Sunday, March 27, 2011

Relationships

Hubby and I have been legally married for three years, one month, and 5 days today. Our actual anniversary past without notice; we're both pretty terrible at remembering the actual day- I had to go dig up the marriage certificate to even remember it precisely- and we both celebrate our anniversary on the day we threw the wedding party*.

I casually mentioned this to a friend the other day, and she asked the question that I always feel uncomfortable when I get it: "How do you guys have such a good relationship?". The only I answer I can give seems to be really unsatisfying to most people, because all I can think of is "Dumb fucking luck". A series of events that had nothing to do with searching for our true love meant we ended up running in the same circle of nerds at UND, and we eventually met. We met during a period where we were both in a position to be dating. That's how we ended up together.

I don't believe in "true love". In a world where you have a population of 6.9 billion people, it is unlikely that there is only one person on the entire planet that has the right combination of personality traits, pheromones, language, and background traits that you could be happy, comfortable, and content with. The sheer number of people who meet their life-partner at: work, school, or through mutual friends means that most "The One" is probably "the one we see a lot". But, even though I believe that there are a number of people I could have happily pursued a life-long relationship with, I do feel like Hubby and I are probably the best of all possible worlds to be together. Everyone says relationships take hard work. Our relationship is the easiest, laziest thing on the planet.

That being said, if I have to impart great wisdom on why our relationship works so well, so people can sift through it and see if there is any advice to be gleaned to make their relationships work/ so they can find a way to find a life-partner, it would be this:

1) Have a life outside of your significant other, or prospective significant other.

When Hubby and I were dating, we were both in college. We both had jobs. We had our own circle of friends, though there was plenty of overlap. We both had hobbies. We both respected that each one liked their alone time. We understood that our friends, ambitions, and family were in fact priorities, and sometimes that meant saying "I'd like to go to the movie with you, but I haven't spent enough time with Grunt for awhile, and I'd like to hang out with him instead." We continue to this day to have aspects of our lives that are separate. This not only means that you won't overdose on one another, but it also means that they are not the only person doing emotional work in your life. That being said:

2) Either have common hobbies and friends, or make the effort to enjoy each other's hobbies and friends.

Hubby and I were easy: not only were we from similar backgrounds**, but we already both enjoyed nerdy pursuits such as reading fantasy/ sci-fi and playing role-playing games. But, when there was an activity that we didn't share, we did our best to bridge it or at least respect it. I've picked up book series that he wanted me to read that I now enjoy fabulously and he has done likewise. We've both watched movies that we wouldn't have watched if not for the other person. This makes it so we never run out of things to talk about: we have shared frames of references for our conversations, and that makes things fun. I'm not saying that everything we've ever done or read for each other led to something we both enjoyed. For instance, I still think Magic: The Gathering is kind of a waste of time, and he still is baffled by the sheer amount of time I spend on political blogs, but we accept each others' loves and past-times and work to be able to at least follow the other person.

Similarly, we lucked out because our circle of friends already had some overlap***, but with the friends we didn't share, we made the effort to be sociable. I'm not saying we were bosom buddies with everyone's friends, but we did get to the point were we could all hang out and not have it be an awkward "My friends in one corner and his friends and another" sort of thing. The sharing of friends has so far required the second most work in the relationship****. The most work in the relationship has been due to number three:

3) Accept each others baggage and shortcomings

Early into Hubby's and my fledgling relationship, I went to the wedding of one of his dearest, closest, longest friend's wedding, whom also just happened to be his ex-girlfriend. There, as I saw him interact with his life-long friends, it struck me that they teased him a lot and made him do a lot of the grunt-work. This was particularly sensitive to me because I had plenty of "friends" in my life that were not friends at all. On the car trip home, he was bouncing and happily reliving the fun night of the wedding with me, and I mentioned, I thought gently, that his friends did not seem very nice to him. He got noticeably colder, and we spent an uncomfortable car trip back to Grand Forks. Unbeknown to me, his last girlfriend had tried to distance him from his friends and he was seriously sensitive to any suggestion that they were not good for each other. After a couple days, I went and asked him if I had did something wrong, and we mutually explained the situation to one another, and everything was fine.

