18 years together — 18 lessons learned

By Caitlin Kelly

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My husband, Jose

 

We met — how better for two career journalists? — thanks to a magazine assignment.

I was writing for a women’s magazine about what was then an exotic, little-discussed way to meet someone, called Internet dating. Long before Tinder or Bumble, it was  considered sad and declassé, something you might do if desperately lonely but definitely not cool.

I got 200 replies to my on-line profile from around the world — with the truthful headline “Catch Me If You Can.”

I stopped reading after 50.

Luckily for both of us, my husband Jose was in the top 50.

I had hoped to find, for my second husband, someone modest but accomplished, a world traveler, someone with a strong spiritual life, if not religious. Someone funny, smart, goodhearted.

And handsome would be nice.

Bingo!

He is, like me, an accomplished career journalist — a photographer and photo editor for The New York Times for 31 years, who covered three Presidents, two Olympics, multiple Superbowls and the end of the Bosnian war, sleeping for six weeks in an unheated shipping container in December.

 

5th-anniversary

Sept. 17, 2011, Toronto

 

We met for our first dinner in midtown Manhattan on a cold March evening, and he wore a red silk Buddhist prayer shawl (his practice) as a muffler.

At the end of a long and lovely evening, he wrapped me up in it, warm and scented with his fragrance, a classic scent called 1881.

That was it, kids.

Eighteen years later (!), here we are.

 

18 things I’ve learned:

 

1. Everyone carries some emotional baggage. If you’re lucky, maybe a duffel and a carry-on, so to speak, and not 20 enormous unpacked trunks. But we all bring it with us.

2. Which is why humility is essential to sustaining an intimate relationship. No one, anywhere, is “perfect.” If you think they are, you’re deluded. If you think you are, get a grip on your inflated ego.

3. Affordable access to a good therapist can be the best investment you’ll ever make, for yourself and your partner/spouse. Until you can safely unpack, name and number your personal demons, they can destroy your life and that of anyone trying to love you. This includes addictions.

4. If you find yourself — as we both did on separate occasions — shouting at your sweetie in a blind rage, allow for the possibility you’re shouting at a ghost, at someone from your past who’s still living inside your head. Yes, of course, we can get angry at the people we love, but this is different. Sometimes it’s not about you at all.

5. It can take a long, long, long time to trust another person, and that might have nothing to do with you or how much they love you. I’m forever moved by this verse of this song by John Mayer…

I know a girl
She puts the color inside of my world
But, she’s just like a maze
Where all of the walls all continually change
And I’ve done all I can
To stand on her steps with my heart in my hand
Now I’m starting to see
Maybe It’s got nothing to do with me

6. So don’t ever try to force or rush physical or emotional intimacy with someone you love. Let them feel safe with you and relax. Some of us had scarring childhoods and need a lot more time than you think we should or you expect or makes you feel comfortable. True love is not all about you.

7. If your sweetie never laughs, why not? If you never laugh with them, what’s up? Laughter is a daily constant with us, and deeply healing. Depression is also real.

 

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8. Bad shit is going to happen to you both, no matter how thin/pretty/hard-working/wealthy you are. Parents will get sick and die. Friends will get sick and die. We will suffer illness and injury, surgeries and recovery. We’ll lose jobs and face periods of unemployment. Your partner must have strength of character for your relationship to endure without resentment. You, and they, will have to step up and be a damn adult, many times, no matter how painful or expensive.

9. Which is why, if you’re choosing a life partner, pay very careful attention to their values, ethics and principles — in action. Words are meaningless without consistent follow-through. Choose someone with a strong work ethic or you’ll forever be broke and anxious, pulling their weight and pissed at their entitled laziness.

10. Go for long walks, whatever the weather. Alone, to think. With them, for company.

11. Put down your damn phone.

12. Talk to your sweetie every day for 30 to 60 minutes, (even in 10-minute bits!), uninterrupted by children or work or outside forces. Make them your entire focus when you do, because undivided attention is the greatest gift we can offer someone we love.

 

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13. Take time every day to nurture yourself, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically. Don’t rely on someone to be your “everything.”

14. Have deep, sustaining friendships beyond your dyad, (but protect it fiercely.) If you fear someone’s about to poach, (hence my second marriage), pay attention.

15. Make sure you both have wills, beneficiary statements, advance directives and health care proxy paperwork signed. You never know when you might suddenly need to use them.

16. Create a document, updated every 6 months and printed out, with your every PIN and password and emergency contacts. Include your medical record and the medications you take so your sweetie can easily take charge, should you be incapacitated or die.

