Today marks the 20th anniversary that my wife and I met. I wanted to celebrate these twenty years with a little retrospective and a "how to guide" on relationships. I'll start off by saying that being together for such a long time is hard. Really hard. Back then I knew my limitations, quirks and faults, but multiple that over time, mix it up with another person's baggage and then add in kids, financial problems, deaths, illnesses and the rest of life and, wow, I didn't know what the hell I was getting into.
I am a romantic at heart. I love thinking of a hypothetical world in which we all float around and are always our best selves. We share, learn from each other, love and have a great time. Unfortunately, that's not reality. I have said and done some of the most horrible things to my wife and been a rat bastard. I have. It's the truth. In moments of frustration and anger, I've done stupid things that I'm ashamed of. I share this because I believe it's important to look in the mirror and be honest and to continue to strive to be a better person. It's not going to me, my relationship or you any good by me lying and saying: "You know, all 20 years have been great. They just sailed on by and it was a blast."
No, that's not the case. We have run the gamut on a full range of emotions over the years. And yet, some of the best memories that stick out are so simple and yet priceless.
Be Open to Try New Things
I've told this story hundreds of times, but here's how my wife and I met. I started going to poetry readings at Borders bookstore (sad that they're now gone). On February 10, 1995, I was scheduled to read my poetry and I asked all my friends to go. Back then my friends were mostly women. I invited Jennifer, Cathy, Laurie, Missy, Michelle and a few others. Everyone bailed out on me. It wasn't that they didn't want to go, but they had plans with boyfriends or had work.
I almost gave up on going, but decided to go to the reading for myself. Afterward I helped my friend John put away the folding chairs and his friend Karen came over to say hello. The rest is history as they say. If I would have cancelled and done something else that night, I would not have met my wife. The funny part to all of this is that I had been looking to meet someone. I tried a dating service, gone on blind dates, dated people at work (not a good idea) and yet nothing really came together. I couldn't find the right person. As soon as I let go and said, "Screw it!" then the universe knew that I had resolved myself to let things happen naturally and I met my wife.
Enjoy the Everyday Moments
I forget exactly when this happened in our relationship, but I remember within the first year of us being together that I went to the supermarket and I was walking through the aisles and this thought popped up into my head. The voice was strong and really present. I was looking for butter and my inner voice said to me, "You love Karen." I just remember being surrounded by strangers and a smile lit up on my face. I took in the realization and made it my own. The unhindered moment was unplanned and beautiful.
I accepted the fact and realized that at my most relaxed my thoughts of my future wife rose up and caused me integrate that truth into my life. I knew that I was ready to share my life with her and that it would be good.
There Will Be Dark Days (months)
I wish this weren't true. I wish that both of us could glide through life in the movies and have it easy, but that's not how our lives are. We went through some extremely difficult times. The year our son was born with lost my grandfather, grandmother, my wife's father and then the next two years saw the death of both of her grandmothers. The grief, depression and stress of having a newborn during that time period was hard.
But there will also be bouts of anger, jealousy and the full range of human interaction. One of you, at some point, will be attracted to someone else. Either you will hide this from your spouse or you will discuss it. Pain results either way and trust needs to be regained as a couple you learn to decide what you want in your own life and where you are headed. There are two individual lives in the relationship and there will be a give and take.
Both my wife and I have compromised on much to make our marriage last. Sometimes it's easy and not a big deal, but other times, the compromise is harder and more complex. There might be troubles with finance (loss of a job), illness, stress, frustration and just plain crap. What I have found that gets my through during these times is to remember something that I learned back in Catholic high school. I know that might sound totally crazy, but I was taught that love is seeing good in someone and supporting that love to grow. The love that I have for my wife isn't simply romantic. She is my best friend. I see such greatness in her, but I also see her struggle. I cannot save her and she cannot save me from my own inner demons. Yet through love, we can be patience and give each other the space each of us needs to grow.
