Last night, as I snuggled with Dan in bed, I thumbed out a chat with a friend having a hard moment and wanting, desperately, advice on a relationship crossroads. That in itself isn’t so unusual, but it’s worth noting the friend is a sophomore in college and I was on the cusp of my seventeenth wedding anniversary.
That contrast really echoed in me as I gave my fifty cents worth of thoughts, because he’s only a few years younger than I was when I met Dan. This friend is a lot like me too–we aren’t exactly two peas in a pod, but he’s filled with passion and idealism, and I have to say, twenty-two years have worn away some of my vigor and cracked my rose-colored glasses, but my heart has never left that state. He, thankfully, is so much smarter and well-balanced than I was at that age, so I live in hope with a few more years he’ll whiz right by me and he can be my sage advisor.
Last night it was my turn with the cup of knowledge, though, and the thing I kept circling back to was talking about how long-term relationships very quickly become sentient beings. This is true of platonic unions as well, of course. Relationships always start out as an ideal in our head: something about the person in front of us speaks to a need in our own hearts. And while the wild crush of first love is in bloom, the imperfections are washed away by endorphins and other exotic brain chemicals.
Eventually those fade, however, and that’s when the relationship becomes its own thing. Warts begin to appear. Problems arise. Deficiencies become cracks in the veneer and sometimes allow whole sections of our imagined ideal partner to fall away. When this long-term relationship is romantic, sex gets tangled in the mix, as do all our culturally imposed ideals of what the perfect partner is. Now is the grand moment, when we see not who we want to see, but who is truly in front of us.
If you keep going in a relationship, if you spin out not only months but years and then decades, the relationship as sentient being spins and twirls and digs in grooves until it weaves its own DNA. Draw back far enough to look at it and you see the dark whorl where you nearly broke apart, or the shadow where you were distant. During the first blush of partnering, you swore you would never have those moments. You would be the Hallmark couple, someday the cute wrinkled old people holding hands on a swing.
The truth of course is that every wrinkled old couple holding hands comes with eons of moments grand and disappointing. A long-term relationship is a life. It isn’t a game you win or lose, it is a joy and honor to be able to have, whether for a few months or for years. Every challenge and test is a chance to knit yourself closer or admit you should unravel. It’s a story, your story. It is beautiful and ugly and disappointing and strengthening and unexpected and comforting.
When I was young and I dreamed of a partner, I wanted so many things. Someone smart and witty and kind. Someone who would challenge me and lead me and protect me. Even I knew all the things I wanted was such a crazed set of ideals I never dared dream. When I met Dan, however, I remember feeling as if all those things came true and then more. I felt like I’d known him forever and we were predestined and everything.
Then time passed, and some of those pretty scales fell away. More and more all the time. I still can’t say who put them there–me, Dan, both of us, some divine relationship fairy–all I knew was that events would happen, good and bad, and I would see less of the man I’d imagined and more of the man I had. I loved him too. Sometimes I had to learn that love, because sometimes the true human beneath the ideal was a little rough. Sometimes it was thrilling to know only I could see that part of him, that this was a gift only a life partner could get. But sometimes those moments hit me when my own scales were falling away, and it was hard.
Dan and I have faced all manner of challenges in seventeen years, and the thing I’ve learned and re-learned is that the crises, the scale-falling moments are the ones where you weave a new rung in that DNA ladder of your relationship. At first it was the loss of ideals, then it was the challenge of adding a child, and now it is age. Gray hair. Weight gain. Health problems. Scales neither of us had thought much about, things that startle us and make us actively try to cut each other off. Because sometimes the wrenches life throws at us hit our heads, and they hurt. Sometimes we can’t even trust a partner of seventeen years to love us when this many scales fall away, because we’re realizing more and more each day underneath those glittering defenses we are tired, wrinkled, and unloveable.
This is the magic of seventeen: after this much time, after so much practice at the weaving of this relationship, now we reach out and draw each other back. Health problems render us feeling fat and gross and crazy? Come here, sweetheart. No, you don’t get to push me away. Don’t want me to touch you right now? That’s okay. I’ll sit right here and love you all the same. You seem like you could use a massage. How about you make a date with your friend? Why don’t you go buy a book or a record? Here, I got this cookie for you.
My job is to write love stories, of people falling in love. That first rush, those bubbling endorphins, that initial connection. And I do love that moment, never get tired of writing it. I enjoyed living it in my youth, of having that moment with Dan. I still fall in love with friends, still chase that new-relationship smell.
But after seventeen years of caretaking this relationship with my spouse, of peeling away layers and discovering disappointments and joys and strange new worlds, of quiet pleasures and crazy capers–nothing compares. I have someone who thinks I’m beautiful when I’m sweaty and stinky in a bathrobe. Who actually likes it when I get bitchy and ranty, I think even a little when it’s aimed at him. Who is patient when I am moody or weird. Who never turns down a hug or a snuggle. Someone who I want to see more than anyone else, someone who is home.
Seventeen years ago today I was putting on a frilly dress and getting ready to walk down an aisle. We have this silly idea when we get married that the walk down a row of chairs or benches is the real journey–certainly we’re the best dressed for that part. But I am still walking down that path. Just Dan and I for the most part now, and sometimes we’re not as great with the upkeep of the sidewalk as we should be. Except I would walk with this man over hot coals. Anywhere, everywhere, so long as the path doesn’t end.
I love you, Daniel Scott Cullinan. Thanks for seventeen great years. I want seventeen-and-seventy more.