Making Relationships Last

Around Valentine’s Day last year, I wrote about the need to go beyond showing love on just a couple big days with big gestures if you want to be truly romantic. A thoughtful gift or a meal shared at a trendy restaurant on February 14th can be a wonderful thing. But there are a lot of hours and days through the rest of the year when there isn’t a holiday to celebrate and you create (or don’t) the love in the air. Turning romantic sparks into long-burning flames is what makes a relationship a lasting one.

OK, great. Sparks into flames. What are some ways you can do that? As someone who has been married for 7 years–and together for 8 years prior to that–I’ve learned a thing or two about keeping a relationship strong, fun, and new. Not perfect (you can ask my wife about the boneheaded things I’ve done). But lasting and growing.

Be really, really good at talking and listening to each other. It’s nearly impossible to over-communicate and be too good of a listener. Work toward being able to talk openly about everything. Yup, even that. (What did you just think of? Have you talked about it?)

Be really good at talking about things that are going well, and things that aren’t. Every couple argues. You’re going to have competing goals and desires, misunderstandings, and silly skirmishes about things like figuring out what to eat (You pick! No you pick!). You have to learn how to argue well. How to disagree honestly and patiently. How to maintain your own dignity and point of view, while doing everything you can to respect and understand theirs. Figure out what the healthy, mutually beneficial resolution is, and how you can get there together. Arguing well is about finding your way back together when you got miles apart. Not who has the best one-liners and Exhibits entered into the court to prove a point.

The rest of the time–when you’re not arguing (which is hopefully most of the time)–you have to be forthcoming about how you feel, what you plan to do today, how you can get errands and chores done together, and everything else that’s happening in your lives. Keep the conversation going back and forth all the time. If you frequently find yourselves on the couch or in bed quietly immersed in each of your phones, you’ve got some work to do.

Don’t let things become predictable and routine. You shouldn’t be exactly the same person today as you were to your mate yesterday. Learn and grow. And encourage your significant other to learn and grow, too. Do things that enable you to learn and grow together. Classes, vacations, documentaries, hanging out with new people, and other things that will cause you to stretch what you think and what you do. Things should never stay the same between the two of you for very long. You both should know and feel that the relationship is going somewhere. That you’re growing in the ways you want to individually, and growing closer together.

Do surprising little things each day to show your mate how important they are and how much you care about them. Notes and doodles, an inexpensive gift on a random afternoon, home-cooked meals, massages and other loving touch. Sometimes small, unexpected things can change the course of a whole day and how good you feel about each other.

Make sure you have shared values. Sometimes opposites attract. They balance each other out in just the right ways. But if you have completely antithetical outlooks on life and core values, you’re very likely going to arrive at an impasse and part ways eventually. Incompatible religious or political beliefs. Whether or not to have kids or how to raise them. A generally hopeful and optimistic perspective versus a mostly cynical and nihilistic one. Some values and beliefs can change over time or be accommodated. Others are deal-breakers. You and your mate need to know that what matters to each of you most is at least complementary–if not very similar.

Don’t keep score. It doesn’t really matter how much or how little your significant other has done for you today or this week. If you truly love them, you should be more concerned about their well-being than your own. If they truly love you, they should be more concerned about your well-being than their own. You may do all the chores this week. They might surprise you by doing all the chores next week (because they know things shouldn’t be predictable and routine 😉 ).

Your relationship is probably not going to last if you’re doing exactly enough to keep things 50-50. They did ten points worth of good relationship stuff, so I guess I’ll do ten points worth of relationship stuff. It’s definitely not going to last if you’re angling for 40-60 or even less. It’s not a relationship if only one person is doing the majority of it.

True, lasting relationships become a virtuous cycle of enjoyment and fulfillment when you trust that being selfless with each other will meet each of your needs and desires. You give them your honesty, attention, time, patience, creativity, benefit of the doubt, generosity, faithfulness, and the rest of you, and trust that they’ll give you the same.

