When you fall in love, you never expect your love to mean something to other people. Five years into my relationship with my partner Emily people started telling us our love gave them hope. It was weird. Now 14 years into our relationship enough people have said something along the lines of “you guys gave me hope that love can last” that it’s become something we joke about when we fight. “We can’t break up. Rob or whoever won’t believe in love anymore.”
On one hand, I appreciate the people who appreciate our love. Relationships are brutal, and knowing folks have your back helps sometimes. Hell, at times it even leads to free drinks. Still, it feels weird to have people admire something they know nothing about, especially when our secret is so easy to follow. So here it is. Here’s the secret to 14 years together.
Short of physical abuse and screwing other people behind each other’s backs we’ve done every shitty thing you’ve ever done or experienced in a relationship. Emotional abuse? We’ve both been guilty at times of possessive, shitty, gaslighting behavior. Maybe setting the odd friendship on fire because one of us thinks the other one has a crush. Both guilty. Shouting terrible things you can’t imagine taking back or ever forgiving? Getting blackout drunk and causing a scene in front of friends? Have we got tales to tell.
Then the next morning you stand in a pile of broken glass or feelings, and you look at this person who betrayed you. Let you down. Said the unthinkable.
And you don’t leave.
We probably should have, multiple times. Instead, we stayed, often miserably, and worked out our issues. Or at least ignored them long enough to remember why we remain. Some issues get resolved. Some cut sufficiently to leave visible psychic scars that each of you does your best to ignore. And that’s before you even get to the biggest enemy. The question, “what your life might be like without them?”
Eventually, the problem with every long-term relationship is they take the person you couldn’t imagine life without and suddenly gives you a crystal clear illusion of what you think that life would be.
I’ve got a six-pack, having orgies all the time. My art is truer. I read more and talk about the news with friends. I know a guy who makes small batch non-addictive cocaine, so sometimes I can party without having any guilt about supporting a cartel. I tour more, drink less, and still look young.
My peers respect me. My anger is finally under control.
And instead, I’m stuck in a one-bedroom apt with this stunningly beautiful woman who completes me and wants to stay up late looking at pictures of monsters or going to open mics. People would kill for what you have, and once a year you look at the door thinking about what might be on the other side.
But you don’t leave.
If you leave, you don’t get to see where that person is next year. You don’t get to see them let go of their anger or learn new skills. You miss out on the cascading wave of euphoria and confusion when they manage to surprise you just when you thought there was nothing left to learn. And you have to let someone else know how shitty you really can be.
The most romantic thing I can imagine is that my wife knows I used to be an asshole. That sometimes, I’ll still be an asshole. And regardless of that information she still loves me. She doesn’t leave.
Healthy relationships fall apart for perfectly understandable reasons every day. The person you thought was perfect said something so cruel only someone with access to your heart would know how to hurt it that way. Someone flirts with you for the first time in months, and you remember what it feels like to be seen with new eyes. Sure, your partner make you happy, but couldn’t you be happier? Couldn’t you have more sex? More life experiences before you settle down?
There’s no romantic solution to these problems. There’s nothing that makes them stop, though they go from shouts to whispers during the good times. Your reward is the gift of companionship.
Someone who knows it’s special your Grandaddy sang hymns as Christmas because they saw how Parkinson’s robbed him of the ability to speak a year before. Someone who sees you utilize watercolor shading in a tattoo and remembers when you first started and said you’d never be that good. Someone who knows the monster and coward you both truly are but still protects you from the world finding out.
When things go bad, you talk about what went wrong. If there are things you’re missing out on, you fill those voids. You fight. There’s nothing glamorous about it. All you can do is constantly try to earn the love and effort they give you. But love can only take you so far. At some point, you just choose to stay.
Addendum: This is about the hardship of staying in love, not staying in a bad place. Please leave when there’s physical violence, people refuse to get better or address their issues for long periods of time, they actively sabotage your life in ways you can’t handle, and when staying with them destroys who you are.