Part Three: The Lasting of Love
First of all, to assuage the many doubters and the many who are fearful, the reality of lasting love is that it does happen, and more often than you might think. Despite its constant use in political fearmongering and the love skeptic’s handbooks, the divorce rate in the United States is not, has never been, and has never even been close to fifty percent. It isn’t even going up to try and reach that number either. The actual reality is that right now in America the divorce rate is actually low and has no indications of going anywhere but lower. My parents have been happily married now for twenty nine going on thirty years. All of my friends were raised in two-parent households and all of their parents are still together even now. I have only one friend who is already married, but they have been married now for more than two years after almost a decade of being together. Now I do understand that marriage does not necessarily equate to love, nor does the success rate of marriage necessarily relate to the lasting power of love. But it is an unshakable union (pardon the pun) that nonetheless many have joined together and so it is worth bearing and repeating: true, profound, deep, intimate, personal, affirming love can and does last.
All love, regardless of its origin or its inception, goes through very much the same stages though maybe at different times. We all know and love the honeymoon phase of love. That giddy, euphoric, blissful state that blinds us in its brilliance and intensity. It is lustful, idealistic, and romantic. We fall head-over-heels in love with the object of our affections and through our rose-colored glasses, they can do no wrong. We feel as though we have been searching for this one moment our entire lives and after finally finding ‘the one’ we feel as if we would die if we ever were to part. We shower each other with gifts and affection. We desire, crave, thirst, hunger, consume each other’s bodies in excited, passionate love. We wish we could feel this way forever, but the truth is we can’t, and we shouldn’t. What greatly contributes to this overly-excitable, hyper-intense level of love is the freshness insecurity, and unpredictability of new relationships. We see the best versions of ourselves because we only present the best version of ourselves. We are so worried about where this relationship may go or may not go that it becomes our driving force to work tirelessly and ceaselessly to ensure its proliferation. But true, lasting relationships cannot hope to be built on something as weak and unstable as our insecurities and fears. We are bonded in the early stage by fear of what might unbond us. This cannot be our foundation though. Long-term relationships crave comfort, security, stability, and routine. And it is such that relationships that are able to last beyond the honeymoon stage, or more accurately it is such that relationships find themselves in when the honeymoon stage inevitably ends, that this comfortable stage is where conflict arises because we let it, we let our guards down enough to see problems. The honeymoon stage lasts on average six months to a year and at best, perhaps a few years altogether. Inevitable and irrevocably, it must end though. For better and for worse. It ends because we become comfortable around our partner. We humanize them rather than idolize them and it unlocks deeper levels of understanding, compassion, and even love. But because it ends we also see the flaws we were trying to protect ourselves from. The blinds have been opened. Trying to hold onto intense, romantic, beginning stage love is like trying to hold onto the sun while staring directly into it. To last, love must change, and we have to realize that it is not about perfection but about understanding and acceptance. It is not destiny, it is effort. After a year of knowing each other and two and a half years of dating, Beautiful and I were nearing that transition phase. We were still madly in love with each other and looked up to one another, we were still craving each other’s company and touch. But we had become comfortable and secure around each other, and we were not only ready but excited and looking forward to this new level of love. I can’t, unfortunately, say much of if we would have been able to last. But if the so-called experts who seemed to be able to identify so-called signs of so-called lasting love could dissect and create the qualities and characteristics of what lasting love could and should look like, it certainly felt for damn sure like we had it all.
That was the great shame of it.
DO maintain positive illusions about each other. There is no denying that as couples spend more time together and become more comfortable and natural around each other, that certain flaws and shortcomings will arise. It is important for a relationship to last that we make sure to always be aware to cherish more than criticize. As these issues arise, it is those who are able to continually find their partner attractive, funny, kind, and ideal in every way despite them and not in spite of them who are most likely to succeed long-term. It is also important to remember to focus on the unique, distinct, wonderful characteristics that only they possess that attracted you to them in the first place. I am a very quiet and reserved person. I prefer peace and quiet over too much noise or stimulation. Did I sometimes find Beautiful’s energy and outbursts and uncontrollable emotion overbearing? Yes, I must admit. But it was also that same energy that first made me notice her. She was, is, uninhibited in her joy and in her expression. If she was surprised or happy, you would know. It was refreshing, invigorating, and liberating to live life through her with all of the emotion and passion she brought forth.
DO act with forgiveness and loyalty. The Puritans were not perfect people. Among their list of contributions to society would be Thanksgiving and the Salem Witch Trials. But of love, the Puritans considered marriage the ‘little church within the church’. Lasting love is both an institution and our salvation. When we know our partner is committed to us and sees the best in us, we are motivated to live up to their expectations and become better people because they believe we already are. Love as manifest destiny. But when we fall short, love is also the fountain from which we draw the forgiveness of our partners’ flaws and the foundation of loyalty that allows us to soldier on, to remain true, to not defect and to not stray, no matter what trial, struggle, or shortcoming. We were never perfect people, but we seemed perfect for each other. I am irresponsible and terrible at time. Beautiful had the patience of a saint but also helped me become even a tad bit more timely and considerate.