If you can talk and listen well; learn, grow, and surprise a little everyday; make sure you share what matters most; and don’t keep score; your relationship will burn with more and more heat. And you’ll know that your future together will be even brighter.

How to Adult: Your Parents Are Human Beings

I can vividly recall a Sunday school class when I was quite small about keeping promises. The heart of the lesson challenged all the kids in the room to think about how they’d respond if their parents said they would do something and then later came back and said they couldn’t. That happens? I thought to myself. My young, naive mind found it illogical that a parent would not be able to do something. Parents are parents: the only way they’d make a mistake is if they got hurt or tied up–incapacitated like Superman by kryptonite.

One of the most essential parts of growing up is understanding that your parents are not perfect. When you’re small, they can sure seem like superheroes. You’re wholly dependent on them for survival and growth. They’re doing a poor job of parenting if they don’t closely nurture and protect you. For those who parent well, imagining them with a cape is only a small step.

But sooner or later their flaws will show. They drink too much. They have a short fuse. They’re a workaholic. They make terrible decisions with money. It’s hard for them to love. The magical consciousness of early childhood can only cloud deeper realities for so long.

My own parents separated when I was just starting to settle into my teens. Their marital struggles and eventual divorce taught me a lot about how relationships can break down, and how the dark side of human nature can emerge even in your own home. I learned a lot about what not to do as a human being, and specifically what not to do as a significant other and spouse.

That’s not meant to be an indictment of them. Every parent is imperfect because human beings are imperfect. It’s just that our relationship to our parents is so uniquely based on trust and care that, as children, we often don’t figure that out about them until we’re more grown up. They teach, guide, and nurture us, and we take their view of the world and their role in it as complete, flawless, and true.

When we become adults ourselves, it’s entirely possible to remain in a relationship of trust and care with our parents. It’s a different kind of trust and closeness. They may want to continue to give you guidance and support, but you see more clearly now that what they have in mind won’t work for you, is misguided, or that they’re not a trustworthy authority on that. You have the autonomy to listen or not listen. Follow it or reject it.

And, interestingly, if you do have an honest and open relationship with your parents as an adult, you may be able to help them become better versions of themselves. Maybe they have trauma from their own childhood that they’ve never worked through. Maybe they’ve become stagnant in their career and they need a loving push to start a new chapter in life. Maybe they have an addiction that they’ve yet to overcome. Adult-to-adult, you may be able to keep growing in your humanity together: careers, travel, worldview, wholeness, and more.

We will all come to discover that our parents are not superheroes–they’re human beings. That realism is a good thing. The sooner we perceive their humanity–seeing their imperfections and struggles–the sooner we begin to build empathy for them. We are all at the whims of human nature. Parents are just a little further down the path. Learn from their journey, and if you’re lucky, you can journey with them well into your own adulthood.

 

How to Adult: Dream in Years, Live in Days

As best as we can tell, the universe is almost fourteen billion years old. Earth, itself, is about four and a half billion years old. There is exposed rock in the Grand Canyon that is two billion years old. I can’t wait to see it myself later this year.

At up to 80 or 100 years, a human life is just a small sliver of time in comparison to the age of the planet we live on and the rest of the universe we find ourselves in the midst of. The writer of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible describes human life as fleeting as the mist out of a spray bottle–there and then floating invisibly into the next phase.

With just a vapor of time to work with, we owe it to ourselves to think about the course we want our life to take–to figure out how to “suck the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau once said.

No one can have the whole thing planned out at the beginning, of course. Many of us grow up dreaming of becoming a fireman or the president or an astronaut–only to end up doing something much different. Even within a year’s time a lot can change.

But I would argue that there is a way to think about how to live a life that might help you get the most out of it, and it’s pretty simple. Dream in years. Live in days.

