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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Do we expect too much of marriage?

By Caitlin Kelly

From The Economist:

Eli Finkel at Northwestern University in Chicago.. told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week that most married Americans expect their spouses to develop profound insights into the essential qualities of their other half, fulfilling their needs for esteem and self-actualisation. A spouse, these days, can be expected to be a confidant, lover, co-parent, breadwinner, activity partner and therapist. This, he concludes, makes being happily married harder than it was in the past.

I was struck, and touched, by how many of you “liked” my recent post about my 14 years (so far) of marriage with Jose.

ringsOur rings and wedding certificate

One commenter noted that I believe in work, that a happy marriage doesn’t just happen spontaneously. Maybe it does for some people.

In our case, our marriage is hard-won. We were both married before, very unhappily. We came to our relationship, as many of us do later in life, scarred, wary and battle-hardened, by life, by work, by disappointing relationships along the way.

It wasn’t a great start and we’ve benefited from several smart, insightful counselors along the way.

So, what do you think of this list? It does strike me as exhaustive, and possibly exhausting to fulfill.

— confidant, lover, co-parent, breadwinner, activity partner and therapist.

I don’t expect him to parent children (we have none). I do expect him to earn a living, but he is not the only breadwinner; we rely on my income as well. I don’t really look to him as an activity partner, much as I’d like to. I love going to movies. He hates it. I love theater and dance and museums. He’ll join me occasionally but he’s happier reading or relaxing at home after another hectic workweek. We’ve helped each other confront some of our issues, but I also have a therapist and her role is clear.

I’ve also learned the hard way that it takes two people to make a marriage.

Duh!

Actually, not really. You can hit every traditional milestone: a fancy wedding and sexy honeymoon and a big house and tons of kids — and still have a crappy, lonely, cringe-making life, wondering why on earth you took vows with this creep.

If both people aren’t in the same set of traces, pulling hard in the same general direction most days, I think your marriage is less likely to last.

I don’t actually feel like an oxen tilling the fields. But we all need backup!

Knowing that each of us is as fully committed to life’s dreary scutwork — laundry, groceries, scrubbing the toilet, getting the damn car inspected, collecting all our tax paperwork — as we are to one another’s deeper happiness helps a lot. Jose is not, thank God, lazy or messy or disorganized. (OK, I can be the last two, rarely the first.) He puts gas in the car. I wash the floors.

Sexy? Maybe not for some people. Someone taking responsibility is deeply attractive to me.

Shared values matter enormously.

One of the many self-help books I read while dating, (yes, I admit it!), offered what I thought was an interesting way to decide if someone new might prove to be a good fit romantically: PEPSI — whether we had a decent match in the following categories: Professional, Emotional, Physical, Spiritual and Intellectual.

From our first date, I knew we matched well on four of the five.

Offering your sweetie your absolutely undivided attention, preferably for an hour a day, (yes, it’s not easy; that’s the point!), is also huge. In an era of CPA — continuous partial attention — this is one of the greatest gifts we can still, and must, give one another.

But I think the single most important element of a marriage you want to last for decades is, paradoxically, remembering that your partner or spouse is a separate human being.

We each carry our own fears, hopes, dreams, goals and unresolved wounds. We each arrive at the altar — whether we marry at 20, 40 or 60 (possibly all three!) — as someone with a past. We all bring ghosts, angels and demons, some of which we have yet to even notice, acknowledge, tame or banish.

(Which is where good therapy can also strengthen your marriage, whether you go alone or together.)

I keep a photo of Jose, as a small baby in his onesie, his mother beaming beside him, nearby in a lovely frame. I treasure everything about this image: her joy, his delight, her optimism, their love.

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Gregorita is so thoroughly delighted with him, even though he’s a surprise baby and she’s 50 and her husband is not in good health and they have little money.

She cherished him, but she died decades ago.

Now it’s my turn.

Here’s a post from Psychology Today, by a man happily married for 43 years, with his five tips for a satisfying marriage.

What do you expect from your husband, wife or partner?

Is it too much — or not enough?

It’s V-Day! 14 Years in, 14 reasons my marriage (whew!) still thrives

By Caitlin Kelly

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The image is our wedding, in September, 2011, late afternoon, in a small wooden church on an island in Toronto’s harbor.

We met in March 2000, online, and after our first date at a lovely French bistro in midtown Manhattan, that was it.

We couldn’t really be more different. Jose — an American, the cherished only son of a small-town Baptist minister, loves routine, security and familiarity. I — Canadian, the oldest child of a film-maker father and journalist mother, globe-trotters both — live for adventure, new experiences and spontaneity.

