Ten years ago this month — we can’t remember the exact date we met — I met my partner. A decade. We can’t quite believe it. We met on-line when I was writing about on-line dating for Mademoiselle and he saw my profile and photo.
My miserable marriage, a man for whom I left Canada, friends and a staff newspaper job, lasted barely two years.
The first few years with my current partner were a rough ride. Lots of fights. Scary ones. A really loud public one right on Houston Street across from the Angelika Theater. We are, and were, two stubborn, ambitious workaholics with very clear ideas what we want. We weren’t going to bend, dammit!
Counseling helped. Growing up helped. Being a little less mistrustful, which can take longer than it should, helped a lot.
Here are ten things we’ve learned in those ten years together, and yes, I asked him if it was OK to talk about them here:
Know your boundaries, set them and keep them. Not very romantic, but crucial. He and I are both career journalists, accustomed to doing whatever the job demands — he worked for weeks without showering while covering the war in Bosnia; I covered a political campaign on crutches. We both had demanding, severe families whose needs we accommodated at the expense of our own. It took us a while to figure out, even in love (maybe especially in love) that we do have boundaries and limits and you mess with those at your peril. He once kicked me out of his Brooklyn apartment at midnight on a rainy St. Patrick’s night, the streets filled with drunks. Months later, I kicked him out at midnight — a $150 cab ride home because the commuter trains weren’t running that late. It taught us both to respect our limits, and we do.
You’ll do some things you might never have imagined because you love this person. I decided to marry my partner (we’re getting there, slowly) the day we arrived at my mother’s house in rural British Columbia; she was in the hospital with a massive brain tumor (she’s fine.) She had lain on her mattress for days, unable, because of the tumor, to get up — soiling it. My sweetie took her mattress to the verandah and scrubbed it clean. I can’t imagine a kinder gesture, to me or my Mom. I have taken him to the hospital with a concussion, waking him up several times in the night to make sure he was OK.
Sexual dry spells will not kill you. They happen. We’ve had dry spells that make the Sahara look like a small, verdant backyard. I’m not talking days or even months. Even my ob/gyn told me to dump him. I didn’t and he didn’t. We both had plenty of sex before we met. It’s not like we didn’t know what it is or how great it can be. But it’s not the central, defining engine of our relationship, which it is for some. It’s one facet of our life. When you’re not feeling sexy or sexual there’s a lot of reasons this can happen — fatigue, depression, a health issue, unexpressed anger. Allowing those feelings and issues to stand on their own, taking the time to see and acknowledge and resolve them, can take much longer than you think — or the magazines tell you is acceptable. My ex had an affair, left me and re-married within a year, so a prolonged lack of interest in sex can be a terrifying warning your marriage or relationship is in deep trouble. But it may not.
Their rage may have nothing whatsoever to do with you. Don’t take everything personally. We had two defining fights early in our time together. In each one, he stood, and I stood, railing, shouting, red-faced…but not, really, at the other person. At some distant old ghost. Once we could recognize each other’s older demons, our soul equivalent of bone bruises, we knew where they were and when we’d hit one.
Laugh loud, long and often. My sweetie works at The New York Times, a place about as raucous and kooky as the Library of Congress. In one of his jobs there, I would see nearby heads whipping about in disapproval when I came to visit because, within minutes, we’re always laughing with one another. Whenever he starts snorting into his headset, current colleagues — many of whom are my friends and colleagues too — know he’s talking to me. When my Dad stayed with us recently, he noticed we laughed into the night. Life is crazy, too often full of pain and disappointment and loss. Laughter heals.
Say please and thank-you. All the time. Last year we met someone new who thought my partner and I had only been dating a few months. I think it’s because we keep a bit of formality, even now. I never take his presence for granted, nor he mine. We have both been married and divorced. We work in an industry legendary for its inability to praise or nurture even its very best. Gratitude matters.
Jewelry! OK, I’m kidding. Sort of. Maybe your sweetie hates jewelry — but whatever it is s/he does love, treat them to it: tickets to the opera, a gorgeous sweater, a great meal. My sweetie learned early, poor man, I adore jewelry and he has given me lovely things; the earrings in my T/S photo were a Christmas gift. He knows my taste and knows the extraordinary pleasure his gifts give me.
A shared spiritual life. Maybe neither of you professes any religion at all. Or ever wants to. I do think the happiest partners have some notion of what matters most deeply to them, individually and as a couple and support this in their partner. Mine is a deeply devout Buddhist; when we met, his apartment had an entire room filled with prayer flags and an altar. He routinely went off on week-long, costly retreats. I felt a little alienated by our deep differences in how we handle faith and belief, but I met, and became friends with Surya Das, his lama. I saw, and see, the daily effects of his faith in our lives. He comes to church with me and sits beside me. We both value a deeper set of questions and ideas about how to live an ethical life of some value to others. I have never had this with a partner and it, I think, is both helpful and important.
Shared projects. He’s seen me through two books, two surgeries (so far) and a few jobs. I’ve seen him through three major changes at work, a terrifying month when we thought he’d lose his job, a new wedding photography business. Knowing what’s really happening with your partner, and how they really feel about it, orients you. If your income just dropped through the floor with a job loss, deal with the reality and start rowing your boat. Knowing your partner has your back will, metaphor intended, keep your spine stiff.
A lot of space, both physical and emotional. He has a quiet, solitary hour every morning sitting in the living room armchair, watching the sun rise. There are entire days he’s gone, playing golf. There are entire days I’m off at an antiques show or with a girlfriend or at the movies. I was gone for three weeks overseas, his gift to me, when I finished my first book in June 2003. I called him from a phone booth in Tunis — he was in San Francisco, serving as one of the judges for the book “A Day In The Life of America”, the furthest we had ever been apart. We check in with phone calls or emails, sometimes several times a day. But we both like a lot of air in the room, and the time and space to nurture our separate interests. We have many we share. We do not have to be, nor wish to be, joined at the hip.
What has kept your love alive and thriving? What’s been the kiss of death?