This past Valentine's Day was my 29th wedding anniversary. I'll spare you my annual rant about choosing this date -- trust me, at the time it was convenient, not romantic. However, each year as gazillions of other couples scramble to get dinner reservations, buy romantic gifts and show their big, mad love for someone, my husband and I throw up our arms in despair. Neither of us was ever very good at planning. We function well in our professional and personal lives, but we do better with fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants planning. Last minute dinner with friends, we're in. Spontaneous vacation, where maybe we don't get to do the biggest, baddest tourist thing, because we booked late -- we can live with that. For the record, he's a much better planner than me (he'd want that out there), but neither of us sparkle in this arena. Every once in a while it bites us where it collectively hurts, but generally we're ok with this aspect of our relationship.
However, it's that same impulsivity and lack of planning that got us into this Valentine's rut. When my then-boyfriend proposed to me on Valentine's day in 1986, it was very, very romantic. He planned and cooked an incredible dinner, and presented me with a beautiful diamond and garnet band. We were both in graduate programs; we were poor as dirt, and we were the first of our friends to get married. We set a date a year and half out, and started to plan. We tried; we really did, but planning was not in our makeup then, either. We just didn't know it yet. We started out planning. We were kids however, and weren't great at navigating the dynamics that were building, as we planned our life together. We were kids when we changed our wedding date, in response to parental challenges (isn't it always your parents' fault?), and we planned our wedding like kids do: with little consideration for future consequences ... like dinner reservations, presents, unique gestures, on a day when so much of the population is competing to make anything either of us does look inadequate. Every year. For 29 years and counting.
The Valentine's conundrum aside, this past weekend my husband and I celebrated 29 years of marriage; we've been together for 33. In those 29 years I've learned a lot about marriage, about life, about myself. Twenty-nine years ago, I could no more imagine the faces of my three children, than I could imagine the enormous impact they would have on every aspect of my life, and our marriage. In the way clichés are so true, I could not have imagined what 29 years might look like. I was only 24-years-old when I got married; 29 seemed old, not to mention imagining myself being married for that many years! The passage of time was foreign in exactly the way it is to those who are young. The idea of being committed to one person for the rest of my life was a romantic notion I embraced. I loved this guy, why wouldn't I spend my life with him? That was when dating for four years seemed like a lifetime! Did I wonder about not getting to date anyone else ever again? Well actually, yes, but I also loved the idea of a life with one person who really loves you, and is your partner in all things -- another romantic notion, in hindsight.
Over these 29 years life has thrown all kinds of curve balls our way. There have been times when I didn't think I could love another person more than I love this man I'm married to. There have been times when I didn't think I could hate someone more. Hate is a such a strong word, but so is love. We have brought three amazing humans into the world, and I know for a fact that no one loves those three humans as much as the man I made them with. No one other than my husband has found those three people more infuriating and challenging than me, either. We have lost parents; we have gotten through personal changes and obstacles, and crossroads in our coupledom. A lot happens in 29 years.
Since Valentine's Day 1987 we have finished graduate school, had one successful career, and one cut short by that first baby. We have lived in four states; we have owned two homes and rented two apartments. We've bought and sold 11 cars between us, and three kitchen tables. We've travelled to amazing places, and we've stayed put, when we couldn't afford to go. We've had good friends and countless happy times. We've seen marriages that we believed in, end, and marriages we thought were doomed, last. We've lost friends, changed jobs, and shifted in more ways than I can count now.
"Marriage is work--" it's such a grand under-statement. We were kids when my husband made that incredible dinner and asked me to marry him. We have become adults together, but we did not become the same kind of adults. If you think of all the friends you've had in your life -- those who have remained and those who have faded away, it's that much more miraculous that marriages last. You don't live with any of those friends day in and day out, for "richer for poorer, in sickness and in health." When you're really sick, a few friends bring a meal, but your partner lies in bed next you while you hack and cough, or puke, or cry.
I have friends who are married to their best friend. I have seen marriages that are romantic and beautiful to watch, in a way that almost seems scripted for a movie. Those marriages are the exception, not the rule, I think. They are a wonder to behold, something that makes me pause and smile when I see them. My husband and I have worked at our marriage; we've worked hard. We have been the movie that would make you uncomfortable in some parts, and have you crying in others. There have been several times when we might have quit. There are times when we stuck with it not for our kids, but with them in mind; times we stuck to it out of stubbornness or apathy, and that many more times that we dug in and worked harder, because we love each other and we are not kids anymore. We are not people who quit anything easily, and sometimes the "work" is so damned hard, but we are grownups, and we have worked. We know that if our kids have learned nothing else from watching their parents' marriage, they've learned that this commitment is a marathon, not a race. You have to pace yourself.
There are thousands of suggestions for how to work on your marriage. There are pillows and plaques to hang beside your bed, that tell you to "never go to bed angry." We have gone to bed angry more times than I can count. We have gone to bed laughing too, but the angry nights are what linger. That's probably why there are so many plaques and pillows; it's certainly not because they make great decorating accents! We have always been honest with each other, and that is not an easy thing to sustain for 29 years! I don't hide big things like my feelings, and I don't hide little things like how much that pair of shoes cost. We don't always agree, but we have been honest with each other for 31 years. Admittedly, I didn't always tell the whole truth when we were dating. Neither did he; so you can subtract two years of honesty, from our 33 total. We hadn't built trust yet. We were kids. With adulthood, came the wonder of honesty, and knowing that there is a safety net in trusting this one person, who you are building your life with.
We have worked to accept and embrace very different personalities, knowing that flexibility is critical in a marriage, but admittedly struggling against the challenges that that can bring. He can be so wrong sometimes! I can be so wrong sometimes! I'd like to say that it gets easier being wrong, and having to apologize, but it doesn't, even when you've seen every expression that another person can make: when they're right, or when they're wrong. I've learned that sometimes you just have to breathe deeply and count to 10 ... or 100 ... or a week. Sometimes you have to let it go, even when you think you're right, because the relationship is more important than getting an imaginary gold star. Some days are diamonds, and some days are a hard, pointy rock ... that you're standing barefoot on. But you also learn that one person's rock is another's diamond, and that can change from day to day as well.
We were kids when we got married. We thought we were all grown up, but now that we are, that 20-20 hindsight is clear. We got married because we were in love, and we've stayed married for a million reasons, including love. But it's a richer love now, an older love. It's a love that has weathered babies, and teens and young adults. It's a love that's lasted through changes and shifts too many to keep track of. It's lasted longer because we have worked at it, and we have stayed the course. Through it all I've learned a lot about marriage, but only this marriage. In these 29 years I've learned that only my husband and I really know what our marriage is made of, and what it looks like under a microscope. That's what I remember when I look at any other marriage. What looks like the worst marriage, or the best, is only what it really is between those two people. I've learned a lot about marriage, but I am only an expert on this marriage. This past Valentine's Day, I made a reservation; I planned ahead. I know what I've got, and we celebrated the 29 years it took to get here.
Have you been married a long time, or are you a newlywed? What has worked for you, and what hasn't? What are you doing for Valentine's Day? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Share/Like on FB; simple things make me happy! Become a "fan," with the icon next to my name, at the top. And follow me on Twitter! If you'd like to read more of my writing, check out my blog Tales From the Motherland.