulnerable. Listen, I don’t care if you’ve built your reputation on being the strong silent type. I don’t care if you think that you’re not a good talker, that you’re too busy to talk, that talking is only for women, that you think you can read your partner’s mind or that they can read yours, or whatever else it is that’s stopping you. I don’t care about any of those excuses. Seriously, You HAVE to get over yourself and open your freaking mouth! If you can’t do that, then expect that at some point, it’s not going to go well for you. If we don’t talk about our needs, feelings, intentions, fears, hopes, etc. with the person we consciously chose to spend the rest of our lives with, then something is horribly wrong. And if your excuse is that you can’t talk about certain things without it getting weird or turning into an argument, then go see someone who can help you communicate with each other, (or go back to step one). There is no shame in getting help to work stuff out. What’s shameful is letting your pride and bullshit excuses take precedent over the quality and potential survival of your relationship. If we didn’t talk to each other like ALL the time in our marriage, I can guarantee you it wouldn’t have lasted this long. And even if we did manage to stick it out, we would be angry, miserable, resentful, messed up people.
- Admit when you’ve fucked up. In other words, admit to being human and own your shit. Contrary to what you might want to believe, all the issues in your relationship and life, ARE NOT the other person’s fault. You may be pretty damned awesome, but you’re not perfect... so don’t expect your partner to be either. Sidenote: If your partner has some sort of major issue like addiction, uncontrolled anger, or mental illness, it is not your job to own that. THAT is not your fault. It is your job to support them as best you can without compromising your own safety, security and well-being, or that of any children you have, but you are in no way to blame for their condition. I am not telling you to be a martyr here. I would NEVER tell you to do that. What I’m saying is that in ‘normal’ every day life (whatever that means), people mess up and none of us is perfect. So be willing to look at your own flaws as much as those of your partner’s. Be willing to own your shit and realize that if you want things in your life or relationship to change or improve, the place to start is with yourself. But don’t forget the talking about it part.
- Make time to connect with each other on a regular basis. No excuses. The most successful relationships I know, all have this one thing in common. No matter how busy life gets, make your relationship a priority. My mother taught me a lot of stuff and much of it was pretty worthwhile. Especially this piece of advice, “The relationship you have with your spouse is the most important relationship you will ever have. When your kids leave home, that person will still be there so you HAVE to make that relationship your priority.” That philosophy has gotten my folks through some serious shit. Against all odds, they are still married after 49 years, so it obviously worked on some level. In our own relationship, we have always carved out even small amounts of time to connect. We both love to cook and eat so a lot of times it revolves around that. This is where having similar values and at least some similar interests can come in uber handy. You can do those things together. Now with kids in the mix, it’s admittedly more difficult to find that time, but we still do. We will cook dinner together, occasionally Poppa or an aunt will take the kids out for awhile, or once in awhile we go out for dinner. Sometimes it’s a matter of sending them downstairs on a Friday or Saturday night to watch their own show so that we can have a glass of wine, chat and maybe even watch something we want to watch on Netflix. It doesn’t always have to be about the grand gesture or a couple’s vacation in an exotic location. Sure those things can be great if and when you’re able to do them, but it’s the day to day that matters most. Going away for two weeks together, if you rarely speak to each other on a regular basis outside of, “What’s for dinner and when do the kids need to be picked up?” is not likely to solve all of your problems. In the 12 years we’ve had kids, we have been away together without them exactly 3 times... all of them for only a long weekend and within driving distance from home.
- Expect things to change. The only thing that we can be absolutely certain of in this life is that things will change. Guaranteed. There is no avoiding it. People will get older, bodies will change, families will grow, losses will occur, bad stuff will happen, good stuff will happen, downright crazy stuff will happen. Most of it, you will never be fully prepared for, but it will happen just the same. So decide right here and now that together, you will deal with whatever comes your way. Decide that you will be a united front. Decide that you will evolve through whatever changes occur. Declare that you will figure it out. Commit to being each other’s biggest supporter and fan, no matter what life throws at you. Agree that you will hold the promise you made at the beginning of your relationship, as sacred. If one of you ever breaks that agreement, then you’ll have to decide if, and how to move past it. Remember why you made that commitment in the first place and DO NOT take it lightly. Ever. If you do those things, when life inevitably changes, you will have that solid foundation to help you weather any storm.
Here’s to 21 years and counting!