Am I good at this? No. But I try and sometimes I'm better at this than at others. The point is that there will always be periods of bad times. I learned last year in a work seminar from a professor that many millennials get involved in a relationship, hit a bump in the road when they have their first fight, and then break up. Life is not perfect. Neither are relationships. People fuck up. The challenge is finding the line between a problem and a toxic and unhealthy problems that's pulling down the couple. In the end, none of this is easy.
Couple counseling helps, but it's also not a miracle cure. You have to do the work yourself as does your partner.
Do Something Crazy
We all know what the rat race is. We get up, work, get home, do chores, clean up after kids, go to bed and rinse and repeat for 20 years. Yes, many people live lives of "quiet desperation." But it doesn't have to be that way. Make a movie, write a blog together, do a podcast together, go dancing, run a marathon, travel--take your sorry little self out of the normal rut that you're in and just make a simple change. For me, friends started running and asked us to. I went from only have run 2 miles back in high school to completing three marathons. My first marathon wasn't until I was 39! It's never too late to learn, grow and have fun.
No matter if it's going to a bed and breakfast for a night, or making dinner for friends and eating on the floor before getting everyone to play Beatles Rock band or going camping for vacation and dealing with lots of rain, there's a world out there. Turn the damn TV off and walk, run, swim, bike, crawl or if you're like Stephen Hawking and you can't do any of those things, then write love notes back and forth to each other!
It doesn't have to be expensive or crazy, but it helps if it's fun.
I hold grudges and I gunny sling (I have been known to keep a tally of past mistakes and bring them up in an argument). Both of this faults of mine are not conducive to building trust and love with another person. Unfortunately, it takes time for forgiveness to kick in. It doesn't just happen. But, in the end, forgiveness is essentially to a long lasting relationship.
There will be a point in which you screw up and will need forgiveness just as your partner screws up. We all do. Admit the mistake, sincerely apologize and work to actively change the behavior and pattern so that you can do everything you can to not replicate the same mistake.
Intimacy Is Key
Every couple will have their own tolerance level with intimacy. I believe that physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual intimacy is a must. I like touch. I like to massage, to visualize goodness and light around us and to share personal hopes and dreams with my best friend that I wouldn't share with anyone else. Intimacy, for me, is a layered and complex part of our relationship that has taken hits over the years and takes time to nurture and grow.
I look at it this way: If I can't open up and share with my wife what I'm thinking and feeling, what's the point? The challenge is to remember this during the dark times. You might be guarded and angry and the last thing you want is a hug from your partner. But, in time, the healing that takes place from a simple hug goes a long way.
My wife and I have the following quote on our wedding rings: "I am me, you are you, we are one." I am not my wife. And she is not me. But in the grand scheme of things, we have a persona that blends us together as a couple and, with our kids, we are a family. The balance of multiple people living in the same household is a complicated ballet of needs and emotions. Who wants this, does that, says this, hurts that.
But I've found it essential to remember me. I want to be clear on this. I'm not saying that I believe in being selfish and looking out for myself. No, I'm not. But I am saying that it's important not to fulfill the needs of someone else all the time and never taking care of your own. This is a hard one to remember.
Do you like to read, see your friends, write, watch movies, paint? Remember what you love and foster them over time. What happens in twenty years is that the kid cries all night, your work throws a deadline at you and you have a cold and feel like crap. Multiply this out over the months and years and it's easy to keep putting fires out and solving other people's problems until you wake up one day realizing that you've neglected yourself. Remember who you are because when you come to your spouse as that person you make your relationship stronger.
I don't worry about that. I'm focusing on today. And today is good. I believe in love. Anyone who has read my Cinderella's Secret Diaries series knows that Cinderella goes through hell and back searching for love. Why do you think I wrote that? There is no happy ever after where the Prince comes in and sweeps you off your feet. But there is love, tender moments, butter love realizations, camping in the rain, sharing a beer after a half-marathon, holding our first and then second child together, crying in despair and grief, and then laughing like we've seen the mind of God and are awash with holy light from her most intimate of thoughts. That's what twenty years is like. It's a journey on a road that I don't know the end, nor would I ever want to.
Ron Vitale is the author of the Cinderella's Secret Diaries series who hopes that his own children will overcome any obstacles in their way and find their own happily ever after.