A mom, on her 25th anniversary, offers her daughters some scraps of advice.
September 1, 2016: I’m sitting at the dining room table wrapped in a too-big fleece that was hanging on my hook in the hall, one that belongs to the same guy who left his shoes by the TV, which I put on the stairs after kissing him on his way out the door; the guy who stood me up on our first two dates but then closed restaurants with me for months afterwards, who shared the twin bed in my grad student room even though his feet hung off the end, and who protested only once when I chose to get married in a $25 dress he hated. It’s still in a trunk in the basement.
Today marks a quarter of a century since we stood in front of friends and family in a field on a small island and made our relationship official. The cliché is true: It feels like both a lifetime ago and yesterday, and if the fingers typing these words weren’t somewhat stiff and knobby, and if I weren’t writing these words to two college-aged daughters, I wouldn’t believe it.
The bizarre marvel of the occasion has jarred me out of my routine obsessions and to-do lists (unwritten articles, half formulated; the leak above the window; summer weeds; fall weeds; piles of laundry; and unanswered email); and I found myself wondering whether these past decades had taught me anything broadly useful about intimate relationships, anything that could actually be put into words and handed down—a sort-of anniversary gift to the two of you, our daughters.
I know you are busy with friends and classes and work. And I know that not everyone needs or wants a primary relationship, especially when they are just launching other parts of life. So, sort through and take whatever fits, and put the rest in your mental recycling bin.
- Don’t judge a relationship by its beginning. There are many kinds of good in the world, and as many kinds of partnerships as friendships. Some are passionate, some are sweet; some grab two people hard from the get-go, while others entwine two hearts slowly over time. You already know a lot about being a good friend, and you already know a lot about love, because you’ve been working the kinks out of both since you were small. Any partnerships you create, whether romantic or not, sexual or not, will build on those hard won skills and experiences (and a lot more mistakes to come).
- If you do fall head-over-heels in love, hold off on commitment till your brain re-engages. Relationships have phases, and you can’t actually see someone when you’re in Phase 1: Smitten. Love hormones are designed to blind and bind us, and they do so beautifully—producing some of life’s strongest surges of pleasure and most memorable moments. But you won’t know someone fully till you’ve had a fight or seen them weary and discouraged—until you know their faults as well as their strengths. Every person is a package, and if a relationship seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Don’t mistake good sex for a good relationship. Being sexually attracted to someone simply means that you’re sexually attracted; no more, no less. It might open the door to a hot encounter or a playful evening in bed, or months of sensual fun. And yes, it can open the door to something deeper. But don’t assume that mutual attraction means you’re in sync on other dimensions—the kinds of shared interests and humor and values and teamwork that make living together better than living apart. Also, don’t assume that these other dimensions of love exist only in concert with romance and sex.
- Take care of old relationships while you make new ones. You are multi-faceted and ever-changing, and no one person will ever meet all your social needs. Different parts of you will always overlap with different people, just as they do now. Committing to any primary relationship means choosing to prioritize some dimensions of yourself over the rest. That means your need for other companions and connections—intimate, playful, intellectual, practical—won’t go away. Anyone who wants to “be your everything” will stifle you. Run away.
- Look for curiosity. Some people get out of college (or high school or law school) and figure they’re done learning. But what keeps life interesting is making new discoveries, and exploring the uncharted territory of your “one precious life” is far more fun if your partner loves riffing and analyzing and debating new information with you.
- Ditch people who are mean. Especially ditch people who are mean to those who hold no attraction or power over them: service workers, employees, public servants, street people, dumb people, ugly people, kids. (How frequent does your potential partner practice those random acts of kindness?) Definitely ditch people who are mean to you. Mean people suck at home even more than they do in the workplace or out in the world, because all of us tend to get grumpier and sharper behind closed doors.
- Pay attention to who brings out the best in you. Your potential partner isn’t the only one who is a package, and the ideal partnership helps draw out the best in each member while offsetting and diminishing the worst. You know your doubts, your fears, the ways that you tend to be impatient or unfair or selfish or neurotic or short sighted. A partner who offers comfort and encouragement, who values your accomplishments and sees your potential but can also ask hard questions and challenge you when you’re out of line is worth more than the Geesley diamonds.
- Live below your means. Finances are one of the most common reasons couples fight, in part because most families live to the edge of their means and beyond. Living below your means may be un-American, but it’s good for your mental health—which means it’s good for your relationships. It also creates space for generosity. Being stretched thin makes us self-focused and self-protective; a sense of blessing and bounty can do the opposite.
- Give together to the world outside. A relationship that’s just about the two of you isn’t likely, in the long run, to satisfy even the two of you.
- Take on joint projects. Create things together, whether that means digging a garden or having a baby or fixing up a fixer-upper or saving the planet. Joint projects are where you learn to compromise, take turns taking the lead, and be decent to each other when you’ve gotten in over your head and, at least for the moment, the situation sucks.
- Do things apart. Your relationship isn’t diminished if one goes to a party while the other curls up with a book. You don’t both have to visit each other’s parents every time. In fact, quite the opposite. Going different directions can help two people live in their common ground despite differences. Besides, it gives you fresh stories to tell each other. That said, make an effort to learn about your partner’s work life and independent activities so that their stories make sense and you can ask stimulating questions. The more you know, the more there is to learn.
