It’s been one year since Jose and I got married, on an island in the harbor of Toronto, in a church from 1888, by a minister with a ponytail and Birkenstocks. It was a lovely day, a small affair of only 25 close friends and family.
Unlike my first marriage, which I knew was pretty much doomed from the start, I was relaxed and happy on my second wedding day. I was marrying someone I knew well, who had nursed me through three surgeries (soon to be four.) We had already weathered the loss of jobs, the illness and deaths of loved ones, professional disappointments, (and triumphs), two recessions…
We were each marrying someone who’d already stayed the course.
Jose and I met, on-line, in March 2000, so we’ve been together almost 13 years.
I was working on a magazine piece for Mademoiselle, to compare and contrast a variety of dating sites. Back then, no one admitted to using them; as a single, lonely gal in the suburbs, with no kids, meeting men was proving sadly difficult.
Jose saw my photo and profile, with the truthful headline Catch Me If You Can, wrote me, and that was the start. Our first date was at a gorgeous, now-gone midtown French bistro, Le Madeleine. He wore a gray wool vintage coat and a bright red silk Buddhist prayer shawl as his muffler.
At the end of the evening, he took off the shawl, warm and fragrant with 1881, his cologne, and wrapped me in it.
A few things we’ve since learned along the way:
— Don’t be afraid to be yourself, even on your first few dates. I think some people are scared to get it wrong, and so they play it too safe, or try too hard to be…something. The right person will love you as you are. Before we met, during one of our phone conversations, he made me laugh so hard I snorted. Sexy! I thought for sure he’d cancel our first date. He loved it. Still does.
— Make an effort. I see a lot of guys these days dressed and groomed like they’re going to the gym when they’re heading out on a date. Seriously? The way we present ourselves sends powerful messages to people who don’t yet know much about us.
— As you get to know one another, see how s/he handles a disaster or two: the car breaks down, you get caught in a snowstorm, the kid and/or dog gets sick. How they handle stress and crisis will tell you a lot about whether you want them around long-term. When my mother was found to have a very large brain tumor (she’s fine), he didn’t hesitate to fly across the country with me to help sort out her house/dog/diagnosis. And because I was broke, he paid for it.
— Fights won’t necessarily kill a new/growing relationship. They might even save it. It took many years before Jose finally understood that just because we had a loud disagreement didn’t mean I hated him. It just meant I was really pissed off. We’re both stubborn as hell, so we were bound to disagree. I learned that he’s blessedly quick to forgive and won’t bail when things get heated.
— When you fight, look beneath the words. Every fight has an underlying driver, often unspoken, often not even well understood, like surtitles at the opera. There’s always a meta-fight behind what’s actually being said. Sometimes your emotional ghosts are really the target, not one another.
— Your relationships needs protection. It took many years before my father and Jose got along. Both are proud, prickly high achievers. Until my mother and I just gave up on one another last year, her neediness often drained us emotionally and financially. Sometimes distancing yourself from family is the wiser choice to nurture one another instead.
— Laugh long, loud and often. We speak a few times a day, even with his six daily meetings and our laughter heals a lot of stress. Knowing your partner is going to lighten your day means you’ll keep turning to them first.
— Hold hands often. Same for kissing. Jose and I smooch (discreetly) when I drop him off at the train station to head to work. The local cabbies waiting there, most of them fellow Hispanics, get a kick out of it.
— Say thank you often. Say please. Tidy up after yourself. Buy her flowers and him a gorgeous new shirt, or vice versa, for no apparent reason. Delight your sweetie whenever possible.
— Listen to them attentively. Turn off the TV, tech and other distractions. Look your sweetie in the eye. Give them the precious gift of your full and undivided attention. It’s so rare these days.
— Take good care of them. Bring an umbrella. Pick up their dry-cleaning. Drive them to the doctor’s office even if they say it’s OK not to. Make them lovely meals.
— Share values, not preferences. My first husband and I liked the same sorts of music, food, books. We loved to travel. On the surface, we looked like a good match. We weren’t. If you don’t share basic moral, spiritual and ethical values, (spending versus saving, a strong work ethic, loyalty to friends, whatever), your odds of long-term success aren’t great.
— Aretha Franklin sang it, baby. R-E-S-P-E-C-T! The day you stop seeing your spouse as someone worthy of respect, yours and others’, is the day your marriage is in trouble. Define what matters most to you and stick to it. Diana Vreeland, in her wonderful autobiography “DV”, said she always stood up a little straighter when her husband entered the room, even after decades together.
— Brag about them. We don’t have kids, so whatever family pride we share is in one another’s achievements and talents. Jose and I tend to be pretty modest, so I have to be the one (brag alert!) to tell people he has a Pulitzer and has photographed three Presidents. I’m flattered when he tells people nice things about me.
— Help them grow. Whenever I get wobbly and lose confidence and am scared to take a risk, Jose says, “Now is not the time to be Canadian!” His grandfather, who fled Mexico and started a chile powder company (still going) in Topeka, Kansas, was a tough old dude. “Pedro up, man!” I tell him.
— We’re always still three or five or fifteen, sometimes all on the same day. No matter your chronological age, our inner child still needs a hug, reassurance or the freedom to just play. Being a responsible adult all the time is exhausting!
— You will face sexual dry spells, sometimes for a lot longer than any magazine or media vision of marriage dares suggest. It’s normal for many people, but if you look at how sex is publicly portrayed/ discussed, you’d think we were all-rabbits-all-the-time. Nope! Injury, illness, surgery and recovery, depression, job loss, death of a loved one (let alone small kids!) and the Big M of menopause will all likely conspire to remove sexual intimacy from your life. Which is why affection, respect and paying attention in every other way will, ideally, steer you through those shoals.
— Reading wise self-help books, like this one, and a great, tough marriage therapist can really help. There were a few times we were really ready to give up. Marc, our marriage therapist, told us at our first meeting: “You each own 50 percent of any problem. If not, we’re not going to work well together.” He was really expensive, but paying so much for someone we liked and trusted sure focused our attention on getting on with it.
What’s keeping your love relationship or marriage in terrific shape?