For most of my life, I looked at seemingly perfect relationships with one part envy and nine parts disbelief.
It wasn’t until I was sixty years old and the veteran of three long-term relationships that I became a believer. The last of those long-term commitments was a twenty-year marriage. The first was a high-school/college romance of five or six years, and the one in between lasted roughly seven years. They all started with great passion and a sense of real promise. They all still hold truly happy memories as well as intensely painful ones. I regret none of them. Today I think of them as course corrections – not dismissively, but with gratitude that I learned a little more each time about who I am, and what I need to be happy and to spread happiness. Without the self-reflection and fine-tuning enforced by previous impasses, the current love symphony might never have hit the airwaves.
At the beginning of my sixth decade, I was still at the front end of that epiphany. I was in the process of exiting my marriage and thinking, “ALONE! Alone sounds so good!”
What happened to propel me from this eager anticipation of going it alone to where I sit now, once again rhapsodizing with my current husband of twelve years about how our relationship keeps going from extraordinary to even better? This litany is not a discipline Lee and I practice. We’re no longer surprised to find ourselves talking about how good we are together, but we often note it with the refrain, “We’re doing it again.” It seems involuntary, a spillover of gratitude. Most times this sense of wonder is followed by a desire to define and quantify what makes our union so different than most.
A couple of weeks ago, Lee and I stared at each other aghast at the loud and abusive language of a couple making multiple attempts to back their RV into the site next to us at the Redding Elks Lodge. As the barrage of abuse continued, we started to laugh in disbelief. Sometimes we forget the rarity of this harmony we enjoy – a harmony that persists even though we spend the majority of our time sharing 340 square feet of living space.
The warzone next door triggered the questions once again:
What is this rare gift we enjoy? Why are we the happy recipients? And how can we wrap it up, put a bow on it and give it away?
Although not so loudly as the couple next to us, my parents argued almost all the time – the same set of arguments in constant rotation. Before Lee and I re-found each other twelve years ago, I had developed the habit of deferring and distancing myself in relationships. I was determined both never to be perceived as a nag and also to spare my children the background noise of conflict that I grew up with. Defer-and-distance is clearly not the formula for a fulfilling and happy marriage. Once I felt that my son and daughter were successfully launched, I knew I couldn’t put off ending my marriage to their father. Did Duncan and Mayme pay a price for the unspoken dysfunction? Undoubtedly, but I take heart in their current long-term relationships.
Lee recalls very few arguments between his parents. Is his highly functional family experience enough to tip the scales in favor of harmony in our home? I believe it’s a contributing factor, but not a determining one or Lee’s former long-term relationships might have endured.
I’m aware that it may sound like I’m bragging. “Lucky me, I hit the relationship jackpot.” The truth is that I’m in awe. Neither of us feels like we can take credit for having figured out the formula for marital bliss. It feels very much like a huge inexplicable gift rather than a reward for some kind of mastery. We are the ingenue perched on the soda fountain stool who is discovered by Cecil B. Demil. We are the toddler enchanted by the butterfly alighting on her nose. We are the ultimate lottery winner, because there’s no greater treasure than a love like ours. One can have extraordinary wealth and still feel an aching void if love is absent. One can have strength and good health and still be endlessly scrolling dating sites in search of the missing ingredient to be truly happy.
It’s been tempting to wish we’d found each other decades ago, but this is immediately followed by the shared conviction that we would have been hopelessly out of sync with each other in our twenties, our thirties or even in our forties or fifties. We hadn’t individually become who we needed to be to have the exceptional unity we now celebrate daily.
So who had we each become by the time Lee was 59 and I was 60, and this grand love affair ignited?
First, we had become people who knew in our bones that no life partner at all is better than life with someone we don’t respect and admire. When we were first falling in love, I remember saying to myself, “Lee is a GOOD man, an ethical, non-judgemental, and kind man. Here is someone I can trust to do the right thing every time.” Something deep inside me unclenched and took a long deep breath.
Thirty years ago, a wise friend shared her revelation that a man who doesn’t love himself could never love her properly. The same principle applies to respect. A man who doesn’t respect himself could never respect me. Sadly, sometimes self-love and self-respect are just not in someone’s playbook – or at least, not yet.
So here we have two more ingredients for a solid, rewarding relationship. The recipe calls not just for love and respect. Self-love and self-respect must be in the mix first.
Lee and I have rejected the popular truism that it’s mandatory for couples to argue. Yes, we are very occasionally irritated with each other. Literally, minutes pass before one or both of us apologizes for allowing whatever is stressing us to bubble over, and our extraordinary connection is restored. In short, we make it a practice to request rather than criticize, and stubbornly focus on what’s right rather than what might momentarily not be our preference.
We have very different temperaments. I charge ahead, and Lee proceeds with caution. I get a lot done in a short amount of time. Some collateral damage is a given, even if it’s just spilled rice or a new bruise. Lee rarely experiences buyer’s remorse. He spent a couple of years developing a database to evaluate the pros and cons before buying a new camera body. Lee could brand me as impatient and a little reckless – justifiably, and I could berate him for being overly analytical and indecisive. Instead, Lee chooses to be grateful that I keep moving us forward, and I choose to be grateful that he saves us many unnecessary and expensive missteps.
We both take every opportunity to bring a smile, trigger a laugh, give comfort or give space as needed. We reach out and touch frequently and then laugh and say “It’s the magnet!” It’s not a strategy. It’s more a subconscious compulsion.
We talk about everything that matters to us. We ask questions and listen carefully to understand what will elevate and enrich our lives together. Neither of us hides our true feelings about our family obligations, our company, or our health concerns. No one dominates. No one defers. As two people who were fiercely independent most of our lives, we share the amazement that now we are perceived as a unit. We are almost always identified in tandem by friends and family. It seems a kind of magical alchemy when two distinctive personalities join and create a third entity – us.
Admittedly we don’t have the stressors of younger couples who are raising children and juggling debt. We have, however, navigated Lee’s heart transplant, a roll-over accident that meant starting our grand RV adventure from scratch, several years of helping to care for my mother until her death at 97 years old, as well as a global pandemic with no immune protection for Lee. Our unity and our harmony not only survived all this, but expanded.
The final formula appears to be that we must be growing individually to continue to earn a growing love like this one. This shared awareness keeps each of us reaching to be better people today than yesterday, serving others and each other with more dedication and more compassion.
The promise Lee made when he proposed was that our relationship was just going to keep getting better and better. It was way too good an offer to turn down. It still is.