In a parallel fashion, one day my sweet, happy-go-lucky then-boyfriend came home from a day working his terrible customer-service sales job*****. He had experienced an especially terrible day, and his ways of handling stress were all physical and currently unavailable to him. I did not know, at this time, that his major ways of handling stress were physical, just like he did not know, at the time, that I had come from an abusive household. So when he threw a chair across the room, I beat a hasty retreat out of the apartment, and swore never to come back. When he called me, he was instantly apologetic, and promised (and kept his promise) to never do anything like that when I was around.

I can be skitter-y around physical violence, and I'm not great at social interaction. He has a temper, and unique relationships with his friends and family. It is important to note that what YOU think is going to be your biggest flaw******, or the hardest thing to get over, may not be the thing that your possible life-partner finds the hardest thing to work with and get over. But, we both dealt with, and accepted that we weren't perfect, and did our best to be able to understand the other party. Speaking of which, this brings me to:

4) Be direct and honest with the other person. Also, accept that the other person is not always going to communicate perfectly to you.

This is the hardest piece of information to impart, because I think that this is going to be the least useful to people. A lot of people have been trained not to be direct, and being direct can be really tricky because it's easy to step into "so blunt you are rude". Also, people use the "but you didn't SAY anything" to ignore other people's facial expressions and body language, which is a crucial aspect of communication. But I really do think that this is one of the reasons our relationships worked, and continues to work, so well. After I was upfront with Hubby, he felt comfortable enough to be upfront with me, and we accept that direct communication is going to work better than trying to be subtle ever will. When we hit barriers in our relationship, like inadvertently tripping each other's baggage, it has followed a fairly similar pattern: back away until the tripped person feels safe (sometimes, that's a second, sometimes, that's a couple days depending on the situation), the tripper realizes that s/he did something and asks for clarification of the problem, and the tripped person explains why s/he is hurt by previous statement/behavior. Tripper then apologizes, we clarify the problem as much as humanly possible, and go on our merry way.

This is harder than it sounds sometimes. Because sometimes that stuff that is baggage for you is just flipping weird. The "dissing your friends" and "hurling furniture" stories are pretty straightforward, and fairly easy to see who was at fault and which behavior needed to be altered. But there are some things that you are just going to have to eventually own up to, and it'll be awkward. And you'll want to hide it, because, especially in new relationships, you want to come across as normal and well-adjusted, even though what you're trying to find is the person who will like you because of your weird little peccadilloes.

For example, I really hate pasta, but I really like meatballs. So, one time, Hubby was going to treat me to a meal he made his very own self. Unfortunately, when he said he was going to make "Spaghetti and meatballs" and all I heard was "meatballs" so I was super enthusiastic. Then the day arrived, and Hubby had done up his shitty university apartment in the nicest tablecloths the dollar store had to offer, candles, and cleaned until the grime sparkled. The pasta was simmering on the stove top, and the smell of garlic bread and bubbling spaghetti sauce was heavenly. Unfortunately, what there wasn't was meatballs. I didn't want to be mean, so I did my best to suck down spaghetti even though I hated it. He noticed that I wasn't eating, and when I give my standard picky-eater excuse- "I'm just not that hungry"- he interpreted that as "I didn't think you'd be a very good cook so I ate before I came here". Rather than spinning this out in hilarious sitcom fashion, I owned up about not liking spaghetti, much to his consternation. He asked "If you didn't like spaghetti, why did you act so excited to come over?" and I responded "Well, when I said I liked spaghetti and meatballs what I really meant was 'I like meatballs'". This is still an inside joke in our relationship.

Also, sometimes communication can not exactly get the intended point across. For instance, we were once having a lovely school cafeteria dinner of something that was probably food with a couple of friends. Hubby was madly trying to kill the meat for his meal, so not listening to the conversation around him, which, at the time, was talking about the "obesity crisis". After he defeats his meal, he takes that moment to celebrate by poking me in my stomach and going "Hehe, squish. I love you" right as I was saying "BMI measurement is a total joke. By that measurement, I'm obese". This of course led to the temperature going down several degrees as I turned to him and had a look like "Explain yourself immediately or death shall rain down on you" as our friends ducked behind their trays. Upon seeing the confused look on his face, I immediately ratcheted back the haterade, and everyone had a good laugh at the story. I forgave the inadvertent communication that I was obese, and the minimization of the discussion. This to is an inside joke in our relationship.