DO laugh. I could never be with a woman who had no sense of humor. Being funny is perhaps one of the best things going for me. The correlation between attraction and humor has been cited in numerous studies. Men prefer women who find them funny, and women prefer men who can make them laugh. In the words of Joanne Woodward, ‘sexiness wears thin after a while and beauty fades, but to be married to a man who makes you laugh every day, ah, now that’s a real treat’. Laughter truly is the best medicine. We could look to each other for a good laugh whenever we felt stressed or down. It was an open, honest, and pure act. I was a silly, awkward boy who made terrible ‘dad jokes’ but she laughed at every one of them. That made me feel special, and she always appreciated how I could lighten her mood.
DO keep things fresh. Often, many couples struggle to maintain their relationships beyond the honeymoon stage because they are too tempted, too comforted, by the luxury and security of routine. What is the landmark point of a lasting, established relationship can also be the point of its undoing. There is a fine line between the comfortable and the mundane, and it is important to always skirt the line as best as possible. Sometimes this can be the simple spontaneous act of bringing flowers for no occasion or picking up a little trinket you came across because it reminded you of her. Sometimes it is difficult to truly ‘see’ your partner again after you’ve been together for so long. You’re no longer doting on and fawning over each other. These little simple surprises can be a simple and effective way of reaffirming that spark, that attraction, that fire that still does burn within us. Sometimes it can also mean actually rolling up the sleeves and going on an adventure. Try a new restaurant or cuisine when the same old dinner dates become too familiar. Or try a completely different dish, one you never would have normally ordered. Go to an amusement park. Walk in the rain. Go left when you normally go right. These little risks, these adventures, they re-release the oxytocin and other excitatory hormones and chemicals that we initially felt from the surprise and rush when the relationship was new and you were new to each other. Trying new activities also helps to strengthen and heighten the bonding process, as you are both on equal level for once and are working together to achieve a new goal. I was always surprising Beautiful with little gifts, and Beautiful had a wonderful habit of surprising me with notes and doodles.
It was a little while after we started dating that there was an event on campus on a day I had no classes and therefore no reason to be there. I knew Beautiful was going, and I knew she wanted me there, but she knew my schedule front and back and knew that it would have been completely out of my way. And I texted her exactly that even though I was already secretly on the shuttle bus to campus from the garage. The other members saw me arrive first. They slowly parted to open a path for me to go straight to her and there I was, standing in front of her. Her face burned bright red just like the first day I asked her out. Her eyes looked at me as if I hadn’t just seen her yesterday but it had been years. Her smile beamed, and she was so taken aback and happy she became like a giddily nervous little kid again. I went up to her and hugged her tightly and told her there was no place I’d rather be that day then right there with her. To this day, no one, not family or friends or other loved ones, has ever looked at me with that same amount of happiness and love. No one has ever been as happy to see me as she was. I haven’t felt the brightness of that gaze in a long time.
DO fight, but always less often than you love. According to relationship studies by Dr. John Gottman, the golden ratio for successful long-lasting relationships is five positive exchanges for every one negative. Relationships are most successful and most stable when they maintain this balance. I think what is especially important about this is that it allows for the very real possibility that couples do not always agree and that conflict will arise. No one should try to maintain the delusion that the happiest and most successful couples do not fight. Like the ‘perfect soulmate’ illusion, it is often those couples who try their hardest to avoid and ignore conflict that will struggle the soonest and the most. I may be tempted to say that we never fought. I may want to continue this picture of perfection under the guise that we always agreed. But the truth is, to be the best, and to be believable, and to be real, of course we fought. Never dishes being thrown or burned clothes but just…miscommunication. Misunderstanding. It is important to acknowledge and to experience conflict because it is important for couples to flex and have the ability to exercise conflict resolution like a muscle. For us, usually it was when one of us tried to hold back our feelings or thoughts, even though we wore our emotions on our sleeves. Or it could be about unrealistic expectations or disappointment when we felt we weren’t finding the time or opportunity for each other. It was important to air out these feelings because a) they continued to express and strengthen that we desired so greatly to be with each other and b) it offered us a chance to improve our relationships. Conflict isn’t a negative. It is an integral part of the experience, frgrrom which we can often gain the most but when we ignore it, lose the most also.
