Ten years together, ten lessons learned

Two Hearts Just To Hold Love
Image by CarbonNYC via Flickr

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?

9 thoughts on “Ten years together, ten lessons learned

  1. Nick Obourn


    Congrats on the decade of being with your partner. Ten years is quite an accomplishment. As a recently married man myself I’d say one of the things that keeps us going is laughing often. We are both silly with each other and share that. I also think the projects idea is quite good. Building things for each other, however you define building and whatever those things may be, is one of the most important.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks, Michael — and Nick. I figure if you can still laugh with your partner, you can get through almost anything.

    When you don’t have kids, or plan to, the glue becomes more challenging, which is why shared values and plans matter so much, to me anyway.

  3. john

    Kids make terrible glue. That is to say, if they are the only reason you stay together, it’s not a good thing and you run the risk of stunting their growth and yours.

    It’s difficult to say what keeps love alive, but I would distill it down to communication, and it helps I think if you practice many different types of communication. Especially for me, writing. When you have difficult things to say, or complex emotions to mine, it helps I think to write because if gives you time to think and declare yourself in a way that face to face does not. And when you develop a habit of correspondence, you find that you can, and do, take multiple passes at things, refine them, and together you sort of develop your own body of understanding one another.

    It’s not that conversation doesn’t work, but when so much of it is composed of the mundane ordinary stuff of running your life, it seems that that stuff swallows up the poignant and the meaningful if your not careful. Toss in the fact that each of you grow in different ways and at different rates and before you know it, you lose each other if you’re not making a conscious effort to engage in communication at some non-trivial level on a regular basis. (This is 15 years and 2 kids talkin’.)

  4. Those are spot on, Caitlin. Here’s why I am keeping my Final Husband (almost 18 yrs, but not counting), known around here as the Great Encourager: He supports me in all things, and believes I can do anything, despite any amount of evidence to the contrary; he makes me laugh; neither of us is EVER bored. Now that this marriage is entering a new phase (physical limitations for him, caregiving for me)those 3 are even more important. And I figure they are constants that one can hang onto no matter what.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    Jake, this is so lovely! Thankyou for sharing your wisdom…and it’s very true. My sweetie and I — he more often than I, the writer — writes me thoughtful emails, even in a crazy workday, touching on larger issues beyond groceries or car repair. We can lose so much of our lives “administering” them and not touching the depths. We have asked one another what our eulogies would/will be, so we are very clear what we most value in each other and our shared life.
    We talk to each other a great deal, certainly more than anyone else and any former partner. It helps that he is a Buddhist as it is centered on being awake to and present in your life.

    Fran, thanks. Thank heaven you’ve got such a good one and I agree that having someone who believes in you is so important; I get the wobblies over this book fairly often and he just snorts and says I’ll pull it off because I always do. It helps to have a secondary spine…

  6. joan

    Congratulations Caitlin. The common denominator I see in each of these ten lessons is … respect.

    My husband and I have been married 20+ years and there’s a saying in his family that has served us very well. “Never yell at each other unless the house is on fire”.

    Nobody likes to be yelled at and when you say something in anger, it’s impossible to un-ring that bell. Not that we don’t fight, but we try to maintain our respect for each other when we do.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    Joan, thanks. I think that’s true for us; my partner is someone, even on our worst days, and we’ve had them, I have a lot of admiration for his work, work ethic, character. I wish we didn’t yell, but two bloody- minded, passionate creative people — one Hispanic, one Irish — and the volume can get loud.

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