12/25/2014 12:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Secret to Staying Together

December 31, 1994, was the last night I spent alone. I wasn't actually physically alone that night. I was with my live-in ex-girlfriend with whom I'd happily split several months before and a mutual friend of ours that we both had a crush on. Our crush was a young butch who hadn't yet come into her own and was still struggling to get past the abusive echoes of her childhood. We were all damaged in some way and looking for something that would make us feel whole. Maybe we thought our awkward triangle would bring us some comfort that night. At least none of us would be alone that New Year's Eve.

We arrived at a party, already annoyed with each other. I split from them and started mingling with other friends, finding my groove in the muted light of the apartment with a glass of gin in my hand. I felt more at ease socializing with strangers and finding my way through the crowded room than with my ex and our crush. Whenever I looked at them they looked miserable, taking swigs from their beer bottles and side-eyeing me. Finally, they approached me and insisted that we leave and go to a bar a few blocks away. Begrudgingly I left the party and followed them outside and up Market Street toward the second-floor bar in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood. As we approached we spotted the long line to get in. It was already 11:40, and it was unlikely we would get in before midnight. I felt a few sprinkles hit my face.

I stood in the rain, steam rising from my already-fuming body. I was tired of not feeling seen. By the stroke of midnight I had a realization that I was going to have to change my life. I was going to take a risk.

A few weeks prior I had presented my ex with a dare to place a personal ad in the San Francisco Bay Times. As a show of support, and on a lark, I placed one too - with no expectation or desire to find a new lover. My ad read, "I LIKE FUN. Irreverent voluptuous grad student seeks brainy, brawny girls to frolic with. Must like opening doors, bitchy banter, and wicked laughter. I won't bite unless you ask me to." I immediately received three calls in response. One I dismissed out of hand as I listened to the recorded message, "Like I says, I think you might like me." I went on a date with one woman who regaled me with stories about snuggling with her pet rat. There was one other message. The voice was sexy and confident, and the message both titillated and offended me. I could tell this person was bold, and wanted to rock my world. I didn't call back.

But as I stood in the rain that New Year's Eve, I made a dare with myself, and when I woke on January 1, 1995, I took a few moments to collect myself. I dialed the phone number. When the person answered the phone, the voice captured me right away and we sunk down into an hour-long conversation about butch/femme, Stone Butch Blues, trans bodies, femme bodies, what we wanted and how. We spent the next two weeks talking on the phone, challenging each other with ideas and -isms and mellifluous words. We often disagreed and spent hours hashing things out and coming back together. By the time we met, we were already in love.

That was 20 years ago on January 1, 2015, and we are still together, now with three children. We like to remind each other that we are living the dream at the end of a long day when we are exhausted by the effort of being grown adults with kids and a mortgage and the cost of living in the Bay Area. But my partner still rocks my world after all these years, and I thank my lucky stars for that shitty New Year's Eve so many years ago.

Sometimes we meet younger couples that are impressed by the longevity of our relationship and ask us, somewhat jokingly but with real earnestness in their eyes what the secret is to staying together so long. My response is always the same. You always have to listen to the other person, even when what they are saying makes no sense at all to you. You have to squint your eyes, try to pretend you are them, and take to heart that what they are saying is real and matters to them. Something magical happens when you do that. The other person softens because they have been heard. That is when the real conversation begins. And if you can do that for each other, you can find your real feelings and know that your vulnerability is safe.

Perhaps we are also lucky that both our parents have had very long relationships. Willy's parents have been happily together for 62 years. My parents were unhappily together for 50 years until my father's death. Despite their rocky start through an ill-advised arranged marriage and the challenges of being working-class immigrants, they stayed together. After my father had a stroke, he told my mother he wanted to die at home. My mother quit her waitressing job and spent the next 18 years caring for him until he died in his bed on his86th birthday on January 2, 2009. I believe that her sacrifice to give him the end he needed allowed them to finally soften after 50 years of fighting. He finally felt heard.

The secret to staying together is staying together, but more than that it is caring enough to see the world through someone else's eyes and saying, I see you. Not just the bluster or hubris, but the soft core inside that is oftentimes hidden from the harshness of the world. I see you.

Happy Anniversary, Willy Wilkinson.