02/14/2012 10:10 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2012

What I Know About Love Now That I'm In My 40s

I love getting older. Though my knees newly creak and my smile is bracketed by unwelcome parentheses, I'm a more contented person. I'm also very much in love with the guy I've been with for almost twelve years. So that's kind of awesome.

Ian and I met when I was a teenager, we were friends in our twenties, got married in our thirties, and are still pretty happy in our forties. We've seen a number of marriages unravel in the last year. I don't know that we did anything right. Mostly, I think we got very, very lucky. But along the way, we couldn't help but learn how to love each other better.

Here's a little of what I've discovered along the way:

Sometimes love is not a feeling.... it's a choice.
Fortunately, after more than a decade together, I can still feel profound love for my husband welling up from the deepest part of myself... like maybe, you know, once a week.

If you're lucky, love just feels like life. The contours of your day intertwined with the person you choose to be with.

Lust, on the other hand, is definitely not a choice. It's an unwieldy emotion, wreaking havoc and happiness in equal measure. As ungainly as it is, lust matters if you're going to stay with someone for the long run.

But you have to keep opting for love. From making your partner a cup of coffee when he's running late, to choosing not to care when he flirts with a cute girl.

I'm happy to report, lust is still in the mix for us too, even after childbirth, kidney stones and snoring.

Choose love and lust will follow.

Sacrifice. But not too much.
Do everything you can to make sure your loved one makes it to his or her weekly basketball game or yoga class. Even if it means juggling two kids through three playdates, give each other the occasional afternoon off to do absolutely nothing. And, once in a while, make the effort to show that you care about your partner's interests. Sure, you'd rather claw your face off than watch "Renovation Nation: Window and Door Upgrades." Do it anyway.

Just don't cede the big stuff. The resentments will kill you.

Ian and I are still struggling with the same basic problems we've always had - he feels judged and I feel let down. A disagreement might camouflage itself as being about something crucial like, you know, how to wash the whites, or whether our almost-seven-year-old should watch "Pit Bulls and Parolees." But the truth is that every disagreement shares a theme. It's like an episode of "Grey's Anatomy." Sure, the cases are different, but the upshot is pretty much the same.

These problems are like our frenemies. Old rivals we keep hanging out with. They're not trivial and neither of us is wrong, but it means we can both feel very alone. I don't know if we'll ever solve our problems. But even if we don't, we're better for trying. We won't have sacrificed what counts.

Have role models.
As far as I can tell, everyone got divorced in the 70s, so neither my husband nor I grew-up with natural role models for sustaining a relationship. Fortunately, we both have older siblings who are rock stars of genuine, authentic love. My sister and her husband, and Ian's brother and sister-in-law have seen each other through true family tragedy, profound financial challenges, the nail-biter years of raising teenagers and career disappointments.

They've forgiven each other their lapses, celebrated each other's successes and happily listened to hours of minutia. They don't have any secret formula. But they are there. Trudging along. Showing us that it can be done. And we're so grateful for them.

Keep Sex Sexy
Dan Savage has spoken out eloquently against monogamy. And maybe he's on to something. But so far, Ian and I have adhered to the plain jane fidelity thing. I know from friends that a "healthy" amount of sex for a married person with kids is totally up for grabs - from once a day to once a quarter. But no matter how much sex you have, monogamous or otherwise, quality matters.

My husband and I struggled through many years of trying to get pregnant, getting pregnant, and miscarrying. During that time, sex was many things - mechanical, explosive, terrifying, promising, healing. Now that we've let it all go, we've gone back to good old-fashioned, unproductive sex. And boy is it fun.

Fighting is underrated.
As a conflict adverse person, I've reluctantly learned that it's important to fight. Fight a lot. In fact, fight enough to learn how to fight less. Fight badly, so you can learn how to do it better. Fight so you know what it's like to feel furious with someone on Wednesday and totally delighted by them again on Friday.

There's stuff your partner will do that REALLY SUCKS. Don't pretend that's okay. Fight about it. And, by the way, you're going to be guilty of some annoying nonsense too. We're human. That's how it is. Say you're sorry. Admit you're wrong. But stand up for what feels important.

Be yourself.
Blah blah. I know. Cliché. But here's the thing. You have no chance of sustaining a relationship unless you're part of it. You. All of you. The messy. The beautiful. The tomboy. The sex kitten.

I was a master at dodging and faking. For years, I was busy being who I thought my date-of-the-week wanted me to be. And then an older, wiser friend pointed out if I kept disguising myself in relationships, I was never going to feel loved. And, maybe worse, I would be too self-involved to fully love someone else.

I now know that my husband and I were building the scaffolding for our relationship from our first stolen kiss. You don't have to be all of yourself all at once. But don't hide who you are. Odds are it won't work and, even if it does, it's so not worth it.

Be brave, funny, and kind.
During the love minefield of my late twenties, I succumbed to the New Age notion that I should write down the qualities that I wanted in a partner. In the end, funny, brave and kind won the sweepstakes over such laudable contenders as responsible, employed, and smart.

The list might sound like the Sorting Hat's criteria for placing you in Gryffindor but it really holds up. Ian embodies all of these qualities and I strive to be worthy of them too. Brave enough to be honest. Kind enough to not to be too honest. Funny enough to make each other laugh no matter what.

But the biggest thing that I know about love in my 40s... is that I don't know much. I only know what has worked for me and even that's in constant flux. There's a Buddhist question that asks "Why is it that human beings prefer the quicksand of certainty rather than the firm ground of change?"

Here's what I hope for now, what I would want for my daughter, what I root for with my friends... that we will all stay awake and we will stick with the adventure.

More from this series:

What I Know About Love Now That I'm In My 20s

What I Know About Love Now That I'm In My 30s

What I Know About Love Now That I'm In My 50s

What I Know About Love Now That I'm In My 60s

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