In a little over a year, my wife and I will have been married for 20 years. I was 21 years old when we got married, and 17 years old when we started dating. So, it’s been more than half of our lives that we’ve been together. And, unlike many couples we’ve known, we’re even more happy together now than we’ve ever been. I’ve been reflecting on why that is, and there are a number of things I attribute it to.
We both have a deep and reverent respect for one another. Ask anyone who knows us: we are two very different people. Instead of making this more difficult for us, though, I find that we often hold one another’s differing abilities in awe. To a large degree, I think that’s possible because we both have a great deal of respect for ourselves, and we’re able to view our partner’s superior talents with delight and admiration, rather than feeling threatened by them.
Likewise, we each have very different struggles. When one of us feels the need to improve ourselves in some way, the other is invariably sympathetic, honest in their feedback, and kind in that moment of vulnerability. And, when that person makes progress, the other is there to cheer them on, and applaud their success.
It’s terribly clichéd to say that the essence of a long-lived, successful relationship is communication, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. What I always find dissatisfying about such advice, though, is that it’s not nearly specific enough. What isn’t said that that the most important part of communication is for each person to really, actively, listen when the other person is talking. This is most especially true when the other person is sharing an uncomfortable truth, either about themselves, or about the relationship.
If I’m the person doing the listening, that means that I am actively trying to understand my wife’s point of view before formulating one of my own. Most importantly, I keep quiet while she’s talking. At intervals, I might echo back what I think I’ve heard, and ask for her to correct anything I’ve misunderstood. I might ask clarifying questions where I’m uncertain. I’ll often ask her to elaborate on certain points I think may be connected.
Most especially, there are a number of things I do not do while I’m the person listening. First, I do not deny the truth or validity of her opinions and emotions. I might question facts, but if there’s any disagreement, we immediately turn to some source of actual evidence, or just let that point go. We both try to avoid the desire to be the one who was “right” and “won” the point. I also try not to jump in and “solve” the problem until she’s had her full say. Even then, I try (not always successfully), to ask her what sort of help (if any) she actually would like, before offering suggestions.
And, to be clear, we both play both roles here. There are plenty of times (more often, in fact), when I’m the one bothered by something, and I need someone to listen while I work through it aloud. In such times, my wife is invariably a patient and insightful listener.
Since the start of our relationship, we have faced the world as a united team. In fact, when we first got engaged at 18 and 20, we faced a fair amount of skepticism by standing together, and deciding how we jointly wanted to respond. Countless other examples have followed: when I got a new job out of state, deciding whether to have kids, and many others. No important decision is made without talking it over together first, and we value each other’s advice and opinion so well that we will often consult each other on relatively minor issues too.
Part of that teamwork, though, is trust in the other person to follow through as a member of the team. This applies both to what we say we will do (e.g., I look after our investments, while she looks after our health care), and what we say we won’t do (e.g., spend large sums of money, have relationships outside our marriage). This isn’t blind trust either: after all this time, we both have given and received ample evidence in big and small things that the other person is worthy of being trusted.
Deliberate Time Together
We are both people who get very engaged in our work, projects, and hobbies. We have careers, a house to manage, a son to raise, and more than enough to keep every hour of the day overflowing with things to do. However, pretty much since we both started working full time, we have deliberately maintained a weekly date. We’ve usually made it some kind joint lesson or another (e.g., flute, clarinet, ballroom dance, singing), or an activity we both enjoy (cooking, dining out). We generally change the activity at least once a year, either as circumstances change, or just to keep it from getting dull.
One of the most important aspects of these dates is the time surrounding the activity where we can talk. It has proven essential for us that there’s enough time that you get past the “How’s your day been?” level of questions and down to the longer-term, difficult, or uncomfortable conversations. I remember that a lot of these happened around when I came out. Over the past couple weeks, these have been about our son’s transition into a simultaneous High School / College program where he’s struggling a bit. These are the kinds of conversations which cannot happen in the ordinary rush of day-to-day life, and we have found it essential to deliberately carve out space to make sure they can happen.
Deliberate Time Apart
Just as we deliberately plan time together, we also deliberately give each other space to be individuals. Not all activities, friends, and hobbies need to be shared. Again, this seems obvious, but I also see plenty of couples where one person feels left out or hurt when their partner wants to go do something on their own.
As an example, when our son was a toddler, and my wife was the stay-at-home mom, there came a point where I could tell that she was very much in need of some time off. So, I planned a trip which had her drive away, alone, in her car with a box of envelopes with numbers on them. This lead her through a scavenger hunt to pick up some of her favorite treats on the way to a weekend stay in a lonely B&B on the coast of Washington state. She had nothing to do, no obligations to anyone, and everything planned out for her in advance. A few months later, after I’d just gotten a new MINI Cooper and finished a stressful project at work, she arranged a similar trip for me high up in the back roads of the Cascade mountains with a new book. We were each thrilled with our own trips, but would not have enjoyed the other person’s.
As another example, I enjoy playing video games (something I share with my son), but they make her motion sick. She loves singing in a chorus, but that’s just not my thing. Every once in a rare while, we’ll share in those activities, but mostly we’re very supportive of the other person spending some time alone with their hobby.
Yes, sex is definitely important in our relationship. However, there’s more to it than that. Anyone who has seen us together will attest that we are constantly touching each other in small, loving ways which have nothing to do with sex. Hugs, kisses, holding hands, snuggling in our big armchair to watch a movie, or even just a light caress as we walk past one another are constant and daily occurrences. This is a constant reinforcement of the sense of closeness and intimacy we share with our favorite person.
As for actual sex, we apply the principles above. We have different levels of interest at different times, we each react physically to different things, and we each are different in desire to try new things. We negotiate those differences by respecting each other’s limits (while still asking for what we each want), actively listening to what the other person likes, and being deliberate in setting aside time to make sure that part of our relationship doesn’t get buried in the daily grind.
I’m positive there are a bunch of things I’m missing, but I feel like these are the most important ones. Of course, these are the things I think have made the most difference in our relationship with our particular personalities. I suspect, though, that most couples will find these principles apply to them as well.