This Valentine’s Day I’ll put on a red dress, organize my work day so I have a nice, long break, and meet my husband for lunch. The next day is our anniversary, which we’ll celebrate with family, and then we’ll party again Sunday with just the two of us at our favorite local French restaurant. This is our 33rd Valentine’s Day together and our 32nd wedding anniversary, so we’ve had a lot of practice and know how to celebrate.
When we first met, we were immediately attracted to each other; we knew the relationship would be important, but we were both careful because each of us had been married and divorced. You might be wondering what went wrong in our first marriages. The answers are commonplace—all four of us were too young and immature to sustain a relationship or choose the right partner, and our families did not provide us with good examples or support. Although each of us decided to divorce our first partners, we both felt like failures. Even when divorce is the right choice, it is difficult.
Since our first marriages weren’t successful, we took it slow. Although our values were similar, our backgrounds were different, and we knew that could be a source of problems. Most important of all: I had a young son to protect.
So we waited a year—actually, one year and a month—and got married the day after Valentine’s Day. Everything went really well at first, but after a few years things got hard; we were both under familial and economic pressure, and our different backgrounds no longer seemed so interesting—in fact, they were the source of arguments. Now, some people say never go to bed angry, and that sounds like a good idea if you can do it, but speaking for myself, I sometimes went to bed angry, dreamt angry dreams, and woke up even angrier the next day. My husband and I had to learn how to fight—to state our opinions, stand up for ourselves, censor those nasty hurtful remarks that don’t lead anywhere good, to fight clean and then let it go. No arguing by phone, email, or text; it’s too easy to fling daggers, to inject short, mean one-liners that might feel satisfying in the moment but are destructive. Disagreements can be magnified when you’re not in each other’s physical presence. You need to see your partner’s face, look in his or her eyes, and feel his or her emotional reactions. Don’t rehash old history, either, and avoid prolonged, angry silences.
Life together started looking grim to both of us, but we knew the realities of divorce and didn’t feel like a replay; we thought we could work things out together. We were determined. So we stuck it out, learned how to communicate better about our likes and dislikes, and studied up on the importance of compromise. It seemed far away, but we remembered that we loved each other. Even when we were angry, my husband gave me flowers every single Friday, and I always made him fresh bread.
We also both took long, close looks, first at each other, then at ourselves. Maybe it should have been the other way around—we might have looked at ourselves first. What were we each bringing to the other? What could we leave behind? It’s easy enough to see your partner’s faults, but how about your own? One of the great values of a long marriage is the ability to look at yourself in the context of a steady and reliable other. You can learn a great deal about yourself and give yourself a shakeout and cleaning as you take responsibility for your disagreeable attitudes. It gets very important to learn how not to wound the other person, to learn how to say things people may not want to hear but say them in a way that is useful, so they can take those things inside themselves and digest. Don’t wrap your statements in sugar, be honest, and be kind, too. Let me repeat: Always be kind, learn to hear what other people have to say, and say things in a way the other person can hear. Having a therapist helps, even if you’re a therapist yourself. An outside person brings clarity.
This sounds like a lot of work. Is it worth it? I think so. We’ve been married a long time, and the hard times were over long ago; our love keeps growing, and we have plenty to say to each other—in fact, more now than in the past. Our closeness is still developing—amazing as that may seem considering how long and how well we know each other by now.
Two last things to make your relationship last: First, change things up. Try doing things differently. Learn something new together. Vary your routines—it’s healthy for yourself and your marriage, too. Secondly, flirt.
Six Basic Components of a Successful Relationship
- Mutual attraction
- Similar values
- Determination to keep love alive
- Put on your red dress; show up with flowers
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