- Create rituals—with friends, as a couple, and alone. Rituals don’t have to be fancy or expensive but they are important: Date nights out or in, a shared show, Saturday breakfast, an annual weekend away, games with friends, a cabin in August . . . . In the busiest parts of life, time for even sex or conversation may need to be blocked out and protected in your schedule. Rhythm and ritual create space for both solitude and connection. They clear our heads and become a part of our identity. Our ancestors knew this and structured ritual into a weekly religious “day of rest” and seasonal celebrations. Those of us who have moved beyond belief need to build it for ourselves.
- Do a little more than your share. If two people are pulling their weight, both will feel like they’re doing more than their share—of compromising, of housework, of earning, of bill paying—of something. That’s because we each see and value our own contributions more than those of other people. Feeling like you’re doing more than your share doesn’t mean your relationship is out of balance. If your partner is actually dead weight, you’ll figure it out. And your parents won’t like them.
- Specialize. Equality doesn’t mean you each do half of the dishes; it means you each bring to the mix who you are and what you’re good at, whether those roles are traditional or not.
- Just say yes—sometimes. Partnership requires a commitment to active relationship maintenance. That means saying yes (sometimes) even when you feel ho hum. You don’t have to want to. I’m not recommending that you ignore serious misgivings about health or finances or that you violate your own values. Nor do I recommend doing things you hate, or things you disagree with, or things that even in the moment you would find disagreeable. Take sex, for example. If you just roll over and act like a service station, in the long run you’ll feel like one. But partnership means, at least sometimes, pushing past your own inertia and going along for the ride. Over time, experience will teach you when pushing yourself is a mistake and when you are able to find enjoyment once you gear up.
- Touch, touch, touch. Figure out what makes your partner purr, and tell them what makes you purr—and not just during sex. Cuddling, tickling, neck massages, hugs . . . physical touch releases powerful hormones that connect us to each other and create a sense of wellbeing. But not all touches are physical. Look for little opportunities to give your partner a happy surge. Share that funny picture. Tell a happifying story about someone you both cherish. Save part of your amazing dessert. Ask an opinion. Point out the blue jay at the feeder. Those small, ordinary “touches” are ways of saying, “I see you.” “I love you.”
- Give what your partner wants; ask for what you want. We don’t all experience love and affection in the same way. Some people like presents, some people like help. Some like surprise birthday parties, some would rather walk in the Arboretum. Don’t assume your partner wants what you do, and don’t assume they know what you want unless you tell them. Marital counselors say that “Be spontaneous paradoxes” are off limits because they are toxic: That means you don’t get to say, “What I wanted was this, but I wanted you to do it without me telling you, so now it doesn’t count.” Neither does your partner.
- Resign yourself to repeating change requests. Getting up the nerve to ask for change can be hard—so hard sometimes that it takes a therapist. So when you finally ask for something: more date nights, less impulse buying, less junk on the floor, more listening, more sex, more help with diapers—whatever—you want the change to be permanent. It’s tempting to assume, when your partner slips back to old habits over the following months, that this means they don’t care. It’s tempting to get mad and think, “I shouldn’t have to ask again!” Guess what. That’s not how human beings work. If you want to be in a relationship with a real human, even one who loves you, even one who’s trying, you’d better resign yourself to asking. And then asking again.
- Mind the negativity ratio. Four positive interactions for every negative. That’s what I’ve heard as a minimum, and it’s a decent rule of thumb. If criticisms and change requests come too often, people can’t take them in no matter how gently they may be worded.
- Tone and timing matter. If you want to be heard, picking your words and timing carefully isn’t a form of self-censorship; it’s optimizing for success. Don’t open a tender topic when you’re both tired or frazzled or someone’s already in tears. It’s ok to say “Let’s talk about this later.” But if you’re the one who defers a difficult conversation, you’re the one who needs to set a new time and then bring it up.
- Be generous with honest affirmation and appreciation. They’re free, and once you get in the habit you should find that they flow freely. When they don’t, that’s a good signal to look at your mood or your situation.
- Say you’re sorry. In the 1970’s popular big eyed cartoon characters proclaimed, “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” Just to be clear, that’s total bullshit. The words “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong” are some of the most powerful and valuable phrases in your relationship toolbox. Trust me. By the time you’re my age they will be well worn from decades of regular use.
- Don’t judge a relationship by its ending. Don’t judge yourself by its ending, either. Relationships, even good ones, mostly don’t last. Couples come together at points when their life trajectories have crossed and their values and interests and libido and dreams line up. Sometimes they come together for a few days or weeks; sometimes for decades. But time moves us forward, and people change.
You have choices and power to shape your future, but there’s a lot you can’t foresee and can’t control, and some of what works (or doesn’t) is pure dumb luck. If two people, after an initial interval of promise, go on from there to grow in similar directions at a similar rate, that is, at least in part, an unearned gift from the universe.
So, if—5 or 10 or 25 years from now—you should find yourself in a long-lasting relationship that makes you happy, be grateful; if one you thought might last has come and gone, be self-forgiving and stay open to whatever life may bring next. There are many kinds of good in the world.
Every relationship has a lifespan. A beginning and ending, with living and loving in between. When a partnership dies, you call on those friends you’ve kept dear and the internal strengths you’ve built along the way; and you pack up the good things you’ve learned from your partner, and say goodbye with whatever dignity and kindness you can muster.
Then you move on into the unknown. It’s what we do even if we’re still together.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.