5) Have inside jokes.

This is terribly important. This is so wickedly important that I don't know if I'd be able to have a relationship with my Hubby unless we had inside jokes. Inside jokes take the sting out of horrible experiences. They help keep a sense of perspective when we're creeping towards the "Minor annoyances are building up to the point where we're going to have a fight due to crankiness". They allow you to bond by being the only two people in a theater laughing when no one else gets the joke. They overcome distance when you are tired and you have to talk to each other on the phone because you want to at least touch base with one another but know that the telephone is not going to be as good as being in the same room. Inside jokes are how we demonstrate love, the comfortable little niche and reminder of happy times past and happy times to come.

6) Be partners in crime

"Crime" in this case does't mean "breaking the law" but it does mean, that whatever you do, do it with each other's support if you don't do it together. When we go to Cons, we commit cos-play together. When we lie to family about reasons why we can't attend the super exciting Easter dinner for more than an hour, we back each other up. When one of us wants to go out for a night of drinking with the friends, we tell each other to have a drink for the one staying in. I'm not my husband's mother, and he isn't my father (eww, relationship dynamics like that freak me the hell out). Ergo, it is not my responsibility to clean up after him, and it is not his responsibility to "protect" me. I'm not his jailer, I'm not his ball-and-chain, he's not my savior, he's not a child.

This isn't just "be mutually respectful" though that is part of it. We perpetrate weirdness and geekiness a lot, and we are totally aiding abetting when we do it. Your life-partner shouldn't just tolerate who you are, shouldn't just accept it, they should full on embrace it. Of course there's going to be aspects that you'll just have to tolerate or accept, but the bulk of it, the whole that makes up what they are should be endorsed. You should be the biggest fan of his/hers and vice versa. You should love them, feel loved, and you should love who you are around them.

7) Be a safe place for them. Be the place that they can go to when things just suck (and things will just suck sometimes).

You should be the person that your life-partner always feels safe talking to. S/he should be the person you always feel like you can go to when things are rough. Now, I want to make it very clear here: your life-partner should not be the ONLY person you can talk to. That level of emotional work is exhausting. But, you should be a safe harbor in the world, and hopefully that's not too cheesy of an analogy. When the other person wants to rant, give him/her space to rant. Yes, it does in fact suck to worry about the fact we are never going to pay off the black hole of debt. Yes, it does suck that my Hubby is gone all the time. Yes, the winter in fact does make thing suck. It sucks, but I'm glad I'm here for him, and he's here for me.

8) Try to focus on the good things as much as possible.

Do not interpret this as "be shiny happy falsely bubbly people all the time, omg!". For one, that contradicts the whole "accept that things will just suck sometimes" and for two, that's cheap, dishonest, and ultimately hurts yourself and your partner. But, as much as you can, focus on the positive. In our case, it's going "Even though we live in a shitty basement apartment with bipolar heat and constantly breaking down crappy things, we have to admit we have decorated this place to represent how awesome we are and we're still doing pretty damn awesome to live in a safe place with electricity and civilization". I don't know if this directly relates to having a good relationship, or if this is just a really good way to feel pretty zen about your life and that translates into having a better relationship, but it seems pretty important in our relationship.

9) Grand gestures are fabulous, but nothing beats day-to-day stuff and small tokens.

There are really only 4 chores that get done in our household with an sort of consistency: dishes, laundry, garbage, and catbox. I do the laundry, Hubby does the dishes, and the garbage and catbox are for whoever notices it needs to be done. Hubby always does the dishes. He doesn't complain about it. He doesn't need me to nag him to do it. He doesn't roll his eyes and act like it's the most Herculean task in the world. He is therefore better than any sitcom I've ever seen and more than half of my roommates.

We also like to send little notes and text messages to each other for no reason. These little touches let each other know we still care. Coming home with a small thing that we saw at the store and thought "I bet s/he'd love this". Turning around and out of the blue saying "I love you, you know that". Snuggle attacks. Hugs. All of those add up to a really fun relationship.

