Why You Can’t Make Your Relationship Last
“Stop writing about finding a relationship,” he told me. “That’s the easy part. Write about how to keep one.”
My friend John was a 40-year-old serial monogamist. He couldn’t make a relationship last even though he aspired to find a woman he could “have passionate sex with until he was 85.” Yet he was on his 15th girlfriend, unsure of her long-term viability.
Most people say they would cut off their left arm for lasting love. Yet, they’re also scared shitless. After all, even Sheryl Sandberg said that choosing a spouse is our most important life decision. According to her, the “right” spouse will enable career success, family happiness, and even our own self-worth.
It reminds me of the search for the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
“You must choose, but choose wisely,” the immortal knight tells Indiana Jones in a treasure room full of cups, one of which will grant eternal life.
An impatient enemy darts in front of Indiana, grabs a beautiful jeweled cup, sure it’s “the one,” and guzzles. Unfortunately, his long swallow doesn’t bring immortality. His hairs sprout into white gristles, his skin peels off in decaying lumps, his eyes come out of the sockets and he dies.
“He chose … unwisely,” says the knight.
This fear of choosing unwisely makes us repeatedly swipe left on Tinder and constantly question the relationship we are in, even after we have chosen. Whether you’re swiping or settling, you can view the holy grail of love in two ways:
- Hunt until you find the the perfect cup, even if it takes your entire life to find it.
- Choose to drink from the same imperfect cup every day, and perhaps allow it to become perfect for you.
Over the past few weeks I’ve gone to a lot of weddings and interviewed a lot of married couples — gay and straight, young and old, happy and miserable. Some merely co-habitate, barely speaking, and others still sleep on top of each other. According to the happily married ones, choosing the “right” person isn’t the tricky part of lasting love. Love is more like a road trip than a teleport machine. It has much less to do with the passenger you pick and much more to do with how you choose to navigate the journey.
If you cannot make your relationship last, you may need a new navigation system.
For instance, take my parents. After 40 years together, overcoming family deaths, cross-country moves, and child-rearing, they’re still in love. It was just a few years ago that I had to drag them out of a San Francisco bar because they started making out in a corner, embarrassing their daughter who, at the time, wasn’t kissing anyone. What’s their secret?
“Initial chemistry is a small part of it,” said my mother who is, ironically, a biochemist. “But it takes a lot of work to produce a lasting bond and the right reactions.”
Work or not, I didn’t want my parent’s kind of love to skip a generation. I also was eager to give the chronically single John advice from other happy couples. I gathered inspirational tidbits from couples that had both been together for more ten years and still claimed to have crazy jungle sex. (Or at least they blushed when I asked, so I assume it’s true.)
Most said that if you cannot make your relationship last, it is because you are not fertilizing it with the right things. And the right things are not what you may think. Here are seven nuggets of advice I gathered from my recent wedding blitz:
- “Looks? Brains? Money? Nah. Just pick someone you like doing nothing with. Because as you get older, there is a whole lotta doing nothing.” — my dad, married 40 years (Note: He later edited himself to say my mom still had looks and brains, too).
- “Love is a daily choice. We made a vow to wake up and love each other every day for the rest of our lives, no matter what.” — Danielle, in a long-term relationship for 12 years
- “It doesn’t matter if you do everything together, but it does matter that you want the same things in life and can co-create a dream. For us it was a mountain cabin. This dream carried us through the rough patches.” — Steve, married 18 years
- “In every long marriage there are hurts that are ‘unforgivable.’ The trick is to be able to find a way to forgive and come back together. Once something is forgiven, it needs to be released. If you hold onto it, it festers and poisons the relationship. If you release it, it won’t hold emotional power over you.” — my mom, married 40 years
- “In new love, you invite their family into your life, but at 10 years their family is totally intertwined in your life. Marriage is not just about two people. It takes a village to support a long marriage.” — Sean, married 10 years
- “You have to retain yourself as an individual with your own self-worth. You must be able to simultaneously grow your own self while also growing your relationship. A person should never be your crutch; they should be your partner.” — Shelly, married 22 years
Lastly, from my dad: “We make romance out of mundane things. If we go to the movies we push the seat arm up so that we can hold hands without that darn seat divider in the way.”
“It’s called skin hunger,” said Mom. “That desire to always be close.”
“Hey, don’t let her know about that,” said Dad, smirking. “That’s our thing.”
Too late. The secret is out. And that’s not a bad thing if it encourages more couples to last 40 years.
Even if it starts with a swipe, love needs to be grown and nurtured. And like any good thing, we appreciate more if we have to work for it. We may never find the holy grail, but we can roll up our sleeves and handcraft it ourselves.
*I originally wrote this piece for Together. My friend Erik Newton, a former family attorney, started Together to give couples tools to make things LAST. Let’s hope skin hunger is in there…