But we’re still delighted to have found one another.

Here are 14 reasons why:

We laugh our asses off

People look at us on the commuter train, where everyone else is quietly reading the paper, or snoozing, or texting. What’s so funny? Anything, really.

We talk to one another, every day, a lot

His workday — as a photo editor for The New York Times — is crazy-hectic, with six scheduled meetings every single day. He juggles assignments for photographers, staff and freelance, literally across the world, and speaks to dozens of editors and reporters. Sometimes he’s even emailing at 3 a.m. to a guy in China or India. But we chat, even for a minute or two, several times every day. I want to hear his voice, share a triumph and connect. When we’re home, our computers are (mostly) off and we eat our dinner by candle-light and catch up. Studies have found that the average couple speaks very little during most days. I find that really sad.

We have very different interests

I’m a culture vulture, forever seeing museum and gallery shows, theater and dance, coming home from the library with a pile of books. He’s a devout Buddhist who meditates every morning and reads his texts. But we have enough overlap and mutual curiosity about one another’s interests.

We share a ferocious work ethic

God, that man works hard! So do I. As I write this, it’s another major blizzard here in New York and he’s working from home. We attach to our computers and phones and go. He’s seen my freelance workday up close, and knows how intense and focused it is. We are both career journalists who started selling our work to national outlets while we were college undergrads. We enjoy our work and know why it still matters, to us and to the larger world.

We have one another’s backs

He has verbally taken both of my parents to the woodshed when needed, hotly defending my needs and concerns when I just couldn’t seem to do it myself. I’ve done the same for him with neighbors or anyone, anywhere, who disrespects him. He is Hispanic and has been mistaken for a manual laborer, when wearing his casual clothes. The man has a Pulitzer prize. I tell people that. He tells them about my accomplishments. We are absolutely one another’s best advocates.

We both have spiritual lives, individual and shared

He is a devout Buddhist, who had an altar and prayer flags hanging in his Brooklyn apartment when we met. I’ve been attending a local Episcopal church since 1998. We’ve attended one another’s services and appreciate and respect our individual traditions and choices. I’ve seen, and been touched by, how connected he is to his guru, Lama Surya Das, now a friend of ours, and we’ve invited our church ministers home for dinner.

We treasure our friendships

I love his loyalty to friends. We keep our friends close, even when they live many miles distant.

We take care of one another

After my left hip replacement, in February 2012, Jose took three weeks’ vacation time to stay home and nurse me. He made an enormous list of all my pills and exercise schedule and stuck it on the wall. He cleaned my wound, all 12 staples of it. I make our home as clean and attractive as possible: candles, fresh flowers, pretty linens, a beautiful table for mealtimes. I make us delicious meals, when I can muster the energy. I even brush and polish his shoes, much to his embarrassment. It’s just care. It’s what a good marriage is about.

We’re not scared to have a (loud, scary) argument

This was a big step for us. We fought like crazy for years when we met: stubborn, mid-life, long divorced, battling for recognition and respect in a dying and difficult industry. It’s not easy to allow someone new into your life after you’ve already had a few decades of one. He also grew up in a family that never (visibly) argued. It’s almost all mine did. That was an adjustment.

When we do, we know it doesn’t mean the end

That was another big step. For a variety of reasons, I’m a little (OK, a lot) freaked out by possible abandonment. He never once stomped away in silence or shut me out for days or weeks, as some men might. While we were dating, we both left one another’s homes in fury but we also made up the next day, after we’d cooled down. Just because we fight sometimes doesn’t mean we don’t love one another deeply.

We save a lot of money for our (we hope!) shared future

I save 15 percent, which I hate. He saves 10 percent. I want a comfortable retirement. The only way toward that is saving a shitload of money.

We play together

We love to play games — golf, Scrabble, Bananagrams, gin rummy.

We both survived lousy first marriages and want this to be our last

Once you’ve tasted the bitter fruits of a nasty marriage and even nastier divorce, marriage can terrify you. It scars you and scares you. It’s expensive and miserable and confidence-shaking. Why even bother doing it again? My maternal grand-mother married six times — maybe eight — we lose track. My parents’ marriage busted up when I was seven and my mother never re-married or even lived with another man. You have to really want to be married and do the work it takes to stick around.

We know we have a lovely thing going, and tell one another this often

We both say thank-you a lot, and mean it. I never take him for granted. Life is too short to waste it being horrible to the person you have taken vows with.

How about you?

How’s your love life these days?