10) You don't have to get married. But if you get married, or if you decide you want to live together, do it with your eyes open.

Hubby and I basically got married for the legal benefits. We stay together out of love, but the decision to join our life together had to do with a lot of really boring things. That's why we went to counselling before we decided to do anything too drastic. I highly, highly recommend making sure that you at least know about these things before you get to be super serious:

A) Religious beliefs: Are you religious? Are your religions compatible? Are you an Easter and Christmas Christian or a three-day a week person (or Hannakah and Yom Kippur Jew or do you require that you keep full Kosher, or whatever religious belief you hold to and how strongly). If you're nonreligious, do your philosophies match up enough?

B) Political beliefs. This strongly relate to religion and philosophy, but you can be surprised. An apathetic Democrat and an apathetic Republican can work pretty well, or if you think politics is just a game and the important thing is who wins, you might be able to swing it (Hi Carville and Matlin!). But I've never seen a fire-breathing conservative and a dyed-in-the-wool progressive have an emotional relationship work. Politics is important- if it's more than just pulling a lever in November it'll color your entire world-view.

C)How do you handle money? Do you think debt is make-believe money, or does the thought of being in debt send you into a cold sweat? Is a new car and investment or a luxury? What are the predictions as far as making money goes? Will you be okay if the other partner makes more money than you? How are you going to split up bank accounts? Are pre-nups just business savy or are they a deep-seated sign of distrust? What debts do you have?

D) What are your sexual preferences? This goes just beyond gay/straight (you should probably have figured that out in the dating period) but what about things like polygamy and monogamy? Bisexual? Is there going to be a safe list of people you can sleep with? Are you going to be able to accept the other's sexual history? Does one think reverse missionary is kinky while the other is pulling out the gimp mask and handcuffs? Does one have a raging libido while the other is a blue moon sort? Are you asexual?

E) Do you intend to have kids? At what point in your life do you want kids? How many kids do you intend to have? What sort of birth control procedures are you going to use to have that happen? What will you do if they fail? Do you want to foster?

F) How are you going to live? City, suburb, exurb, or rural? House or apartment? How many hours a day do you expect your other person to work? How is the housework going to be divided up? To what standards of cleanliness do you expect there to be?

G) Who's going to cook? What are your expectations for kinds of food? Exotic? Vegan? Frozen dinners?

H) Do you intend to travel? Travel together? Is this something you think is important enough to budget, and what do you budget it over?

These are the most boring things you can think to discuss, made all the worse because sometimes in the context of discussing it you realize you never even thought about someone disagreeing with you. But I've found, after observing a number of my friends and families relationships, that we cut off about a billion different arguments because we already knew the answer. The lack of surprise meant that we weren't talking about it when it was happening, while emotions were high, but before it happened and it was theoretical and dispassionate. We have also avoided these fights because we haven't run into some of the problems (no unplanned pregnancies, yay!), but it has helped when ran into a couple of barriers.

I don't know if this is helpful for anyone, or if it's just so blatantly obvious that everyone else is already following it, but there it is. That's how come we work so well together- these ten things and dumb fucking luck.

*International Talk Like a Pirate Day is WAY easier to remember.
**Both raised in a Midwestern cultural tradition, both from "traditional" families with one female mom and one male dad who were married and never divorced, both had a mom in medicine and both dad's had been in the military, both had two siblings and were the oldest, both raised Lutheran~, I could seriously go on for a long while here.
~I was Lutheran until my mother went of the rails and we went from a fairly mainstream church to "Harry Potter book burning/ speaking in tongues crazy" church.
***UND is a school of about 14,000 students. The culture revolves heavily around drinking, sports, and religious-based clubs. If you don't like these things, your separation factor drops from "5" to like "3" at most. Nerds are a small subculture: we were going to have the same friends.
****IE not that much.
*****Aggravated by the fact that Hubby is terrible at customer service jobs. He does not like to be treated disrespectfully, and cannot chew people out at work.
****** I think my biggest flaw is that I can't read minds. I would so be able to effortlessly deal with any and all social situations if I had that ability, not to mention be able to be an awesome superhero with that power instead of one of the most useless human beings on the planet. Hubby thinks my biggest flaw is that I lack esteem in my abilities.

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