I was watching the evening news a few years back, and towards the end of the broadcast they played an interview with a feisty elderly couple who were celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary. When asked what the secret was to the incredible longevity of their marriage, the husband got a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he responded: "The secret to our happy marriage is that we have sex almost every day. We 'almost' have it on Monday. We 'almost' have it on Tuesday. We 'almost' have it on Wednesday." I still giggle when I picture how shocked the interviewer was at this response from this little old man.
I'm blessed to have been married to the same incredible lady for more than 27 years and I, too, would credit the longevity of our marriage to that same word -- almost. We go to bed each night with the belief that we've "almost" built the "perfect" relationship, and what keeps us going is the belief that tomorrow will bring another day to get us closer to achieving that. For a relationship to be fulfilling, it needs space to grow, evolve, and change. My wife and I are not the same people who married each other so very long ago, but we have had the faith to jump into the abyss together.
Robert C. Dodds said, "The goal of marriage is not to think alike, but to think together." So much wisdom is hidden in those few simple words. A lot of relationships fail because people enter them expecting the other person to somehow "complete" them -- to be their "missing piece," or some strange romantic alchemy that transforms two independent people into one loving being. This quote from Dodds resonates with me because it turns that coalescing notion of relationship formation on its head. The couple is not growing into one, but instead, "thinking" together. I also identify with the analogy of what is commonly referred to as the "marriage box." The premise is that we approach marriage, or any other long-term relationship, like a box. In the early days of the relationship, the box is full of trinkets and treasures, but these quickly disappear and lose their sparkle. For the relationship to continue to thrive, each partner has to contribute to the box. I've also heard an analogy made to the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Because no water feeds into the Dead Sea, nothing flourishes in the environment; unlike the Sea of Galilee, not far away, that teems with beauty and life as it is constantly refreshed by new waters.
Surprisingly, what you won't find in your "marriage box" are the staples of any healthy relationship: romance, companionship, love, laughter and security. These are not even found in our partner, but are brought forth in each one of us when we commit to building a relationship. What we place in the box is what our partner needs, not what we need. There will be times in every relationship when one partner takes out more than (s)he puts in. This is not sustainable indefinitely, and ultimately is the demise of many relationships.
In a previous post, I wrote about intimacy and how it is often confused with romance. If you were to plot your relationship on graph, you'd be able to see how romance tends to wax and wane, but intimacy is the coal that keeps the fire of love burning. I've been reading a lot recently about the different stages of relationships, and it's helped me to identify four distinct stages in my marriage.
1. Sweaty palms and beating hearts.
There's no denying the mind-body buzz of utter infatuation, and how it drowns out the "white noise" of the world spinning around us. This honeymoon phase of every relationship is tinged with an air of invincibility, as both partners tend to make compromises that once seemed unfathomable. The bitter reality is that this stage is unsustainable, if only for the sheer exhaustion it induces. I can remember sitting up night after night with my wife when we first started dating, and then both of us crawling into work and school on only a few hours sleep. I fear that a diet rich in Hollywood romantic comedies, coupled with the prevalence of internet pornography, has given many young people today the idea that this phase of relationship goes on indefinitely.
2. Taking off the rose-colored glasses.
One morning you wake up and you realize that you've come crashing down to earth and your head is no longer in the stars. I call this second act the "discovery phase," which is characterized by a period of negotiation and compatibility calibration. For any relationship to have longevity, there needs to be mundane discussion about who does what and when. In my marriage, these are the times when little acts of kindness become echoes of love and caring. There is something to be said about letting down your guard in front of your partner and seeing each other for who you really are. Maybe sweatpants really are the new lingerie!
3. Entering a pocket of turbulence.
"Life happens" to the best of us, and being in a long-term relationship does not insulate you from periods of discord, pain and hurt. It's easy to be in love when everything is humming along perfectly, but it takes real commitment to weather the storms of relationship dissonance. This is the period when you need to have faith in where you are going as a couple, and you will need to continue contributing to the "marriage box" even when it's the last thing you feel like doing. We all face two choices in this phase: rebellion and confrontation, or what Buddhists refer to as "benign acceptance." The one truth I've learned in our marriage is that for love to survive, there can be no "winner" or "loser" in times of strife. I remind myself that I didn't marry my wife for yesterday. I married her for today and tomorrow.
4. Recovery and co-creation
If you hold on long enough to pass through various pockets of turbulence, you find yourself in what I consider to be the most transformative and beautiful phase of any relationship -- synergy of recommitment to your love. When I look back on the 27 years I've been married, it's clear to me that our relationship became stronger immediately after weathering another rough patch. Just like my wedding ring doesn't look as shiny as the day my wife put it on my finger, I must admit all the dings and scratches in my wedding ring remind me of the incredible journey I'm building with my partner.