The bigger moves and chapters of your life take time. Anyone who decides to go to college rarely chooses to do so on a whim. And college itself takes a handful of years to complete–let alone graduate school if you keep going. Despite its prevalence in film and television, most people don’t decide to get married on a whim either. There’s a slow, sometimes agonizing unfolding of dating, rejection, doubt, dating again, engagement, wedding planning, and then eventually, marriage.

So dream in years. Where would you like to be a few years from now? Another country? Married? In a tiny house you built?

Who would you like to be a few years from now? More compassionate? Less stressed? An artist?

Use your imagination to set a horizon to journey toward.

And live in days. Imagining your future–dreaming in years–will set the path of where you’re trying to go. Living life out, day by day, is how you’ll actually get there. No day can be taken for granted. Life is fragile and unpredictable. “The best-laid plans often go awry.” You have to suck the marrow out of today, not just days in the future. So do the things now that will help you get closer to what you’ve imagined for the years to come, but let the day also feel full and complete on its own. Save up to move if you’re dreaming of moving. Start the degree if you need the education. Take a cooking lesson so you can make more of your own food. Get drinks with that person that you’ve been meaning to get to know better. And laugh, sweat, rest, dance, eat, love, breathe, watch, reflect. Some of the best days can feel like a whole lifetime.

You don’t need a doctorate in philosophy to resonate with Socrates’ lesson that the unexamined life is not worth living. By dreaming in years and living in days, I’m confident you’ll be off to a good start writing chapters of your life that you’ll be truly grateful for. You’ll leave layers of your time in the universe as remarkable as the rock of the Grand Canyon.

 

How to Adult: Romance

I’d be surprised if you didn’t know today is Valentine’s Day. For at least a few weeks there have been some incredible advertisements for everything from life-size teddy bears to diamonds as the perfect gift for the one you love. And now today I’ve seen several social media posts of couples celebrating. That’s a beautiful thing. If this is a significant holiday for you and your soulmate that’s wonderful. I genuinely hope you enjoy it.

I worry, though, about a culture in which we fetishize big days and showy gestures as what’s truly romantic. In the United States, Valentine’s Day, weddings, and anniversaries have been made into the primary occasions for going all out to show love. It’s easy to get sucked into the idea that you don’t have to do much for your significant other more than a handful of days.

If you’re doing that you’re doing romance wrong. Yes, the big and the bold are exciting, fun, and memorable. Every couple should do that from time to time. A faraway vacation. A fancy dinner. A breathtaking gift that may have cost a lot of time or money. Fantastic.

But as any person who has been in a successful and meaningful long-term relationship knows, it’s not really about the high peaks and once in a lifetime experiences–it’s about the long arc of the relationship, expanding and deepening each and every day.

Some people talk about love like fire. At first, it’s like the strike of a match. You meet each other and a flame of attraction suddenly explodes into the world. But a match–the initial infatuation–only burns for so long. If you want the flame to last you have to nurture it into a long-burning fire. You stack kindling–the days, weeks, and months of getting to know one another and trying things together. And when the kindling steadily ignites you increase the fire patiently and thoughtfully with sizable logs. Now you’re really burning together. You have to tend it regularly.

A truly loving relationship will only grow and carry on long into the future by the constant, everyday actions you do for your significant other. It’s about being selfless and thoughtful in the little things. Preparing them dinner on a regular old weeknight. Massaging their back while you’re both sunk in the couch watching Netflix. Surprising them with a random small gesture: a card just because, a cup of coffee, picking them up at work unexpectedly, or whatever else would be most meaningful in the bond that you two uniquely share together.

Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, and similar holidays are just a few days out of 365. Your chances of a steady, hot fire are low if those are the only times that you stoke it.

So don’t get sucked into the commercialized, holidays-only construct. If you want to do big days, do the big days in your own way. And beyond that, think about small things every day that you can do to show the person you love how amazing you think they are and that you’re interested in their happiness and well-being even more than your own. Romance does not have to be about the expensive or the dramatic. Just figure out how to keep the fire burning strong and enjoy it together.