DO date your best friend, or make sure your best friend is the person you are dating. First, unlike committed long-lasting love, you are absolutely allowed to have more than one best friend. Past sixth grade, playground rules no longer apply. Second, having said that your only best friend should be the person you are dating, it is important that the person you are dating is at least, one of them. Friendships are built on respect, trust, and confidence. Any relationship, romantic or not, would benefit from these elements. Best friends are open with their feelings and thoughts because of a shared sense of security. Beautiful was for all intents and purposes my best friend, and I was hers. We didn’t have very large social circles so we really were sometimes all we had, so it was important that we could be everything for each other, whenever we needed.
DO be intimate, often and openly. Let us not create illusions or pretend here. We’ve discussed the importance of physical affection: holding hands, hugging, touching when we speak and to convey emotion. This is the under, over, and between the sheets horizontal tango, the crouching tiger/hidden dragon, the beast with two backs, the good honest hard foxtrot uniform Charlie kilo. There is plenty of research that shows sexual satisfaction promotes relational stability and decreases chances for breakups. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have more reasons to be g physically intimate. Blame it on our youth, blame it on the honeymoon stage, but we were ceaselessly, tirelessly, voraciously all over each other whenever we could. It wasn’t just about the physical pleasure, though there was definitely plenty of that to go around. There was something about the openness and intimacy when we started to become more exploratory, more honest in our preferences and in what we wanted. For those who have ever been left wondering or feeling awkward trying to figure out the best ‘bedroom talk’, I can personally and professionally attest, there is nothing more stimulating than being told what to do, and being encouraged when you are doing it right. No need to break out the Fifty Shades of Gray playbook or the script of Big Bottom Booties 3, just that comfort and confidence in being able to communicate what works and what you want it just…it works. And it works. We loved each other and we loved what we did together. The fact that most successful relationships maintain a healthy sexual appetite certainly didn’t hurt. Or it did sometimes. Depends. Don’t judge.
DON’T break up with your friends. An interesting sociological study found that for every new relationships, people had to give up two to three friends, or four to five acquaintances. This is because the human mind cannot maintain and process a social circle beyond an optimal range. It is important to be aware of this because it is important for people in romantic relationships to remember, protect, and cherish the relationships they formed before their partner came. It can be as simple as the act of giving each other that space to be an individual once more and to catch up with others that can strengthen and reattach that bond. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all, and there is no harm in her having a few mimosas at brunch with a friend or for the guys to have a poker night. Oh who am I kidding. A board game and video game night. We would often make sure that we never forgot to make time for the other people in our lives. I was always more than happy to give her the time and space to catch up with her best friend from childhood whenever she came home from college. And I made a regular habit of meeting up with my friends in town whenever they were back as well. And when it came to maintaining friendships without sacrificing time together, I have always been a strong proponent of including partners in your circle of friends. No night or gathering was ever off limits to Beautiful, and she was always invited to spend time with my friends. In fact I encouraged it because as small as my circle was, it was never beneficial to be parsing off the time I had. It is also important for couples to make time for their families. Having shared experiences and shared family values strengthens a relationship, potential marriage, and possible future family. It is from family that we draw strength in the hardest times.
DON’T lose your sense of individuality. An important extension of the prior. When relationships become long-term, people begin to view couples as a unit rather than two individual parts. This identity crisis then extends to the couple itself, and then believing that the relationship is a threat to their identity, take it out in the wrong way. Yes it is true that as we dated people began to regard us as one. It never really drives the fact home as much as when you receive your first couple’s gift at the Christmas party. Brangelina, Bennifer, TomKat, these are not identities to be desired. Especially when you consider each one of those has already ended. A long-term relationship does not have to mean the end of the individual. It just means that just like time with family and friends, time to yourselves is just as, if not more, important to maintaining a sense of happiness and contentment. She always had her crafts and her Chinese school and her biking. I had my martial arts, my video games, and my movies. We both also had our own jobs that we maintained nights and the odd weekends. It was enough opportunity that we always had spaces we could retreat to to be our own selves.
DON’T ever stop courting each other. You may think that all those small gestures and sweet words went with the wind when Beautiful became my girlfriend. They never disappeared. Yes, they were very much transparent attempts to curry favor and court her heart. But they were still rooted and inspired and motivated by care, affection, and eventually love. For that there is no reason why it should disappear once a relationship becomes stable and familiar. And yet the tragedy is it often does, much to the dismay of many failed relationships. ‘S/he just stopped trying’ are terminal diagnoses. We still stayed up til 2am sharing secrets and thoughts. I still stayed on campus just for her and she still took naps with me (and kissed me in my sleep). What couples experiencing this break in the fantasy have to realize is that the person in front of us is still the same one who seemed to rise and fall with the sun. Just because their real selves and the real relationship have leaked into the real world does not mean we cannot till maintain a piece of that fantasy when we are together.
After two and a half years, we were successfully and consistently displaying all of the great signs of a potentially life-long relationship and had successfully avoided all of the pitfalls. As our graduation fast approached and we began considering future careers and life changes, we looked towards the future together, knowing and feeling like we would have this happiness and love to cherish forever.
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