17. Celebrate the hell out of your partner’s every success, no matter how small it may feel or seem. Few of us will win an Oscar or ever make the big bucks. Small wins matter too.

18. Savor every minute you’re given with a loving spouse or partner. Too many will leave us far too soon.

 

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31 thoughts on “18 years together — 18 lessons learned

  1. What great advice! I think everyone should review this post before getting married. And the picture of the two of you is lovely; you both look so happy. Happy Valentine’s Day!

  2. Robert Lerose

    This is the kind of straight talk–direct but compassionate, hard-earned and real, practical but inspiring–that every couple should hear. I’m happy that you found and have each other.

    Robert

  3. First of all, I just love that wedding photo. Such joy and love–and it shows. Second, the strength of character bit is so strong. I married a man who at the time was kind, sweet, caring. But what I did not realize at the time was that he was not one who was going to be able to aptly weather the storms of life with me. Strength of character and a sense of humor, for me, are the secret sauce. I’m so glad you found both!

    1. Thanks! It was such a fun day.

      My first husband proved to be a very weak guy, and that taught me to be more careful — he was “perfect on paper” — talented musician, funny, smart, handsome — and a doctor! But, nope…

      Jose can be tough as nails but that’s what the toughest moments really demand. And you can’t see that on 20 dinner dates…

      That’s why I think a hasty marriage is a real error; he and I had been though a lot by the time we tied the knot.

    1. Thanks! Feel free to share on social media…

      3,4 and 5 aren’t generic, for sure, but have been really helpful in my own marriage. People need to remember that – certainly if you marry later in life and/or remarry — you are, for sure, carrying some ghosts or demons. Everyone has a few.

  4. i really enjoy the story of the two of you, it gives me a reminder that all is possible. your advice clearly comes from experience and that is the most sincere and powerful form of wisdom. i wish i had been given this list many years ago, though i may not have fully believed it until i had lived a bit. great post –

    1. Thanks!

      We are so very very different in some ways and we fought terribly for years — 2 strong egos in a super competitive industry. It took a long time to calm the hell down! But we share basic values and a work ethic and worldview and he is — as I said in my wedding speech — just great company. I always look forward to seeing him, and that’s the highest praise I can give. He’s insanely organized (not me) but also, somehow, very funny.

      My first marriage was a total disaster in so many ways and I dated so many of the wrong men. I had to waste a lot of time and energy before I could really get to a place like this…:-)

  5. I absolutely loved reading this today. Your wedding photo captured a special moment! #8 Reminds me of something my mother told me a few years ago about relationships. Her advice was more on the lines of “if you can’t sweat the small stuff, you’ll have a problems when something major happens”. She pointed out as you did parents passing away. It’s during those tough times during a relationship that it should bring you closer.

    1. Thanks!

      My mother (who is alive many years later) was found to have a large brain tumor after being found lying in bed alone and the police had to break in and rescue her…I called Jose at work (then in a VERY senior NYT editing role) and told him, I need you to help. He didn’t hesitate, and we flew to BC from NY; he paid all costs (it was damn expensive), cleaned up my mother’s mattress…was a total rock. We hadn’t gotten married yet but that sold me; when people are calm and responsible and ACT, that’s character. That’s what a marriage needs, not just flowers and sweet talk.

      1. Your story proves that point tremendously. Your right it’s “not just flowers and sweet talk”. I think that’s important for people to realize when it comes to relationships. Thanks for sharing your story it has opened my eyes on some things when it comes to relationships.

  6. FortunateCave

    Really enjoyed this post of yours. Been married for 11 years and have my share of gripes and often it seems tougher to locate the brighter spots of those 11 years although the spouse is genuinely a ‘good guy’. Feel inspired to try harder after reading your words.

    Congratulations on 18 meaningful years!

    1. That’s a great compliment!

      Even when I’m furious with Jose (and it happens), I still think he’s a smart, kind man — just one who’s really pissing me off! I think if you retain essential respect for your partner, you can get through a lot. If that goes, I think it’s more difficult.

  7. Jann Jasper

    This is excellent advice, with much depth, insight, and maturity. I would add one thing- your loved one needs to have healthy relationships with his grown children from his previous marriage. Or at least he needs to be aware of the problems and be working on them. When you’re in a committed relationship you are stuck with each others’ families. If your loved one cannot stop spending money he can’t afford on his adult children, he has little savings, and his retirement plan is to “never stop working” – even if your partner adores his job, given that none of us know how long our health will hold up – you, as his partner, run the risk of having to help support him when he retires. Maybe a different way to put this is that both partners need to be able to think about the future realistically and realize how decisions they make now will affect them later, when it will be too late to make changes, particularly with money.

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