A Love Story: 20 Years in the Making

A Love Story: 20 Years in the Making

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.

Why I'm a Romantic

I'll let you in on a little secret: I'm a romantic. I decided a long, long time ago to embrace life and to live it to the fullest. But on seeing Richard Linklater's most recent film, Before Midnight, I have come face to face with the delusional yearnings of my youth and the hard, cold reality of the present. Bills, arguments, lack of sleep, screaming kids, work upon work, and a whole list of stresses, make me ask: Am I still a romantic and would I recommend others to be the same?

Finding True Love

by Ron Vitale

Self-portrait of my wife and I in Paris back in 1999.

Self-portrait of my wife and I in Paris back in 1999.

This week marks the 18th year that I met my wife and in honor of that I wanted to reflect back and set the record straight answering the question: Does true love exist? But before I can do that, I think it's more important to define: What is love?

Love Is a Many Splendid Thing

The definition of love that I like the best is one I was taught back in my senior year of high school from a priest at my Catholic school. Father Hanley taught us that "love is seeing good in someone and wanting to see that good grow." I've always liked that definition because love is active and other centered. It's not about swooning, smothering or possessiveness, but about growth and giving of yourself to another to support them in achieving their potential.

True love, for me, is simply that: Supporting the person you love and being there for them on their journey through life as they continue to grow and become a better person. Love is not simply about sex and gifts (I think we all know that), but it's a balance of discovery, support and learning to grow with another over time. There are ups and downs and downs and ups, but there are also times of great intensity that flare up like the sun. Yet if I look at the 18 years that I've been with my wife, I would say that we have worked hard to find a path of calm (though she would probably disagree with me on this) in which we have strived to build a solid foundation for our lives and for our kids.

The "C" Word

We opted for a life that hit the Golden Mean. We didn't want to be manic depressive with great highs and lows all the time in our relationship, but find stability and calm. What exactly do I mean by that? Coming together as a couple means that it's necessary to compromise and make sacrifices. If you're not willing to compromise and sometimes put your kids and your partner in front of your own needs, then I'd advise you not to be in a relationship. We can't always get what we want. And that's a good thing because having a push and pull in a relationship in which there are boundaries creates tension and friction. This is where the true magic of a relationship lives.

What if you don't wish to go to your in-laws this Christmas? What if your spouse doesn't like to clean, but you do and you need help around the house? What happens when you both are tired and the baby wakes up for the fifth time at 4:00 a.m.? What happens? I always find romantic movies so funny. The same is true with many TV shows. My wife and I will watch the serious event lay out and within a few minutes all conflict is resolved (along with, on cue, some really great music playing in the background as the couple reaffirms their love for each other).

Life isn't like that. Well, at least my life isn't like that. When I write my books, I have been criticized because I have made some of my characters be unlikeable at times or I've had them make bad choices. Just like in life. Have I not done some stupid things in my life that caused harm to my relationships? Yes, I have. Has my wife? Yes, she has. So what happens when conflict arises and needs to be resolved? Does the cool music start playing in the background and we're suddenly running toward each other and all is okay? No, that's fantasy land. That doesn't even happen in my books (thankfully).

Learn to Forgive

I have made choices that have rocked my marriage and caused great angst to the relationship as has my wife. These are personal moments that are between her and me. She knows what I mean. And I know as well. It's the secret language of a couple who have been together for a long time. What has helped us get through those rough times? Forgiveness. And forgiveness doesn't come easy. You can't just wake up and say, "Well, looks like today I will simply wash away all the hurt and pain and just decide to forgive my loved one. That was easy! Let's go play tennis now."

Life isn't like that. And neither are the characters in my books. I've had Cinderella do some really bone headed things that the reader scratches her head wondering why she would do that. My answer: Because she's human. She screws up just like the rest of us. When I have needed to forgive, I will be the first to admit that it is not easy for me to do. Sometimes the hurt is too deep and it takes time to work through the feelings and come to a quiet moment to forgive. I've found that quiet reflection and some time helps to put the situation in perspective.

Yet having grown up in a family that went through two divorces, I can attest that I never saw a true and loving marriage. I did not have good role models to learn from and felt socially inept for much of my early dating years.

I look back and cringe at what a mess I was and how I looked for love for all the wrong reasons (to complete me and "fix" me). Those relationships didn't last and I hope and pray that the damage I did in those relationships has been forgiven by the women I dated back then. But there is one thing that I learned that's essential to all of this and might just be the secret to true love. It's a theme in my Cinderella's Secret Diaries series and one that I believe is just about the most important thing anyone can learn about relationships.

Love Yourself

In order to be in a relationship that will work, I learned that I needed to be able to forgive myself and also needed to love myself. This might be one of the most simple and yet most complicated skills to learn and be ready for in a relationship. If I wasn't able to forgive myself and pick myself up and try again, how would I be able to forgive another? If I couldn't look at myself in the mirror and love the person I see there, how could I love another? It's almost too simple, but it's been a key to helping me on my life journey.

When I look at the road that my wife and I have journeyed on, I see some amazing times and some purely magical ones. The birth of our children, seeing a total solar eclipse on the day I proposed to her in France, watching a meteor shower with our children and friends, holding each other in the dark of night after a rough time when our dearest family members had died--these and more than 18 years of memories are all entwined in our collective memory. The road has been impossible to predict but not prepare for.

Be in the Present

Each day could be my last. I have no way of knowing when I will be no more on this Earth and I don't know how long my relationship with my wife will last. But I don't dwell on that. Instead I focus on living the best life I can and being true to myself. Will I screw up and make mistakes? Yes, I will. Will my wife make mistakes? Yes, she will.

In amazement, I look back to a conversation I had on the phone with my friend who I've known the longest and remember telling her after I met my wife: "I don't know if she likes me romantically, but if she doesn't, I'd be happy to get to know her as a friend." It's been 18 years later and who would have known that we would be together all this time. The place we met, Borders, no longer exists. With all the change and challenges in life, I try my best to remember the present and focus on the here and now. Will we be together tomorrow and next year and so on? It's not worth me worrying about. Instead, it's best that I focus on today.

So do I believe in "true love"? I've fallen in love with many women in my life and I wouldn't say that there is just one person out there for me. I know that's not true. I often say to my wife that if I pass on I hope she finds another person to be happy with. God know that she wouldn't miss the grief I sometimes give her! I believe there's no special or secret recipe to making this all work out. Making a relationship last can be hard work. It's also taking time to look your wife in the eye and listening to her and being present and holding her or asking to be held. It's a myriad mix of complex human emotions that spans decades. That's probably not the answer that people want to hear. It's a lot easier to say that boy meets girl and they lived happily ever after.

But for me, boy meets girl and that's when the story just begins. It's not all happily ever after. Life is too complex for that and, for me, that's the beauty of it all.

I dedicate this post to my beautiful wife who has patience with me during all the times when I deserve none. Je t'aime.